Last season was supposed to be the year the Bears fixed a decades old problem at quarterback.
They signed veteran Andy Dalton in free agency and traded up in the draft to select Justin Fields with the 11th pick. They traded away this year’s first-round pick in the process to move up from 20th overall to 11th.
As far as the 2021 season is concerned, they failed. Their offense was abysmal and the passing game was among the worst in the NFL.
As with any rookie quarterback, though, a rough rookie season is far too soon to judge. The Bears still have time to maximize Fields’ potential.
Negatives: The Bears finished the season 30th in passing, 32nd in interceptions, 32nd in sacks allowed, 32nd in third-down efficiency and 27th in points scored behind some of the worst quarterback play in the league. Dalton ranked 29th in passer rating and Fields ranked 30th.
The Bears signed Dalton to be the starter after nine years in Cincinnati, all as the No. 1 QB, and a season as the backup in Dallas.
Dalton brought a 77-69-2 record, guided the Bengals to five straight playoff appearances and went to three Pro Bowls, throwing for more than 35,000 yards and 226 touchdowns.
But Dalton suffered a knee injury in the second game of the 2021 season and Fields took over. Two weeks later, with Dalton poised to return, Fields was inexplicably given the starting job moving forward.
Dalton ended up playing in eight games, starting six and had his worst season as a pro, throwing for 1,515 yards, a meager 5.4-yard average, eight touchdowns and nine interceptions with a 76.9 passer rating.
He was probably always going to be a one-year bridge to the future, and there is virtually no chance he’ll be back in 2022.
Positives: Over his 12 games, including 10 starts, Fields showed flashes of the brilliance he displayed at Ohio State and the tools that garnered his lofty draft status. But with Fields at quarterback, the offense floundered badly.
Fields was thrown to the wolves well before he was ready and he, predictably, struggled. He will, however, still enter the 2022 season as one of the NFL’s brightest prospects based on the glimpses we saw of his special traits.
His seven touchdowns, 10 interceptions and 73.2 passer rating were extremely disappointing and his 26.5 QBR was even worse, but all were significantly impacted by an offensive line that was on and off all year and a glaring lack of production from his wide receivers.
His 420 rushing yards on 72 carries were impressive, but he struggled often with knowing when to leave the pocket. At times, he stood in the pocket and held the ball far too long and often failed to read defenses well.
None of that is unusual for rookie starters at the quarterback position. Fellow first-round picks Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson struggled just as badly.
Contract status: Fields is clearly No. 1 and the future at quarterback. As mentioned above, Dalton will be a free agent. Third-string QB Nick Foles’ status is uncertain.
Foles was the forgotten man. He was never even considered for a chance to compete for the starting job, leaving many to wonder why Matt Nagy buried him on the bench.
Ironically, in the one game the Bears were forced to start Foles, he gave them their best QB performance of the season in a 25-24 win at Seattle late in the season.
He remains under contract with a heavy cap hit of $10.7 million, but $7.7 million is dead money so the team saves only $3 million by releasing him. Every team would like to have a veteran former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl MVP as a backup.
Grade: D+. Fields still has a lot to prove.
Plan: There are dozens of reasons to remain optimistic about Fields’ future, but the Bears would be well-served to consider using one of their two fifth-round picks this spring on another young quarterback.
There will be interesting prospects at that point in the draft and now is a good time to develop another youngster behind Foles and Fields.