A decade ago, Andy Dalton started all 16 games as a rookie quarterback with the Cincinnati Bengals. The team had selected him in the second round of the draft, 35th overall. They went from 4-12 a year earlier to 9-7 with a rookie QB and grabbed a wild-card playoff spot.
A lot has changed for Dalton in the decade since. He still believes one thing made all the difference during his rookie season.
“The best thing you can do is play,” Dalton said Tuesday in Lake Forest, where the Bears reported for training camp. “That’s the best experience you can get.”
The irony here is that Dalton, 33, now stands in the way of rookie Justin Fields, 22, and the starting quarterback job. The veteran comes to Chicago on a one-year contract, expecting to start. At the same time, a one-year contract doesn’t provide much long-term stability. Dalton knows that he’s going to have to play well to keep his job.
But by all accounts, Dalton has been a helpful mentor for the rookie. Fields’ personal QB coach Quincy Avery spoke with ESPN’s Adam Schefter on his podcast this week and said that Dalton has “been helping Justin in ways that a lot of other guys in that situation wouldn’t.”
“He’s got the right mindset, the right mentality,” Dalton said of Fields. “He’s done a good job. ... I mean, he’s talented. You don’t get taken that high [in the draft] if you can’t throw the ball. He can throw it. I think everybody knows that.”
Bears coach Matt Nagy plans on having a delicate balance between his veteran and his rookie quarterback during the three preseason games in August. Nagy will need to give Fields reps, but the coach also needs to make sure his starters are properly tuning up for the regular season. In 2019, when he rested the starters during the preseason, Nagy wasn’t happy with the results early in the regular season.
Thinking back on his rookie season in Cincinnati in 2011, Dalton said a rookie QB has to have confidence in what he’s doing and ignore anything that happened before his arrival. Nobody expected that Bengals team to have a winning record, let alone make the playoffs – but it did.
Knowing the playbook was essential, but reacting was even more so. And the ability to react often comes only through experience.
“It’s [about] seeing how two different teams are going to attack you,” Dalton said. “What you’re going to do, how you’re going to respond, what plays are going to be good against certain things? The experience was such a big thing.”
Fields, meanwhile, has done everything the Bears have asked of him. Bears rookies reported for training camp a few days earlier than the veterans, and Fields came in well prepared. During the offseason program, there was an emphasis on his cadence in the huddle. The coaching staff had Fields practice calling plays into an audio recorder.
“I was really impressed with the way that Justin came back from OTAs until these last three days,” Nagy said Tuesday. “In and out of the huddle, you could see he did his homework.”
Fields might put up a fight in training camp, but make no mistake, this is Dalton’s starting job to lose. After nine seasons in Cincinnati, Dalton left before the 2020 season for Dallas, where he backed up Dak Prescott. For the first time in his professional career, Dalton was playing for a new team in a new city, needing to learn a new playbook.
That prepared him well for what he stepped into here in Chicago a year later.
“I’m not worried about all the stuff that’s going to be going on with Justin because that doesn’t affect me,” Dalton said. “At the end of the day, it’s what I’m going to be doing. Justin and I have a really good relationship, and I’m trying to help him out as much as I can.”