As another day of reflection has passed after the Chicago Bears shocked the world by trading up for a first-round quarterback, and it’s worth wondering when young Justin Skyler Fields will officially begin his era of Bears quarterbacking. This past offseason, the Bears let their previous first-round quarterback Mitchell Trubisky walk out the doors of Halas Hall, and before his seat had lost its stink they signed Andy Dalton on a 1-year contract.
Dalton comes with no shortage of starting experience. Between a long career in Cincinnati and short stint in Dallas, the “Red Rifle” comes to Chicago with 143 career starts, 1 outright Pro Bowl berth and 2 additional Pro Bowl appearances as an alternate.
Dalton isn’t a failed experiment that the Bears are trying to repair. He’s a low-ceiling fringe starter who likely won’t be better or worse than the team around him.
Fields brings 2 years starting experience at a Big 10 school, throwing for 5,373 yards and 63 touchdowns total in that time, against just 9 interceptions. He also ran a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash at his Pro Day, which ranks him in the top-5 of recorded quarterback prospects of all-time.
It truly is only a matter of time before he starts.
But wait, Patrick Mahomes!
Yes, Kansas City’s MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes famously sat behind incumbent starter Alex Smith during the 2017 season while the former was a rookie. Yes, everybody involved says the right things about the experience, especially Mahomes, who was quoted before his Super Bowl win describing the time as a “blueprint” that assisted him with learning the day-to-day operations of being an NFL quarterback.
Isn’t it a bit tired, even played-out to compare every veteran-rookie situation to Smith-Mahomes, though?
In 2016, the year prior to drafting Mahomes, Alex Smith was coming off a then-career high in passing yards with 3,502 and the Chiefs went 12-4, won the AFC West Division, and earned a first-round bye. They didn’t win their Divisional Playoff game, and Smith’s 172 yds, 1 TD 1 INT in the loss didn’t reassure Chiefs fans that he was a long-term solution, but he snuck into the Pro Bowl as an alternate and wasn’t viewed as a major handicap to the Chiefs roster.
That’s why it was so surprising they traded up to take a quarterback in the first round. At the time, head coach Andy Reid said Mahomes was “not absolutely ready to play,” and called him “not a finished product.” So being in the fortunate position they were, with a bonafide starting quarterback to lead the team in 2017, they sat him.
Before we start comparing the idea of Justin Fields developing while Andy Dalton starts, shouldn’t you first ask if Andy Dalton is really anywhere close to Alex Smith circa 2017, and if the Bears are anywhere close to the Chiefs circa 2017?
Let’s take a look at some other examples of quarterbacks taken in the first round who then waited a year before becoming the true starter.
After a 2010 season which saw the Tennessee Titans go 6-10, place last in their division, and ditch their head coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Vince Young afterward, they attempted to restart with a new stud quarterback. With the 8th pick in the ensuing NFL Draft, they took Jake Locker out of Washington.
After seeing that he wasn’t a finished product in 2011 offseason activities, they opted to bring in a veteran quarterback to help show him the ropes. In comes Matt Hasselbeck. After sitting his rookie season, Locker got the starting nod in 2012, and although he suffered through injuries, he still underwhelmed, with a 10-11 TD-INT ratio sticking out the most.
Two years later, and Locker is out of the NFL and Hasselbeck is close to retirement.
The then-Oakland Raiders had a rough go of things in 2006, to say the least. Where other star-studded defenses (cough-cough Chicago) were leading their teams to Super Bowls, the Raiders limped their way to a 2-14 season and drafted JaMarcus Russell #1 overall. The Raiders, in a full overhaul of their quarterback room, also traded for Josh McCown on draft night and later signed Daunte Culpepper as an insurance policy.
During the 2007 season, the rookie Russell was third-string behind the two veterans, while he learned the system. Russell got his first start during the last game of the season.
Three years later, JaMarcus Russell’s NFL career was over, Culpepper was suiting up for a United Football League team, and Josh McCown was on what felt like his 33rd NFL team.
Fresh off a 6-10 disaster of a 2004 season, Washington opted to draft quarterback Jason Campbell in the first round of the draft. The incumbent starter, Mark Brunell, retained his job, and Campbell sat for most of his rookie year. After all, he needed to learn the day-to-day operations.
Campbell didn’t get a second contract in D.C., and bounced around teams for a few years before retiring. His is not a Mahomes-type career, despite sitting in the effort of letting him learn the ropes.
If there’s a trend here, then rest assured these are examples of the opposite of the Smith-Mahomes success story. There’s plenty of examples in support of the idea, too. Aaron Rodgers sat behind Brett Favre. When Kurt Warner got his shot in the NFL, he was third on the depth chart. Drew Brees sat behind Doug Flutie, and Philip Rivers sat behind both of them. Development matters, especially in the NFL.
Care to remember Rex Grossman? He was given time to develop behind Chris Chandler and Kordell Stewart. Unfortunately, the development never amounted to nearly enough for Grossman to be a star and the Bears to win a Super Bowl.
While there’s plenty to envy about the Chiefs’ blueprint for developing a star quarterback behind a veteran, the comparisons need ingredients to match the formula. What did anybody see from the Chicago Bears last year and this offseason to make them believe we have a Pro Bowl quarterback veteran to help a future-Hall of Famer learn the intricacies on a playoff team favored to win their division?
Bears fans shouldn’t fret, though. Fields will start for the Bears, and he’ll start when he’s ready. Those who have seen Justin Fields’ tape and studied his ability on the football field come away with an almost-universal consensus: Justin Fields does Justin-Fields-things.
Therefore, though it may be a vague timeline, the Bears should start Justin Fields once they start seeing him do Justin-Fields-things in practice. Be that week 1, or next offseason, they need to avoid falling for the trap of Fields being the savior in the case of Dalton struggling.
Just don’t sit Fields for the sake of sitting him.