Why Bears rookie QB Justin Fields will be made to wait before taking over

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. — If Justin Fields is indeed the Chicago Bears’ quarterback savior, the man who can give this 101-year-old franchise its first legit star QB since Sid Luckman (who died eight months before Fields was born), he’s gonna have to wait.

And we must wait, too.

The trade up for Fields in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL draft felt like the kind of thing even the most optimistic Bears fan wouldn’t have gotten their hopes up for. Even in a five-QB first round, the Bears were picking far back (No. 20 overall), weren’t teeming with assets to move up, and had free-agent signing Andy Dalton as insurance if the chips didn’t fall right.

When he sees something he really wants, Bears general manager Ryan Pace has shown a propensity to be aggressive in getting it, even if the results — Mitch Trubisky, namely — haven’t always added up as expected. 

But Pace landed Fields, and did so without giving up the Bears’ second-round choice. That pick helped them net Oklahoma State tackle Teven Jenkins, a player roundly mocked to go Round 1. 

Draft day must have felt like Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Casimir Pulaski Day, all rolled up into one, for wearisome Bears fans. When he was introduced at the Chicago Cubs game last week, Fields received a rousing ovation from the Wrigley Field crowd.

On Thursday, Fields acted like a Dalton-esque veteran, noting that he also plans to attend an upcoming White Sox game.

“For the record, I want to split half and half, Cubs and White Sox,” he said. “I am a Sox fan and a Cubs fan.”

Fields might not be the starter yet, but he knows how to butter both sides of Chicago’s bread.

But with Fields set to begin the season on the bench, Bears fans must wait to unwrap their new gift. Head coach Matt Nagy reiterated as much this week.

Can anything change that between now and the Sept. 12 opener at the Los Angeles Rams, where the Bears are +7 underdogs, according to BetMGM oddsmakers? Nagy said no. Asked if there was any reasonable scenario Fields could outplay Dalton in training camp and preseason, Nagy again nixed the idea.

“Our coaches understand that we all get excited about Justin Fields,” Nagy said. “We’d all be lying if we said something different. With that said, we’re excited about Andy Dalton, too. And we know that if we stick to this plan that we have, everything is going to be just fine.”

So what exactly is the plan then? We might need to wait to find that out, too.

Bears will follow the Patrick Mahomes plan with Justin Fields

There’s a tendency to get anxious about these things. We tally minicamp interception totals. We expect first-round quarterbacks to play now, not later. Nagy has been through this before, serving as the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive coordinator during Patrick Mahomes’ rookie season. Alex Smith started the first 15 games in 2017, leading the team to the postseason and turning in career-best totals in passing yards, touchdowns, interception percentage and average yards per attempt.

Mahomes got the Week 17 start that year. The game itself was essentially meaningless, but it gave Mahomes some much-needed live reps before taking over the following season. Smith was traded to Washington, and Mahomes was already being talked about as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL as a first-year starter.

If you could guarantee Bears fans that Fields would follow that same path, they’d make whatever Faustian bargain to ensure that happens. Followers of a franchise with zero 4,000-yard passers and only two Pro Bowl QBs in its history — Jim McMahon in 1985 and Trubisky in 2018 — have waited this long for QB greatness to emerge. So what’s another part of a season in the long run?

But for how long can Dalton hold off Fields?

Justin Fields could be the QB savior Chicago Bears fans have longed for. But he'll have to wait to play, and here's why. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)
Justin Fields could be the QB savior Chicago Bears fans have longed for. But he'll have to wait to play, and here's why. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

“There will be a process and a plan,” Nagy said. “We will stick to that. That plan is not going to change tomorrow. The plan is not going to change in training camp. The plan is a plan — and it’s been thought out.”

The plan remains secret. We might not find out the specifics until after a change is made.

Dalton played reasonably well last season after replacing an injured Dak Prescott, especially in the Dallas Cowboys’ final seven games: 1,718 pass yards, 66.1% completions and a 13-5 TD-INT ratio. He’s under contract this season for one year and $10 million. The Bears also still have 2020 starter Nick Foles (remember him?), whom Nagy said would be QB3.

If Dalton plays well and the Bears are winning, there’s no rush. If he struggles early, the timing of Fields taking over could be critical.

The good news is that Dalton has been an eager and willing mentor to the rookie. Fields has already had dinner with Dalton and his wife, where they chatted some football but more than anything just got to know each other.

“Andy has completely taken me under his wing,” Fields said Thursday. “Any question I have for him, he’s going to answer. There was one day after OTAs and I was throwing after practice, and he stayed out there with me just to see specifically what I was maybe doing wrong.

“He’s just trying to help out. He’s been a big help for sure.”

Fields has plenty to work on between now and training camp

Thursday’s minicamp session closed out the team’s three-day mandatory veteran minicamps. Fields’ first throw in red zone work was a pick right into the arms of linebacker Christian Jones. It was a play they’d just installed, and Nagy and Fields had a little chat afterward.

“He was telling me that it was a pretty good learning experience there,” Fields said. “Me personally, I tend to not make the same mistake twice. So once I learn that mistake, I learn from that mistake and there’s a 99% [chance] that same mistake won’t happen again.”

Fields bounced back in a big way. He hit for three touchdown passes during the red zone period, including one on the very next throw after the pick, lacing the ball in between two defenders to tight end J.P Holtz. The other big highlight of the day for Fields was hitting running back Ryan Nall on a perfectly thrown ball to the corner of the end zone.

Over the course of the three days, Dalton has looked the sharpest and most confident of the three quarterbacks, according to people Yahoo Sports spoke with. He appears to have grasped the terminology and the plays well, and has been the most accurate and efficient.

Fields has been fine so far, impressive in some respects and developing in others. There are some foundational pieces he must master. For one, Fields struggled earlier in the week with taking snaps from center, but this is the time to iron that out.

Also noteworthy: Fields didn’t huddle much at Ohio State, going no-huddle, he estimated, "90 to 95 percent of the time." Plays were signaled in from the sideline at OSU; here, he receives the call in his headset and must repeat it to the other 10 offensive players. These are the mundane essentials Fields must master before winning the job.

“Making sure I am on top of everything,” Fields said. “Getting every little detail right.”

Andy Dalton (14) is the Bears' starting quarterback in Week 1, and nothing prized rookie Justin Fields does can change that. At least according to head coach Matt Nagy's plan. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)
Andy Dalton (14) is the Bears' starting quarterback in Week 1, and nothing prized rookie Justin Fields does can change that. At least according to head coach Matt Nagy's plan. (Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

Nagy also sent his rookie QB home with summer homework. The coach said he wants Fields to record himself at home enunciating play calls — some of them quite wordy — and be able to spit them back flawlessly during his downtime before training camp, now only five weeks away. Those recordings will be sent in to the staff for review.

Of course, there are the plays themselves, too. Fields hopes that with more practice (and eventually preseason), everything can start coming together.

“I think the more reps I get in practice,” he said, “the more I’ll grow.”

Fields has a family vacation planned in the coming weeks, but he’ll be back in town two weeks prior to camp to spend more time with Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and QBs coach John DeFilippo to iron out the final details so as to get a head start for when things gear up. Fields noted that he has a “basic understanding” of the plays they’ve installed to date, but hopes to absorb the playbook on a deeper level during the pre-camp get-togethers.

This isn’t too different from when Fields was a freshman at Georgia, where he was forced to sit for long stretches while working behind Jake Fromm, who had just led the Bulldogs to the national title game the season before. Fields played sparingly that season, averaging about a dozen snaps per game.

And after Fields transferred the following season to Ohio State, he reportedly was reserved and at times hesitant to let it rip in spring practice prior to winning the job. He was the new guy that season, and it took time for Fields to acclimate to his new surroundings.

“This is nothing new for me,” he said.

All Fields eventually did that year was throw for 41 touchdowns (and three picks) and run for 10 more, leading the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff.

Expecting that caliber of NFL debut season would be downright sanguine, but Fields believes the positive reaction he’s had from fans about town is an indication that the anticipation for his first real action is quite high. 

“They’re excited, and so I am I,” Fields said. “I am just ready to get started with the season.”

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