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Justin Fields is who the Bears thought he was — but what now?

The refrain rings from every suburb and bounces off the skyscrapers downtown: So why not start Fields now?  The Bears’ answer is rooted in where they want to go  — and how methodically they want to bring him along.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws against the Bills.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Rookie quarterback Justin Fields is who the Bears thought he was.

“He’s the guy we thought we were getting when we watched him on tape,” Bears quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said Monday. “Boy, we were excited when we watched that college tape — and there’s reason. That translated over into here.

“And that’s a good thing because I’ve been at places — not just with the quarterback position — where you draft a guy, and you’re like, ‘Oh, boy, that’s not what I saw on tape.’ . . . We’re just happy that he’s really exciting. There’s a lot of room to grow and get better.”

The refrain rings from every suburb and bounces off the skyscrapers downtown: So why not start Fields now? The Bears’ answer is rooted in where they want to go — and how methodically they want to bring him along. Those interests will intersect this week, when Fields experiences NFL game prep for the first time while starter Andy Dalton gets ready to face the Rams in Week 1.

How long it will continue depends on what the Bears learn about their rookie along the way.

Game prep

Fields started the Bears’ last preseason game, but that offered little in the way of game-planning. For the first time, Fields is living through how an NFL team gets ready to play an opponent.

“I’m not sure there’s anything he needs to get better at — there are some things we need to improve on fundamentally,” DeFilippo said. “I just think it’s him going through his first week as a professional player. That’s a big step. And seeing what it takes to prepare for an NFL game.”

That nuance, he said, could be lost on outsiders.

“What does the week look like? Really, what does it look like?” DeFilippo said. “What does a Wednesday game week look like? What is a Thursday? Friday? Travel day? It’s just different than it was in the preseason. You know, it’s different because the [second-stringers] aren’t getting any of the first-team reps. That’s the way it is here — and that’s the way it is in 31 other buildings.

“And so I think it’s just the process of literally going through it. It’s like the first time you do anything. It’s just learning how to do it.”

While DeFilippo debriefs his three quarterbacks weekly to see how their preparation can improve, the Bears, in general, use a schedule comfortable for Dalton, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. That includes small details: whether he wants to watch film from home Mondays and Tuesdays or come into the office. Or stay late or start early.

Eventually, that will be Fields’ call.

“[Fields] will be taking all that in and trying it out and kind of feeling his way,” Lazor said. “ ‘OK, this is how I feel comfortable doing it.’ ”

Even if an eager fan base doesn’t want to wait, gaining that comfort is important. So are the other thousand boring steps during a game week.

Playoff aspirations

Bears fans on social media were irate last week when the Patriots decided to cut veteran quarterback Cam Newton and start rookie Mac Jones. They wondered why the Bears wouldn’t make the same bold decision and promote their rookie quarterback.

The Patriots are the NFL’s ultimate anomaly — and Newton’s vaccination status likely played a role in the move, even if the powers that be can’t say so out loud. The Patriots are in a similar situation as the Bears in one regard, though: They were 7-9 last year, and the Bears were 8-8.

Teams with that many wins typically don’t have first-round rookies playing quarterback the next season. Franchises who begin the season with a rookie under center are typically a year removed from finishing at the bottom of the league — and have set their expectations thusly. They rarely, if ever, have realistic playoff aspirations.

From 2011 to 2020, 18 teams started a rookie quarterback in Week 1. Their average record the year before was 4-12. No team had a record as good as the Bears’ 8-8 mark in 2020.

The Bears, meanwhile, have the oldest team in the NFL. They’re up against the salary cap. To help finance seasonlong roster churn, the Bears turned $5.8 million of Jimmy Graham’s salary into a signing bonus, ESPN reported Tuesday. That frees up $4.6 million in cap space this year but leaves a similar amount in dead cap space next season.

It’s the kind of move a win-now team makes. That’s what the Bears are operating like, even though they’ve been .500 the last two seasons.

“Best-case scenario is to win games with the roster that we have,” general manager Ryan Pace said last week. “We feel like we can. . . . We believe we can win games with Andy, and then grow Justin at the right rate.”

The Bears believe Dalton gives them a better chance to win in Week 1 — even as their excitement level about Fields has grown.

“When you talk about the future of this franchise and the quarterback that we have, that’s where I’m at peace in my heart knowing what Justin has done — and what he’s exemplified — in this short time [during training camp],” coach Matt Nagy said. “I feel really, really good about that.”

‘Day-to-day’

Practice, of course, will help.

Fields is running the scout team because the Bears want him to get as many practice snaps as he can. It’s better than the alternative: Had third-stringer Nick Foles run the scout team, Fields would be left to stand and watch the starter.

Scout-team snaps are standard practice for a young quarterback. Fields won’t be running the Bears’ plays, of course, but the team believes performing the plays written off index cards will translate.

“I think a lot of teams run the same concepts — or at least put guys in the same spots,” DeFilippo said. “He and I have talked about a couple of things. Just be you, No. 1. Play your game. No. 2, if there’s a play that’s in our offense that we’re trying to execute on a card, treat it just like it’s our offense.

“So I think it might not be the exact depth of the route or the exact progression that the [Bears’] defensive staff has him on there. But at least on the chalkboard — in his head — he can kind of go through his thought process with it carrying over to our offense.”

Soon enough, Fields will take things from the chalkboard to Soldier Field. His play during the preseason only hastened that timeline.

Nagy said he can stay focused on Fields’ present, though, with the future in mind.

“That’s why I can go day by day and know that each day he can grow in practice fundamentally, throughout the week mentally, then always be prepared — he’s extremely prepared,” Nagy said. “Just in my heart of hearts, [I know] that this guy is doing everything that we’re saying and everything that he wants to do.

“You feel good about where he’s at. That’s why I can go day-to-day.”