At this time next week, we’ll be producing our first game preview of the 2021 NFL season. We’ll find ourselves diving into matchups, digging into data, and exploring the things we need to know about the Bears-Rams Week 1 matchup.
And yet, one question will loom over our heads — when will Justin Fields start?
It’s the elephant sitting at the 50-yard-line of Soldier Field, so let’s discuss as we look at the schedule and assess which games make the most sense.
WEEK 1 at RAMS — Nah. The Bears are all-in on giving Andy Dalton the keys and letting him take Matt Nagy’s offense for a spin in Week 1. And frankly, I’m OK with that being the course of action as a short-term thing. Besides, how would the Bears be perceived if they didn’t keep to their word. No one likes anyone who goes back on a promise.
It isn’t the end of the world that Dalton is starting Week 1. Perhaps there is value in allowing Fields to serve the apprentice role for one game. And let’s be real with each other. As fans, we wouldn’t mind if the national media ratcheted up the pressure on pushing the idea of Fields starting to a larger audience.
WEEK 2 vs. BENGALS — Nah, again. I mean, they’ve gotta let the Andy Dalton Revenge Game™ play out. Right?
WEEK 3 at BROWNS — The first realistic possibility comes in Week 3. Depending on how the first two games go, there is a non-zero chance Fields could enter the fray in Cleveland. It’s a road game, but Fields is no stranger to playing big games in the state of Ohio. But that’s not a real reason why it would make sense.
By the time this game kicks off, the Bears will have (1) allowed Dalton to start, (2) given him time to make adjustments, and (3) provided an opportunity for Fields to watch from a safe distance where he can hone his craft and learn from what has been transpiring over the first two weeks.
I’d still bet on Dalton starting this game. But if last year taught us anything, it’s that Nagy can have a short fuse and a quick hook. Remember, Mitchell Trubisky was pulled in the second half of Week 3 when the Bears are 2-0. If you’ll recall, the move to play Nick Foles came after Chicago’s offense stumbled out of the gate in the first half, then fell further in a hole as Trubisky threw a third-quarter pick. If history repeats itself with Dalton playing the role of Trubisky, then I can see a scenario where Fields comes in like Foles did.
WEEK 4 vs. LIONS — This might be the most logical option. Starting Fields at home against a secondary that comes in at 30th, linebacker group projected to rank 28th, and defensive line that checked in at 24th in PFF’s preseason rankings just makes sense. This looks like a nice place for Fields to build up a lather for what could be a challenging schedule ahead.
WEEK 5 at RAIDERS — If not at home against the Lions, then a game against the Raiders could be a soft landing for Fields’ first start. Much like the Lions, PFF projects bad things for Vegas’ defense. The Raiders’ linebackers check in within the middle of the pack, but the secondary (29th) and defensive line (26th) are asking to get wrecked. Sure, starting Fields in what could be a raucous road environment has its risks. But the only people more excited to see Raiders games at the Death Star in the desert are Bears fans who have been looking forward to this matchup since the schedule came out. So this one might resemble a neutral site NCAA Basketball Tournament game than a true road contest.
WEEK 6 vs. PACKERS — From a narrative perspective, this would be the most fun. Pitting Aaron Rodgers in what might be his last start at Soldier Field against Fields in his first start as a Bear is the stuff NFL on FOX producers would be dreaming of if it came to fruition. We’ve seen Fields excel in college in big-game scenarios, so I don’t think the moment would be too big for him. Especially to if he had five weeks of learning behind Dalton.
WEEK 7 at BUCCANEERS — Nick Foles has to start this one, right? If history is any indication, the answer is yes.
WEEK 8 vs. NINERS — A Bears-Niners game with the potential to pit Fields vs. Trey Lance would be a treat. It’s one of those matchups w could be seeing for the foreseeable future. So, from a narrative perspective, this would be a fun place to jump-start the Fields era. But there is a non-zero chance it’s Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Andy Dalton, which … no thanks.
Although, I do like the idea of Garoppolo (a childhood Bears fan) quarterbacking against his hometown team’s QB-of-the-future.
WEEK 9 at STEELERS — Television execs at ESPN would be falling over themselves to make Fields’ debut on Monday Night Football happen. Bonus points if they can make it a ManningCast game. To be clear, it isn’t perfect. PFF projects the Steelers line to be an elite unit this year. And with the linebackers (13th) and secondary (12th) checking in among the top half of the league by PFF’s projections, this isn’t an ideal spot for Fields’ first start.
WEEK 10 — Bye.
WEEK 11 vs. RAVENS — As a ticket-holder for this game, I’d love to see Fields go up against Lamar Jackson. And while PFF ranks the Ravens’ secondary as its second best group heading into the year, the linebackers (19th) and defensive line (21st) check in among the middle tier of defenses.
WEEK 12 at LIONS — It would be a Thanksgiving treat worthy as being a side dish for the fried turkey that is coming later that day to see Fields start. From a strategic angle, it could make sense to try and catch Detroit off guard on a short week.
WEEK 13 vs. CARDINALS — From a logical perspective, this might make the most sense. The Cardinals’ secondary (22nd) and linebackers (22nd) ranking in the bottom half of the league is enough to make up for the defensive front coming in at 12th on PFF’s pre-season rankings. That it would be a home game with extra time to prepare against a weaker opponent makes it a potentially most-ideal spot.
WEEK 14 at PACKERS — Who needs rain-water when the drool from NBC executives dreaming of a Fields-Rodgers matchup is enough to water the lawn?
WEEK 15 vs. VIKINGS — No one wants to wait this long to see Fields’ first start. But if the Bears are true to their plan and Dalton plays well, it might be a while until Fields starts. However, if it happens like this, then I can say it was a gift to a friend who is turning 30 on this date. You’re welcome, in advance.
WEEK 16 at SEAHAWKS — A battle between two targets we obsessed over throughout the offseason squaring off the day after Christmas would be fun. But starting Fields for the first time in one of the loudest environments in football might not be the best course of action.
WEEK 17 vs. GIANTS — If Fields isn’t starting by now, the Dalton experience went very well or something unexpectedly bad happened along the way In any case,pitting Fields against the team who traded out of the spot to allow the Bears could take him is a juicy enough of a narrative to make this one more interesting than it could be based on each team’s preseason projection.
WEEK 18 at VIKINGS — Should the Bears truly commit to the Alex Smith-Patrick Mahomes development plan, then they’ll start Fields in the season finale to close out the year. But to truly go down that path, wouldn’t it mean the Bears would be playoff-bound with Dalton having a Pro Bowl caliber season? Would we accept it if Dalton went full 2017 Alex Smith if it meant Fields turns out to be the QB fans want him to be?