In Matt Nagy’s presumed final game as Bears coach, he’ll have the quarterback he wanted all along.
Andy Dalton will start Sunday against the Vikings after rookie Justin Fields tested positive for the coronavirus. So instead of seeing if Fields, the future of the franchise, can take another meaningful step forward, the Bears are forced to play a 34-year-old who’s about to become a free agent.
Nagy shouldn’t mind too much because Dalton was Plan A for him going into a season in which his job was on the line. He believed he could save himself by relying on a veteran — albeit one with modest career success — rather than riding out the inevitable stumbles of a rookie.
But Nagy didn’t get to make that choice. Dalton’s knee injury in Week 2 opened the door for Fields, and public pressure swelled to the point that there was no going back once Dalton was healthy. Dalton still has appeared in stints, but it was clear most of the season that Fields was the starter.
Dalton started the opener after months of Nagy describing how smoothly the offense would run with him, and the Rams plastered the Bears 34-14. He attempted just two passes deeper than 10 yards, throwing incomplete on one and getting intercepted on the other, and finished the game 27-for-38 for 206 yards and a 72.9 passer rating.
Although he hasn’t had more than two starts in a row at any point, which certainly makes it difficult to find a flow, nothing about the rest of Dalton’s season has suggested he could have been the solution Nagy needed.
Likewise, this season hasn’t been what Dalton needed. He joined the Bears on a one-year, $10 million deal in March with the promise of the starting job — which he claimed was the difference in choosing the Bears amid other offers coming his way. Dalton viewed it as an opportunity to re-establish himself as a starter after spending a season as the Cowboys’ backup.
Instead, because of injuries and the acceleration of Fields’ timeline, he’ll close the season with just six starts. As he heads into free agency, his prospects are no better than they were either of the last two years.
Dalton believes if he hadn’t gotten hurt so early, his season — and the Bears’ overall — would have gone much differently. Nagy has expressed similar thoughts.
“I think about that all the time,” Dalton said Friday. “But I do understand that everything happens for a reason, and trust in God’s plan over mine. I may not understand why it happened . . . but I know that I can trust that there’s good that’s come from it. There’s been a lot of growth for me as a person, as a player, since then. That’s some of the positive that you can take away from it. But I do think, ‘What would have happened if I didn’t get hurt Week 2?’ ”
The answer is probably that the Bears still would be out of the playoffs. Nagy’s idea that Dalton was a game-changer always seemed like wishful thinking.
He goes into the finale with a 61.7% completion rate, an average of 231.3 yards in the four full games he played, seven touchdowns, seven interceptions and a career-low 76.8 passer rating. If not for Fields’ 73.2 rating, Dalton’s would be the lowest by a Bear who started at least five games since Matt Barkley posted a 68.3 in 2016.
But those are just footnotes on a wasted season in which Fields’ progress quickly became the sole focus. His development will be the biggest determinant of the Bears’ viability for the next several years.
Dalton, meanwhile, will try again to find an opportunity to relaunch his career. Asked if he had any interest in re-signing with the Bears, he sidestepped.
“There’s a lot that’s gonna go on after this game,” he said.
For the Bears, that’s an understatement.
There’s minimal chance Dalton will be back. It’s doubtful he’d want to be anyway.
Instead, they will proceed with Fields — almost certainly in a new offense under a new coach — and probably keep journeyman Nick Foles as his backup. Foles is under contract for 2022 with a $10.7 million salary-cap hit, and the Bears would take a $7.7 million dead-cap hit to let him go.
Given that Foles is more likely to return than Dalton, it actually would make more sense to play Foles on Sunday. But that’s sifting through minutiae. Fields ultimately will steer the Bears to wherever they’re headed next.