Chicago Bears fans have been waiting for the moment they can finally call Justin Fields their starting quarterback, and while he didn’t begin Week 2 with the first team, he did enough in relief of an injured Andy Dalton to prove his time as the Bears’ QB1 has arrived.
Fields entered the game late in the second quarter after Dalton suffered a knee injury, and he remained with the starters for the remainder of the Bears’ 20-17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. He wasn’t perfect and he made his expected share of mistakes, but the energy he brought to the offense—and that spread to the defense—was of the sort that is generally described as the ‘it factor.’
The best place to start with Fields’ performance is actually one of his final plays of the game. It was his ‘it factor’ moment; a play that without Fields in the lineup would never have been possible.
The play was 3rd-and-9 with 2:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Bengals had all of the momentum after scoring two touchdowns in seven offensive plays to cut Chicago’s lead to 20-17. After taking the shotgun snap, Fields saw his first read—Darnell Mooney—was covered. He quickly scanned the field but was pressured from behind by Bengals defensive end Trey Hendrickson. Fields escaped the pocket, flashed his dynamic athletic ability and brute strength, and picked up 10 yards with his legs.
“It was just all man (coverage), nobody was really open, and then I saw a big, wide hole open, and I know a first down wins the game,” Fields said after the game. “The left end grabbed me a little bit, but I just broke the tackle, tried to stay inbounds, and got down. And of course, it was a big play in the game, for sure.”
First down. Game over. Bears win.
Had Dalton been on the field for that play, at that moment, Hendrickson would’ve wrangled him to the ground, Chicago would’ve punted the ball back to Joe Burrow, and who knows if we’d be talking about a winless Bears team right now.
The critic will say something like, “well, sure, Fields is a great athlete, and great athletes can make plays like that in chaos. But he isn’t ready to be a starting NFL passer yet.”
That critic would be wrong, and Fields proved why against Cincinnati.
Before we get into his good moments as a passer, let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way. Fields’ worst play was a fourth-quarter interception that was the result of a brutal mistake when he failed to identify the Bengals defender dropping into coverage and into the line of his intended target.
It was a textbook rookie mistake. He’s going to make them. A lot of them, actually. That’s why they’re called rookie mistakes.
“They were showing Cover 0 at first, and our hot on that Cover 0 check was a shallow,” Fields said of the interception. “So that was just a great play call by the defense. They showed Cover 0 and they popped out the linebackers right where I was supposed to throw the ball. So I really can’t do anything about that. I’ve just got to move on and keep getting better.”
But there were equally positive moments from Fields’ arm on Sunday. Check out this pass, one that won’t show up in the box score, to Allen Robinson:
Fields did the whole ‘drop the ball in the bucket’ on that 35-yard beauty, and had it been completed, the narrative around Fields’ performance—a pedestrian 6-of-13 for 60 yards and an interception—would’ve flipped to 7-of-13 for 95 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. Great? No. Better? Sure.
But here’s the most important thing to come from that play: Fields used it to prove he’s a leader.
“You’ve just got to forget about it, and he just needs to know I’m going to keep throwing him the ball,” Fields said of Robinson’s drop.
Yep. That’s a rookie sounding like a veteran.
Fields seemed to heat up as the game went on. His process was a tick slow and his reads could’ve used a bit more urgency early in his appearance, but as is the case with most big-time players, Fields adjusted and adapted quickly.
By the time the final whistle blew, it felt very much like this Bears offense—the entire team, actually—belonged to Fields.
Look at how his presence impacted the play of the defense. Maybe it was purely coincidence, but Chicago’s defensive playmakers—Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, and Jaylon Johnson—all elevated their play after Fields took over. Roquan had a pick-six. Jackson forced a fumble. Johnson registered the first interception of his career.
Everyone stepped up. The energy was contagious and spread like wildfire.
Remember that whole ‘it factor’ thing? Sunday’s win was a living, breathing example.
The question now is what happens in Week 3 if Dalton is healthy. Did Fields do enough to impress coach Matt Nagy and earn the starting job regardless of Dalton’s health? It’d be a no-turning-back decision if Nagy makes that call. Once he tabs Fields as the starter, it’s for good.
“Like I’ve said with Justin, he's probably further along than we thought at this point right now. So if (Fields is the starter) then we feel good about it,” Nagy said after the game. “Justin has worked really, really hard to get to this point. Even today in that moment as a rookie, coming in in that situation, super calm, super cool. Even after the interception, he was very cool coming out there and knowing to try to make a play.”
Nagy didn’t commit to Fields, but for the first time in 2021, he has to make a decision at quarterback—a tough decision at quarterback. This is more than just a sportstalk debate about whether the Bears should start their rookie first-rounder. Now, it’s in the locker room. It’s after a win. There’s evidence on film of what Fields can do—and more importantly, what Fields can do that Dalton can’t. And it’s for that reason—the special plays Fields has in his arsenal—that makes this decision an easy one.
Fields’ time has come.