September 18, 2021

When will Justin Fields start? What we know and what we don’t know

It’s easy to forget January now that there’s a new rookie quarterback in Chicago.

Bears chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips sat down Jan. 13 and explained why general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy would remain in their positions in 2021.

It begged the obvious question: Can Pace and Nagy be trusted to select the franchise’s next QB? McCaskey and Phillips believed so. A subsection of fans, if not a wide cross section, was skeptical.

Last week’s trade up to No. 11 in the NFL draft signaled exactly what McCaskey and Phillips said in January: Pace has full authority on football decisions. They were OK with Pace trading away the team’s 2022 first-round draft pick.

“We’re excited about – and so are Matt and Ryan – about the ability for the two of them to look at that position together, whether it’s free agency, the draft, current quarterbacks we have, and to make the right decisions,” Phillips said Jan. 13.

The trade up for Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields was widely applauded across the league. It was the right move, given how the draft played out during the first 10 picks, and given the team’s history at quarterback.

The next question becomes: Can Pace and Nagy be trusted to develop Fields? Already, Chicago is fired up about it.

For now, veteran Andy Dalton remains QB1. Fans might roll their eyes, but don’t dismiss the idea that Fields could spend a significant amount of time on the bench in 2021.

“You can draft the players, but you have to develop them the right way,” Pace said the night he drafted Fields. “And that’s what I love about the environment that we have.”

Fields will be surrounded by a head coach (Nagy), an offensive coordinator (Bill Lazor) and a QB coach (John DeFilippo) who have made careers out of coaching quarterbacks. Veterans Andy Dalton and Nick Foles have started a combined 197 NFL regular season games, as well as 10 playoff games.

Nagy comes from the Andy Reid school of quarterback development. Reid coached two prominent first-round picks with the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs.

Donovan McNabb, the No. 2 overall pick in 1999, didn’t start until Week 10 after the Eagles started off 2-7. He sat behind Doug Pederson (yes, that Doug Pederson) who, to be frank, was terrible. Reid let Pederson start nine games despite completing only 52% of his passes with seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and only two games of 200 passing yards.

Midway through another brutal loss in Week 9, Reid finally made the switch.

Almost two decades later, Patrick Mahomes – the No. 10 pick in 2017 – sat essentially his whole first year. He made his debut in an otherwise meaningless Week 17 game when the Chiefs rested their starters in preparation for the playoffs.

Nagy, of course, was Reid’s offensive coordinator in 2017 when Mahomes main responsibility was – it seems absurd to say now – scout team quarterback. The Bears have repeated multiple times that Nagy’s experience in Kansas City will serve as a blueprint with Fields.

“Is it going to be the same thing?” Nagy said. “I don’t know. But at least we have some type of blueprint to at least work off of and be able to just kind of use that to start and see where it goes.”

The blueprint

Here’s the thing, a lot had to go right for Mahomes to remain on the bench. Most importantly, starting quarterback Alex Smith played at an MVP level the first half of the season. Through the first eight games he threw for 2,181 yards and 16 touchdowns with no interceptions.

Smith didn’t throw an interception until Week 9. His passer rating was over 100 in nine of 15 starts. The Chiefs were winning, for the most part. Even when they struggled through a six-loss stretch in the span of seven games, they stuck with Smith.

By all accounts, Mahomes was good his rookie season. He started the fourth preseason game in 2017 and completed 9-of-16 passes for 183 yards and a touchdown.

As the regular season approached, the Kansas City Star’s Terez Paylor wrote this in a scouting report of Mahomes after watching him through training camp:

“Regularly makes absurd throws across his body while on the move and generally completes them. Consistently threatens the deep-to-intermediate depths of the field and makes opposing teams defend it all, which could potentially open up the Chiefs’ playcalling.”

But once the regular season started, the Chiefs kept winning. Smith was in his fifth year with Reid in Kansas City and he played the best season of his career.

Mahomes saw limited reps with the first-team offense. Nagy believed his time on the bench was valuable. Nagy told the Star in November 2017 that Mahomes had become more comfortable.

“Everything’s not going 100 miles an hour anymore,” Nagy said then. “When you watch him you can just see he’s not panicky, he’s comfortable.”

Mahomes worked to stay within character as the scout team QB. If the Chiefs weren’t playing a mobile QB that week, Mahomes was told to stay in the pocket.

“It’s a tough job there, because sometimes it’s like telling a pitcher to throw balls,” Nagy told the Star. “They might circle a guy and say ‘Hey, this is who they show a tendency to throw it to, so we want you to throw to that guy.’ Then they cover him, and he has to throw a pick.

“But, he can work on his footwork, he can work on his feet in the pocket, understanding throwing lanes.”

Mahomes job included – as Nagy and his coaches directed – to throw an interception if it was in character.

The best laid plans

Fields wants to play. This is a quarterback who transferred from Georgia when it was apparent the Bulldogs weren’t going to start him as a sophomore. In 2020, he led the push to bring back Big Ten football. He doesn’t do those things if he doesn’t want to play.

“That’s not up to me,” Fields said when asked about it. “That’s up to coach. My job is simply to perform the best I can perform and be the best quarterback I can be, so I think that’s a question for coach Nagy.”

If Nagy remains true to the 2017 Mahomes comparisons, it could be a while before Fields starts. But Nagy and Pace can only plan so much.

The No. 1 determining factor might be how well Dalton plays.

In his first year in a new environment, Dalton will almost certainly fall short of Smith’s 2017 performance (that would’ve been the best season of Dalton’s career). But the Bears as a whole should also be a much better team than the 1999 Eagles were with Pederson.

Nick Foles is also going to be in the mix. His contract all but guarantees it. Nagy felt the Bears could’ve gotten more out of Foles in 2020 had the run game been more reliable at the time. Having two veterans on the roster gives the Bears ample excuses not to play Fields, should they decide that’s best. If Foles plays like he did in 2020, it would be hard to justify giving him the nod over Fields.

The minute Dalton struggles, the pressure will be on Nagy to give Fields playing time. The question then becomes how committed are Pace and Nagy to keeping Fields sidelined? What if the team’s hovering around .500 and in the hunt for a Wild Card spot?

“The timing element of Justin, we will know,” Nagy said. “And then we’ve just got to decide then, when we get to that point, how is he developing and how is everybody [the quarterbacks] doing? And really keeping it as honest as possible with all of those guys, and then when the time is right I promise you every single person will know, including Justin, when it’s the right time.”

The other elephant in the room goes back to that Jan. 13 news conference – Nagy’s and Pace’s job status moving forward. What is the goal of the 2021 season? Drafting Fields, whether fair or not, inevitably changes the way everyone looks at this season.

“[We] want what’s best for the Bears,” McCaskey said that day. “There are no egos. There are no other agendas. Have mistakes been made? Yes. But I think both Ryan and Matt are learning and growing in their roles.”

Whether Fields plays in Week 1 or whether he never sees the field in 2021, observers will argue it was the wrong decision. This next test might be the toughest of all for Pace and Nagy. It will test their resolve, their patience and their ability to evaluate the quarterback position.

It might also be their last chance to get it right.

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for Shaw Media. He also contributes to high school football coverage at Friday Night Drive. Sean has covered various sports at the amateur, college and professional levels since 2012. He joined Shaw Media in 2016.