Andy Dalton will start at quarterback for the Bears in Week 1.
That’s what Matt Nagy has said since they signed him in March, and that’s the same statement he made after their Week 2 preseason loss to the Bills on Saturday. Despite the vocal pleas from Bears fans for the team to start Justin Fields, the fourth-year head coach has insisted that Dalton will be starting under center once the regular season rolls around.
The majority of the online community appears to disagree with Nagy’s assessment, but there has still been some sentiment supporting Fields not being the Bears’ opening day starter. The question is: does that argument even make sense?
It seems unlikely from an outside perspective the Bears change their mind within the next three weeks and start the rookie in their Sunday night matchup against the Rams, but there seem to be few actually strong arguments that disprove that belief.
Using some of the most consistent “excuses” I have seen supporting sitting Fields in Week 1, I have decided to provide counterarguments that provide a glimpse into the flawed decision-making that has plagued Nagy and the Bears’ coaching staff.
Excuse 1: Fields would be facing Aaron Donald Week 1
Of the following excuses, this one arguably makes the most sense. After all, the Bears have a poor offensive line and will be facing a talented Rams defensive front, featuring perennial All-Pro Aaron Donald and former Bear-turned-actually productive edge rusher Leonard Floyd. Putting Fields in under center could subject him to significant pressure and hits.
Just because that argument has a valid point doesn’t mean that it isn’t still flawed, though. If Fields is going to be a starter at the NFL level, he is going to go up against talented defenders; that’s simply a part of being a quarterback in the NFL. Babying a quarterback and hiding them from better competition is only delaying the inevitable. If anything, wouldn’t having an athletic quarterback who can scramble and evade pressure be a better fit against a better pass-rush?
Fields has shown in the preseason and at Ohio State the ability to maintain a high level of confidence throughout the ups and downs of a game. He appears to be a quick learner who doesn’t resort to ultra-conservative football after throwing an interception or making a bad throw. No matter how many times he gets hit or even through injury — like his outing against Clemson last year — he still plays to his fullest capacity.
If you have a true franchise quarterback, you’re not going to hide him from any possible signs of adversity. Hiding Fields from Donald and Co. isn’t a winning mentality.
Excuse 2: Dalton gives them a better chance to win now
Dalton has not had a winning record as a starting quarterback since 2015. While quarterback wins are far from an end-all, be-all statistic, as so many different factors can play into a team’s record. He hasn’t been able to truly elevate a team in years, though, especially in the last three seasons.
Sure, he has more experience than Fields, who is an unproven commodity in regular season football. However, that’s where his college tape and offseason analysis comes into play. Judging by his Ohio State tape, training camp performance and play in the preseason, Fields has a stronger arm than Dalton and is worlds ahead in terms of athleticism. Of the aspects in a quarterback’s game that can translate to the NFL, physical attributes like arm strength and athletic ability rarely, if ever, fail to make the jump.
As shown in the preseason, Fields’ athletic ability at the very least gives the Bears more versatility in their play-calling. Having a quarterback as fast as he is makes bootlegs more efficient and requires defenses to keep a spy handy in case he breaks away with his legs. The same goes for RPOs, which are made more dangerous with a quarterback who is a threat on zone-read quarterback runs.
There is a greater margin of error with a rookie quarterback, but if Fields doesn’t play all that well as a rookie, how much worse would his play be than Dalton on an average day? The veteran may be more experienced and may go through fewer growing pains, but the offense would likely still be inefficient with him under center. Fields offers a much higher ceiling, for the 2021 season and beyond.
Excuse 3: Don’t rush Fields’ development
Perhaps more important than the Bears’ 2021 outlook is the long-term development of Fields. While they have a roster with players still in their prime but 30 or older — see Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks — they likely have too many flaws to be a true contender this year. The more pressing issue is making sure Fields develops well enough for their teams in 2023, 2024 and beyond to compete for a Super Bowl.
Many comparisons have been made to Patrick Mahomes with the Chiefs, whom Matt Nagy coached during Mahomes’ rookie season in 2017. Kansas City sat him behind Alex Smith for all but one game as a rookie, upon which Mahomes took the starting job and won MVP in 2018. It seems to many like the Bears are intending on using that same approach with Fields in his rookie year.
There are a few problems with that comparison, though: Nagy isn’t Andy Reid, Dalton isn’t Alex Smith, and Fields isn’t Patrick Mahomes.
Some seem to forget that Smith had made the Pro Bowl the year before Mahomes was drafted, and that he made the Pro Bowl when Mahomes was a rookie. With him starting under center in those two seasons, the Chiefs went 11-4 and 9-6, respectively. Smith didn’t just start so Mahomes could develop; he was a genuinely solid quarterback. Combine that with Reid’s offensive expertise, and sitting the raw rookie for a year made a lot of sense.
Mahomes is obviously an incredible talent now who had a very high ceiling as a rookie, but he was also very raw. This certainly isn’t to say Fields can be better than him, as that’s obviously an insanely high bar to reach, but the Ohio State alumnus is a more pro-ready prospect. He offered more consistency in terms of accuracy coming out and was good at looking past his first read in college. That doesn’t even mention his superior athletic ability, either. The notion that he’s some sort of raw project just isn’t true.
If Fields is ready to be an NFL starter and is clearly the better option at quarterback, you start him no matter what. That’s what the current case seems to be.
Excuse 4: The Bears didn’t pay Dalton $10 million to be a full-time backup
Two words: Russell Wilson.
Back in 2012, the Seahawks signed Matt Flynn to a three-year, $20.5 million deal and drafted Wilson in the third round. Despite having tied a sizable contract to Flynn, Seattle started Wilson Week 1 because he was simply the superior talent. They went 11-5 with the rookie under center that year, and Wilson made the Pro Bowl in his first year in the NFL.
That’s not to say Fields will reach those heights right out of the gate. What that does say, though, is that you should start whichever quarterback is better, not which quarterback you’re paying the most money to. Dalton’s contract should not be a factor in whether the Bears start him Week 1.
Excuse 5: We need to see what Dalton does in the regular season
Dalton has been the same quarterback for years at this point. He is 33 years old and has been a proven commodity for quite some time. Getting more reps behind the Bears’ starting offensive line and wide receivers, as much as they may be better than backups, won’t turn him into a star quarterback.
The Bears knew what he was when they signed him, just as the Cowboys did when they signed him last year: a below-average starting quarterback and a high-end backup. What more do you need to see from him that he hasn’t shown over an 11-year career?