The Bears need to play quarterback Justin Fields the second he’s ready.
Instead, coach Matt Nagy is tying the rookie’s playing time to the play of Andy Dalton, whose last winning season as a starter came when Fields was a high school sophomore.
In reiterating on Tuesday that Dalton will be the Week 1 starter against the Rams, Nagy made a subtle tweak to the team’s messaging, which had been otherwise consistent since they traded up to draft the Ohio State rookie. Dalton’s play will impact when Fields plays during the regular season, Nagy said.
That makes sense — the Bears are starting Dalton because they think he gives their veteran-heavy roster the best chance to win in Week 1 — but Nagy finally said out loud what had been long presumed: Dalton will have to play well to keep the job.
That wasn’t necessarily the case a month ago. Fields is developing quickly and the Bears believe he would be ready if called upon.
“Big-picture, when we talked about this from the very start, we said: ‘Whoever is going to be best for the Chicago Bears,” Nagy said. “And that’s going to obviously deal with production and wins, right? So when you look at this thing you want to make sure we all support each other with one common goal to win, and offensively to score touchdowns. And Andy knows that, Andy is well aware of that. Andy’s excited for the opportunity to show what he can do with these starters and in this offense. And then we’ve just got to, every day we have to evaluate and we have to see where we’re at every single day.”
Let the scorekeeping begin, then. Starting in Week 1.
Nagy, of course, benched Mitch Trubisky — who was 2-0 as the starter — after 10 quarters and three plays last season. It’s fair to wonder: will wins be the metric Nagy uses in evaluating Dalton? Touchdowns? Quarterback production? The mood of the locker room?
“Again, it all comes down to the whys, it all does,” Nagy said. “It’s a feel thing.”
Nagy has maintained that any question about his job status — or that of general manager Ryan Pace — won’t have anything to do with Fields’ timeline. That’s hard to believe, though: it would be human nature for Nagy’s “feel” to be influenced by the obvious jolt of adrenaline Fields would give the locker room, the fan base and to Nagy’s Q-rating — especially if the Bears start the season slowly.
Fields was dynamic in his first preseason game and more ordinary in Week 2. He’ll start the third preseason game Saturday so the Bears can evaluate him — but also because Dalton will sit out along with most of the other starters.
“As long as we’re open and honest in this thing …” Nagy said. “Andy knows that we want to win, we want to score a lot of points, we want to be smart with the football. And he’s a leader, and he’s done that. And he’s worked hard throughout this whole OTA’s and training camp to get to this point right now. And everyone has done their job.”
Fields included. Nagy said that “he passed the test,” compared to where other rookies are expected to be in their first training camp.
Dalton has been sharp in practice, too. He’s struggled to move the ball through the first two preseason games, albeit with few fellow starters on the field.
“You’ve got guys that are just playing great at the quarterback position, now you’ve got to take it into the games and you’ve got to produce,” Nagy said. “You have to produce. And we all have to produce.
“So that’s part of the evaluation process, that’s part of us understanding, ‘OK, here’s where we’re at. Now here come the live bullets. And where are we going to be at?'”