At the end of another sweltering, exhausting morning of training camp, Cole Kmet is on the practice field behind Halas Hall, daydreaming of the future.
The Bears are Kmet’s team in more ways than one. If he hadn’t pushed his way to the top of college football as a tight end at Notre Dame and compelled the Bears to draft him, he still would have been elated to see them get dynamic Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields. Kmet grew up in Arlington Heights, and his father spent the 1993 season on the Bears’ practice squad as a defensive lineman. Even if Kmet had pursued one of his other interests and become a psychologist, he probably would have been screaming at the TV on draft night and rushing to pre-order a Fields jersey.
So in many ways, he’s having the same experience as the rest of the Chicago area. The Fields pick turned everyone’s attention to 2022 and beyond, but the Bears still hope they can squeak into the playoffs with Andy Dalton this season. They’re following two very different, yet concurrent, plans.
And so is Kmet. He’s working to synchronize himself with Dalton — his quarterback for the majority of practice — and make a big leap in his second NFL season. But he also can’t help envisioning what the Bears could be with Fields.
That’s why he’s still out here in his cleats when practice ended 15 minutes ago. The sun is blazing as it nears noon, and he’s sprinting through passing routes with Fields. Their success might be a year away, but he imagines this connection lasting a long time.
“That’s the hope,” Kmet said. “They drafted us with that in mind, so it’s good to get that equity in now — start building that. It will be good for both of us in the long run.”
Fields has been the talk of the town since Bears general manager Ryan Pace traded up to No. 11 to get him in April. Rarely have the Bears had a young quarterback with such proficiency throwing deep. Equally rare is the Bears quarterback who can outrun an entire defense. Suddenly they have both in Fields. Whether he takes over sometime this season or the Bears follow through with their original plan for him to step in at the start of 2022, it’s impossible to keep from looking ahead.
The wait will be agonizing.
Dalton is steady and experienced, but Fields is explosive. His high end is so much more than Dalton has ever been. So unless Dalton, in Year 11, rediscovers the modest success he had in 2015 and ’16 with the Bengals, the calls for Fields will be early and persistent.
They started in his preseason debut. Throughout his 33 snaps against the Dolphins on Aug. 14, a quarterback-starved crowd of 43,235 at Soldier Field chanted, “Let’s go, Fields!” and, more pointedly,
“Q-B-1!” The latter was a response to the Bears tweeting a photo of Dalton in the offseason with “QB1” as the caption.
“You know, we all want the same thing,” coach Matt Nagy said that day, trying fruitlessly to convince the masses he’s not the enemy of fun. “We understand the buzz. We understand the excitement. That’s why we drafted him. But we want to make sure that we . . . understand the process.”
By the way, is “process” going to replace “collaborate” as the word that absolutely nauseates Bears fans?
Nagy’s model for handling Fields is the Chiefs’ approach to No. 10 pick Patrick Mahomes in 2017, when Nagy was their quarterbacks coach. But that doesn’t take into account how many quarterbacks have succeeded as rookies, or the fact that the Chiefs were in a much different position than the Bears are in now.
After the Bears couldn’t pry Russell Wilson from the Seahawks in the offseason, they went for the next best option in Fields. They think he’s that good. Tight end Jimmy Graham, who spent his entire career with Drew Brees, Wilson and Aaron Rodgers before stumbling into the Bears’ quarterback circus, said it unequivocally.
“I love the kid,” Graham said. “He sits beside me in the locker room and, man . . . he wants to be great. He puts in the work. The guy really can throw the ball. That’s been impressive to see his arm strength.
“I’ve got to get him matched up at some point with [Wilson] up there in Seattle — especially the ability to make plays while you’re running. It’s been impressive to see him so young, so focused. It definitely reminds me a lot of Russell Wilson.”
The Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $20.5 million deal in 2012, the same year they drafted Wilson in the third round. But Wilson was too good to keep on the bench, and the Seahawks named him their starter about two weeks before their opener. He threw 26 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions and finished with a 100 passer rating as the Seahawks went 11-5. Only the Patriots have won more games or been to more Super Bowls since Wilson got the job.
The Cowboys’ Dak Prescott had one of the best rookie seasons of all time in 2016, and the Chargers’ Justin Herbert set the rookie record with 31 touchdown passes last season. In more than a century of existence, the Bears have never had any quarterback throw 30.
Mahomes sat behind Alex Smith until a meaningless final game his rookie year, then stepped up with 50 touchdown passes in Year 2 to claim the MVP Award. Nagy admitted he can’t directly attribute that breakout to Mahomes taking a so-called “red-shirt year,” and it’s possible Mahomes would have set every rookie record if he’d played right away.
But the Chiefs didn’t necessarily need that. Smith gave them a career year in 2017. There wasn’t nearly the urgency that weighs on the Bears as they come off flops by Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles and now turn to Dalton. Dalton is decisively better than either of his predecessors, but he assumed he was entering the clipboard phase of his career when he signed with the Cowboys to be Prescott’s backup last year.
The Bears’ offense, which scored the fourth-fewest points in 2019 and the 11th-fewest last season, needs a spark. Dalton can keep the team afloat, but that’s hardly aspirational. There’s potential with weapons such as Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney, Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery — all 27 or under. Throw in someone with Fields’ limitless potential, and the offense gets a lot more dangerous.
Ohio State coach Ryan Day hugs quarterback Justin Fields after their win against Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.Gerald Herbert/AP
In his two seasons at Ohio State, Fields completed 68.4% of his passes, threw for 63 touchdowns against nine interceptions and averaged 244.2 yards per game. He also rushed for 867 yards and 15 touchdowns.
“The ceiling’s really, really high,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “I’m sure that’s what everybody in Chicago is fired up about. That’s what the Bears organization recognized.”
Dreaming big yet? Fields surely is. But to his credit, he has said all the right things and has accepted Nagy’s plan.
“I’m constantly growing every day,” he said in training camp. “A lot of people are anxious to see me play, but greatness doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. I’m just trying to take it day by day.”
Pressed again after his preseason debut about the strain between wanting to start and staying patient, he said, “When you look too far in the future, you start worrying about way too much stuff.”
That’s nice to say in the preseason, but it’ll get more difficult to wait his turn once the Bears hit the regular season. It’ll also get tougher for Nagy to manage the tension. The only way that goes away is if Dalton dominates, which seems unlikely as he approaches 34.
If Dalton performs in line with what he averaged the last five seasons — 19 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 221.8 yards per game and an 86.5 passer rating — then Fields’ upside will loom large in everyone’s mind.
That includes Nagy’s. His initial thought of putting Fields through a one-season apprenticeship was never concrete. The only thing he fully committed to was going with Dalton against the Rams in the opener. If that goes poorly, everything is on the table. He benched Trubisky in Week 3 last season, after all. There’s little doubt Fields could be ready that soon.
And that’s the part of the equation that has nothing to do with Dalton. Fields isn’t a project. He was a Heisman finalist as a true sophomore. The only QB who outdid him was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, and Fields played through broken ribs to topple him with six touchdown passes.
His deep ball flies like an arrow, and he’s faster than some of the Bears’ wide receivers. No one seems to remember the last time the franchise had a quarterback like this — maybe because it never has. It’s immediately apparent how much more Fields can do than, for example, Trubisky, whom the Bears traded up to draft No. 2 overall four years ago.
A player like Fields doesn’t stay on the bench long; his talent forces the issue without him saying a word. As the anticipation accumulates, Nagy will be as eager as everyone else to see what he can do. And when Fields’ promise is finally too enticing to resist, a new chapter of Bears football finally will begin.