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Wait no longer, start Justin Fields

The best time to start Fields was to begin the 2021 season. The second-best time is now.

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Chicago Bears Jon Durr-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no point in waiting anymore. There’s no reason for delaying the inevitable.

Wally Pipp, Drew Bledsoe, wherever you are, eat your hearts out:

The Bears should start Justin Fields against the Cleveland Browns next Sunday.

Before Fields came on in relief of Dalton in Chicago’s 20-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, there were already whispers that Matt Nagy would deviate from The Plan. When anyone would see Fields full-time was unknown, the best guess even to Nagy himself. But as the Bears have increased his workload in the background, challenging him more and more, Fields, predictably, has made an impression. His performance against the Bengals dictates it’s time to learn on the fly, with his feet to the fire.

The box score will say Fields struggled in front of a capacity Soldier Field crowd. It’ll note that the Bengals almost completed a fourth-quarter rally at the expense of the 22-year-old rookie. To an extent, that’s true. Even with crucial deep drops from Darnell Mooney, and one glaring miss from Allen Robinson, Fields was uneven. A late interception and multiple red-zone trips without six points in either instance will say as much.

But that’s reductive, and it negates the whole story.

Fields held the ship together. That’s without many practice repetitions with the Bears’ No. 1 offense, without established timing with his pass targets, without a comfortable game-plan made his own. He didn’t implode the way his fellow rookie quarterback contemporaries around the league already have. That’s saying something.

It’s almost as if Fields would’ve featured better with more No. 1 repetitions over the past six weeks. Who knew?

At this stage in his career, as he develops into the franchise quarterback the Bears hope he is, that’s all the Bears need of Fields. To make plays and to, yes, make mistakes. And to let Chicago’s opportunistic playmakers, especially on defense, protect him for as long as they can. They have the ideal setup. There isn’t much pressure to win beyond making sure Fields sees live bullets, beyond being certain he’s prepared for them the next time he sees them flying his way.

Fields is going to flash, and he’s going to be uneven. The Bears should let him because that’s the point of learning. 2021 is all about letting the man with the No. 1 on his jersey grow up first and foremost, wins and losses coming second. You learn by doing.

Dalton’s knee injury may not be as severe as initially feared. It shouldn’t matter. The only person who owes Dalton anything is Virginia McCaskey, as “she” signs his game checks. The Bears owe it to themselves to give Fields a chance to start his development in earnest, with professional defenses making wholesale efforts to fluster him. If they want to win soon and think they’re on a true path toward contention in 2022 or 2023, Fields must get every meaningful offensive snap moving forward.

I don’t know if Matt Nagy is the coach to maximize Fields and turn him into a superstar. Skepticism is warranted. But I do know this is the quarterback he wanted and that Fields is the Bears’ only chance at relevance any time soon. That’s enough justification for pulling the plug on the Red Rifle Era.

When asked if Dalton is still the starter, if healthy, in the post-game against the Bengals, Nagy was non-commital, even by his obfuscating standards. The day after saw a clarification that Dalton is the starter if healthy (which he isn’t). It seems even Nagy finally understands that full participation in real games won’t ruin Fields.

“I’m not going to get into any of that,” said Nagy.

That says everything anyone needs to know, without saying anything at all.

Fields should start against the Browns, and the Bears can never look back.