When Justin Fields stepped onto the Soldier Field grass for the first time in a regular-season game Sunday, the crowd exploded. Bears fans and media have been clamoring to see more of Fields, the dual-threat rookie quarterback, ever since he was drafted 11th overall in April. Fields’s five snaps in the Bears’ season-opening loss in L.A. last week, one of which was a three-yard touchdown run, only increased their appetite. The team’s ostensible QB1, Andy Dalton, was uninspiring in that 34-14 loss to the Rams, and his play opened the floodgates for even more questions about when Fields might get his chance.
Bears head coach Matt Nagy and his staff had intended for Fields to sit and learn for as long as possible, using him only sparingly on specific packages designed for him and acclimating him over the course of the season. But on Sunday, the Bears’ best-laid plans were thwarted, as these types of rookie quarterback plans typically are.
Dalton felt like a ceremonial starter in Chicago even before Fields was picked in the draft. He led the team out of the tunnel for warmups Sunday, in front of a crowd of 60,000 that was wearing mostly Fields jerseys. But he started well, leading a touchdown drive on the Bears’ first possession Sunday against Cincinnati and looking much improved from his Week 1 outing. It was, if briefly, an example of competent quarterbacking not seen in Chicago in years. But in the second quarter Dalton tweaked his left leg while running out of bounds. He went to the medical tent, returned to the sideline, and then went back into the game for the next drive, where Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader sacked him hard. Dalton finished the series with a failed third-down conversion and then came out of the game for good.
Before his injury, Dalton was 9-of-11 for 56 yards and one touchdown, and averaged 12.5 yards on two carries. The expectations were high for Fields, who the team hopes will be the player to finally end the long franchise history of quarterback futility, but his stat line still paled in comparison to Dalton’s almost two quarters of play. Fields finished 6-of-13 for 60 yards, one interception, a fumble, and no touchdowns. He ran 10 times for 31 yards. When Fields entered the game, the Bears were up 7-0. After that, Cincinnati outscored Chicago’s offense 17-6, though thanks to a pick-six the Bears were able to hang on for the 20-17 win.
At times Fields showed flashes of the athleticism and playmaking ability that Nagy and Bears GM Ryan Pace praised after drafting him, like when he ran for 10 yards and escaped a tackle on third-and-9 for a game-clinching first down.
But he also worked through some painful rookie mistakes: two false start penalties (which looked like the result of his momentum carrying him backward when he was calling for the ball from the center), an interception to a linebacker who was dropping back in coverage, and an invitation to Bengals DE Trey Hendrickson to punch the ball out when he took his left hand off the ball to scramble. But that fumble is also evidence of what went right for Fields in this debut: Wilson could easily have had a scoop-and-score, but he whiffed on picking up the ball, and Fields, lying on the ground after the strip, somehow heaved his body forward—twice!—in a worm-like movement to bat the ball away and then army-crawled to recover it.
Fields led two field-goal drives in the fourth quarter, coming up short of a touchdown even when he was gifted the ball at the Bengals’ nine after the defense picked off Joe Burrow. On another drive that ended with Chicago punting from the Bengals’ 40-yard line, he had Allen Robinson in the end zone, a 35-yard beauty of a pass slipping right through the receiver’s hands. Fields and his receivers were this close on several plays Sunday, a frustrating look at what he almost is, and what he might become, but isn’t yet. He said after the game that he wasn’t happy with his performance.
“I think there’s a lot more in me that I have to show, and you know, I know that’s going to come with time,” Fields said. “I know it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Nagy said post-game that he thinks the training staff ruled out an ACL tear for Dalton, and he also said that Fields is further along than they thought he would be by this point in the season. He said he’d feel good with Fields as the starter, if Dalton can’t go. That tepid endorsement is partly just typical coachspeak, and partly the reality of a pretty meh debut from Fields. Fields had the chance to grab the reins, but he’s still just rookie quarterback in Week 2, and one who only started 22 college games. It’s still a QB controversy. Fields is the quarterback of the future, but when does that future start?