Mahomes, Watson, Herbert, Wilson, McNabb … Which Path to QB1 Will Justin Fields Take?

I don’t blame anyone for making the obvious connection to Alex Smith and Patrick Mahomes when projecting what the Bears’ development plan for Justin Fields this season.

NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport discussed it recently:

And so did ESPN’s Dianna Russini:

Rapoport is a seasoned league insider with a wealth of sources and insight. Russini was embedded with the Bears on Draft Night ’21, so her perspective on this matter comes from a place of recent familiarity.

And yet, I find myself thinking about how we might be over-emphasizing the Smith-Mahomes development plan as the sure-fire path the Bears will take with Fields, simply because Matt Nagy was in the room when it happened back in 2017.

We’re looking at a completely different situation with the Justin Fields/Andy Dalton dynamic when compared to the Smith/Mahomes situation. Smith was well-versed in Kansas City’s offense and was producing at an above average level before Mahomes’ arrival. And in 2017, Smith took another leap forward as the league leader in passer rating, while executing deep-ball throws at a career-best rate.

Dalton, by contrast, arrives in Chicago this year, with the Bears as his third team in as many years. He hasn’t played at a high level since 2016 and hasn’t started a full season’s worth of games since 2017. No matter which way you slice it, we’re just not talking apples-to-apples here.

Point being, while I do understand why folks are jumping to the KC conclusion, much more needs to unfold before we join the chorus. And I’ll remind you, that’s not the only path. In fact, let’s re-visit recent history for some alternatives.

Justin Herbert (2020)

Here’s one path to playing time for Fields that has nothing to do with his own performance.

It’s possible the Bears are truly invested in Andy Dalton starting. So much so, that whatever Fields does in training camp and preseason won’t matter to a front office that gave a free agent, Dalton, certain assurances. And yet, that could change when the lights go on and the season kicks off.

Let’s examine Justin Herbert, for example. Remember, the Chargers were planning to hold out Herbert for his own development while Tyrod Taylor took snaps as QB1. Unfortunately, that plan never fully developed as a team doctor accidentally punctured Taylor’s lung just before kickoff in the team’s Week 2 game against the Chiefs. Herbert didn’t relinquish the starting job after that, finishing with 4,336 passing yards, 31 TD, 10 INT, and a 98.3 passer rating en route to winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award.

Again, Herbert’s specific path to starting is a fluke. But also, we should recognize that the NFL is a next-man-up league. Injuries happen and backups need to be ready at a moment’s notice. Yes, that means you, too, Justin.

Deshaun Watson (2017)

Much like the plan was with his fellow first-round classmates, the plan for Deshaun Watson was for the rookie to sit and learn in his first season. But if you’ll recall, Watson was lighting up defenses in practice during training camp. And while he wasn’t going to start the year, there was a feeling that Watson would enter in short order.

It took all of one half of an underwhelming Tom Savage performance for Watson to enter the starting lineup. Watson made his first start a week later and was on pace for a 3,883-yard, 43-TD, 18-INT year with a 103.0 passer rating when he suffered an ACL injury that ended his rookie season.

Re-visiting this reminds me of this quote by Matt Nagy from over the weekend:

“I would say it’s more of what’s happening on the field. There’s a lot of players who can get it right in the classroom, and then the second you get down on the field and things are down there on field level, it changes. Plays gotta be made.”

In other words, if someone who was showing out in training camp and practices isn’t doing it on game day, we could be looking at a short leash for a veteran starter. Then again … it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen Nagy pull out a quick hook.

Russell Wilson (2012)

The idea of starting Wisconsin rookie Russell Wilson was an afterthought in 2012. Heck, the idea of *DRAFTING* Wilson in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft was widely panned when it went down. Remember, the Seahawks made a free agent splash signing with Matt Flynn. Wilson starting didn’t even enter the stratosphere until being named the starter just two days after making his first exhibition start in Preseason Week 3. And he hasn’t missed a start since.

So, to put it in perspective, the Bears can have their springtime plans be whatever they want. And in the end, it could be all for naught because spending money on a player at a position doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything. Keep that in mind.

Donovan McNabb (1999)

Ah, yes, the other high-profile rookie QB chosen by Andy Reid.

The Eagles picked Donovan McNabb with the second overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft, but he sat behind Doug Pederson (yes, that Doug Pederson!) to start the year. McNabb made spot appearances in relief in Weeks 2, 3, 4, 8, and 9 before making his first start in Week 10. It was the first of six starts for McNabb to end the 1999 season. But after that, it was smooth sailing for the Chicago native in Philly.

McNabb was the Eagles’ primary starter for the next decade. He made five Pro Bowl trips, threw for 32,873 yards and 216 touchdowns, while adding 3,249 more rushing yards and 28 grand scores. McNabb played in 16 playoff games during his career, as his Eagles made the postseason seven times. Also worth noting that McNabb won at least one postseason game in six of those seasons. Not winning a Super Bowl probably sticks in McNabb’s craw. But he was getting a bite at the apple every year. Can’t hate that.

In The End…

There is no one fool-proof plan for developing a rookie quarterback. No secret sauce. Not even a magic formula. Teams can draw inspiration from previous experiments or experiences. But at the end of the day, the rookie’s play will tell you when they’re ready. So buckle up, Bears fan. This is gonna be a while.

written by

Luis C. Medina, who you can find on Twitter at lcm1986, has been covering the Chicago Bears at Bleacher Nation since 2017. Since then, he has written about 3 head coaches, 5 play-callers, and 11 starting quarterbacks. Previously, Luis wrote about the Cubs and MLB at BN (2015-16) and worked in the Chicago Tribune sports department (2011-16). He also co-hosted a Cubs postgame show, Outside the Ivy, in 2019.

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