There isn’t much cause for a swell of optimism about this Bears season.
It was already a downer of a week at Halas Hall with defensive tackle Akiem Hicks inexplicably leaving practice a few minutes in, rookie left tackle Teven Jenkins undergoing surgery and half the team shuffling in and out of practice with issues such as general soreness and tight hamstrings.
That dump truck full of bad news was enough to dampen even coach Matt Nagy’s ever-sunny disposition, and a 41-15 loss to the Bills in their preseason game Saturday didn’t exactly brighten up anyone’s outlook.
One player could change that and spur some hope: rookie quarterback Justin Fields, who added to his collection of drive-saving, improvisational plays that this offense badly needs. He did it in his preseason debut against the Dolphins a week earlier, and he has been doing it with increasing frequency since training camp opened.
Fields has done enough to raise the issue of whether it’d be worth living with some rookie hiccups in exchange for the explosive possibilities that he provides.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Nagy said. “You see the things that he’s doing. Are there some things he can get better at? Yeah, for sure . . . but there’s also things that he’s doing better, probably, than we thought coming into this, which is good, too. That’s what we want. We want that to happen.”
Yet he won’t budge. Nagy repeated Saturday what he has said for months: Andy Dalton will start the season opener against the Rams. He added that any evaluation on Dalton will be based on “seeing what he does during the season,” not preseason games.
The problem with Nagy entrenching himself in that position in the spring is that sometimes rookies progress, “better, probably, than we thought.” That’s the biggest objection to his handling of this entire situation, which is getting more awkward by the day as Dalton constantly takes questions about Fields and hears fans chanting for the rookie to replace him.
There’s good cause behind those questions and chants, though.
The Bears think Fields is their answer in 2022. But he could bail them out now.
His most impressive moment Saturday came on a fourth-and-three midway through the third quarter. With no receiver slipping open and pressure closing in — a snapshot of life as a Bears quarterback — Fields adroitly dodged it and took off for 16 yards. He struck with a 32-yard pass to tight end Jesse James on the next play. He’s at ease when his blocking falters and plays break down. Thank goodness, since that’s mandatory in this job.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Fields said. “I’ve been one of the fastest guys on the field. I’ve had a lot of experience doing that, so when I do escape the pocket, I keep my eyes downfield.
“I’m trying to throw the ball downfield first, but if a block breaks down, I try to make a positive play every time.”
He’s also incredibly intuitive when it comes to shifting speeds and avoiding danger. He’s hitting receivers even when they’re well-covered. It’s more obvious each week that if the Bears weren’t deliberately slow-playing this, Fields is capable of being ready by the opener.
He finished 9-for-19 for 80 yards and added another 46 as a runner — nothing special stat-wise, but the potential is unmistakable. Dalton completed 11 of 17 passes for 146 yards with a touchdown and an interception before exiting at halftime down 34-6.
“When [Fields] is back there, how many times did we see the pocket collapse and we say, ‘OK, here we go again, he’s going to go outside to the edge and take off,’ ” Nagy said gleefully. “And the other thing is that he’s being super smart. He’s not taking dumb hits. I like the fact that he is not going to take a senseless hit when he is scrambling.
“I love that that’s a weapon when you have him using his legs like that. That’s real. I think we felt that the last two weeks with him, and it’s neat to see.”
Listening to him rave about Fields is the most confusing thing you will ever hear. It’s as though he sees the same thing everyone else sees and he’s right on the brink of finally admitting he should change his plan, but inexplicably he resists.
Nagy has been adamant at every turn that Dalton is his starter, and he’s probably correct that Dalton exceeds Fields in knowing the offense, understanding defensive coverage and checking down with precision.
But Fields brings a whole different element with his mobility, and he’s only going to get better. Dalton, at 33, is headed the other direction. Which way do the Bears want to go?
The blueprint for this season was to take a defense that’s trying to stave off decline and an offense that’s realistically aiming for adequacy at best and see if the Bears can stitch together a playoff team at 10-7 or something along those lines. That’s neither meaningful nor watchable. Launching Fields’ career would be both.