Sunday’s Chicago Bears-Baltimore Ravens game was supposed to feature a matchup between Justin Fields and Lamar Jackson, but it turned into a nail-biting 16-13 win for Ravens quarterback Tyler Huntley over Bears backup Andy Dalton in a contest that was anything but inspiring for either team.
Jackson missed the game with a non-COVID virus that kept him out of practice for most of the week, while Fields was knocked out of the second quarter with a rib injury. Dalton stepped in and tossed a 60-yard touchdown to Darnell Mooney just two passes into his appearance and finished the afternoon with a final stat line of 11-of-23 for 201 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in relief of Fields, who completed just 4-of-11 passes for 79 yards before his exit.
Fields’ rib injury is a stark reminder of the hits he’s taken so far in his rookie season. It occurred on a scramble play that wasn’t the fault of his offensive line, but he was battered and bruised by the Ravens’ defense before he was forced to the locker room for good.
Prior to his departure, Fields looked… OK. He wasn’t great, but he wasn’t terrible either. He had some nice moments, like this toss to Mooney:
But, if we’re being honest, Fields wasn’t good enough in his limited reps to put the Bears in front of a Ravens squad that was very beatable without Jackson or WR1 Marquise Brown. It was a surprising regression for Fields who prior to the Bears’ bye week looked very much like he turned the corner against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a near come-from-behind win in Week 9. On Sunday, Fields was slow with his progressions and inaccurate on several of his throws.
Compounding Fields’ struggles (and injury) was the immediate impact Dalton made when he entered the lineup. He made timely completions and kept the Bears in the game. In fact, he gave Chicago the lead with this dime to Marquise Goodwin late in the fourth quarter:
Naturally, questions about whether the Bears should continue starting Fields will begin after Dalton’s quality outing, but they’re nonsense. Dalton played exactly how he’s expected to off the bench but his performance wasn’t on the level needed to create a quarterback controversy in Chicago. At least, not yet. If Fields can’t go on Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions and Dalton has a quality start that leads to a Bears win, all bets are off. But we aren’t there yet, and it’s unlikely we’ll arrive at that point any time in 2021.
Now 3-7, the Bears are all but out of the 2021 playoff race. As a result, the only thing that matters for the remainder of the regular season is the development of Fields, assuming he’s healthy. Benching him for Dalton would only delay Chicago’s rebuilding plan and serve as another reason to fire Matt Nagy and any coach culpable for such a reprehensible decision. Fields, even in the midst of his rookie-year struggles, is the most important player on Chicago’s roster. He must remain in the Bears’ lineup to advance the team’s ultimate goal of competing sooner than later in the NFC.
Chicago’s commitment to Fields will be tested this week. Nagy’s job is on the line and it’s reasonable to assume he might want to lean on a veteran in an effort to get what could potentially be employment-saving wins.
“I just understand that in the end we all care a lot and we’re all in this thing,” Nagy said on Sunday. “And of course we want to do everything we can to win. That’s our job to do that. And I think everyone is competitive and wants to see the Bears win—and that’s exactly what we want.”
Wins, of course, matter. It’s why the games are played. But the Bears’ 2021 season isn’t about wins. At least, not anymore. It’s about Fields, and there’s nothing that should interfere with that, including a coach’s self-preservation.
“Justin’s played his tail off, and he’s played really well,’’ Nagy said. “Justin’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do to be able to grow as a quarterback. He got hurt. He’s done everything to be the starter, to continue to be the starter. … We’ve just got to see where Justin’s at. When you’re talking about ribs, you’ve got to find out how much it affects him.’’