Justin Fields won’t be starting at quarterback for the Bears in Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. But everyone expects the first-round pick from Ohio State to start games as a rookie before the season is finished.
With coach Matt Nagyfor the Sunday night season-opening matchup against the Rams on Sept. 12, the clock is already ticking on when Fields will see his first non-preseason action in games that count.
Fields followed a stellar exhibition debut vs. the Dolphins (14-of-20 passing, 142 yards, 7.1 yards per attempt, TD, 106.7 rating, 5 rushes, 33 yards, TD) with a more rookie-like outing against the Bills (9-of-19 passing, 80 yards, 4.2 yards per attempt, 59.1 rating, 4 rushes, 46 yards). He also will start Saturday’s third preseason game at the Titans with Dalton being held out.
Dalton, who served as the backup turned Dak Prescott injury replacement in Dallas in 2020, retains his early “QB1” status in Chicago based on his experience in offensive coordinator Bill Lazor from two recent seasons in Cincinnati. Nagy is following the conservative path with the veteran over the No. 11 overall pick after his team made the NFC playoffs last season with a combination of Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles.
Although Bears fans are clamoring for Fields to be their long-awaited savior at the position immediately, outside noise won’t be the reason Nagy flips from Dalton at some point during the season.
Last year, Justin Herbert got off the bench for the Chargers for good in Week 2 after a sudden pregame injury concern for Tyrod Taylor. Tua Tagovailoa needed to wait until Week 6 to see mop-up action for the Dolphins before he got to start full-time in Week 8, with Ryan Fitzpatrick going from bridge QB to a closer when needed. The 2020 first-round extremes were Joe Burrow playing right away for the Bengals and Jordan Love not playing at all for the Packers.
For Fields, that sets up a wide range of outcomes. Here’s a breakdown of how and when he should play his first meaningful game for the Bears:
Week 2 or Week 3
There’s a theory that Nagy is protecting Fields from a confidence-shaking debut in Week 1. Facing Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and the Rams’ nasty defense on the road in prime time is far from the most comfortable first start for such a talented passer and runner.
But then Chicago returns for its home opener against Burrow and Cincinnati, a much more favorable matchup. The following week is back to tough against Myles Garrett and the Browns in Cleveland, but that game might help provide a Columbus-like feel for Fields.
There’s also a good chance Dalton doesn’t play well under the lights in Week 1 and Nagy, who’s facing a make-or-break year with his job, will be under quick pressure to make the change based only on quarterbacking quality. It may not long for Nagy to believe the much more athletic Fields gives the Bears’ offense a better chance to win games in trickier matchups.
Don’t sleep on Fields following his fellow Justin in Los Angeles with Dalton being one and done for a different reason. On the other hand, it might seem too early to make the change based on a single game result. The Bears starting 1-2 or 0-3 with Dalton, however, opens the door to a better window for Fields making his first start.
Week 4 or Week 5
The Bears will return from Cleveland to host Detroit in Week 4. It’s difficult to hand-pick a better opening matchup for Fields than the rebuilding 2021 Lions defense at home. That Oct. 3 game is also a 12 p.m. CT kickoff, without the added pressure of prime time. Week 5 brings a favorable road trip to face the Raiders in Las Vegas.
Barring an early big injury to Dalton, this would seem like the most ideal time to see Fields take over the job with immediate confidence-building success.
Week 7 through Week 9
The Bears should have a fair idea if they are back in NFC playoff contention through the Week 6 home game against the archrival reigning NFC North champion Packers. There might be some temptation, either if Dalton is struggling or limiting the offense then, to throw Fields into the fire before a Week 10 bye where he can have extra evaluation time.
Here’s the rub: Fields is likely to get burned badly facing either or all of the following defenses in this stretch: Buccaneers (road), 49ers (home) and Steelers (road). If Nagy was worried about the Rams, he should follow that mentality and keep Fields from this potential inferno of rookie frustration. This would then be the least likeliest window to see Fields make his debut.
By the time that Tampa Bay-San Francisco-Pittsburgh gauntlet is put down in front of Chicago, Nagy should be well aware if his team is any kind of NFC contender. The arrow is set to point to no playoff return, which makes it pointless to have Dalton as a bridge to nowhere for the rest of 2021.
Fields at worst should be starting after the Week 10 bye in an exciting home game against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens. The Nov. 21 game is also another low-pressure 12 p.m. CT kickoff and it will be nice to see what Fields could one day become as a standout dual threat with Jackson on the other side.
The follows to the game also are juicy, with the Lions on the road in Week 12 and back at home dueling Kyler Muray and the Cardinals in Week 13. Should Nagy not make the switch before Week 6, this wheelhouse is a no-brainer. Consider the Dolphins did the same with Tagovailoa after only a little earlier bye last season.
Week 14 and beyond
Bears fans should be prepared to have conniptions if they don’t see Fields in the starting lineup by Thanksgiving. After that Baltimore-Detroit-Arizona stretch, Chicago has a rematch at Green Bay in Week 14. Then it’s the two games against the Vikings sandwiching matchups with the Seahawks (road) and Giants (home) to close out the 18-week slate.
Don’t worry, Fields won’t be another Love as a rookie. It’s OK that he isn’t a Burrow, Zach Wilson ot Trevor Lawrence, either, deemed ready to start right out of the gate. Fields is a good bet to fall right in between Herbert and Tagovailoa, not being pushed into action early but also not needing to wait until midseason to start.