LAKE FOREST, Ill. (670 The Score) -- Upon learning the news Tuesday night that their son had been named the Bears’ starting quarterback, the parents of rookie Justin Fields were ready to go out and celebrate.
The 22-year-old Fields wasn't interested. He instead chose to stay behind at home and watch film with his dog, Uno. His parents celebrated without him.
“Of course there's some reason to celebrate, but I'm not just going to be complacent with where I'm at,” Fields said Wednesday before taking the practice field at Halas Hall.
Bears coach Matt Nagy on Wednesday publicly revealed that Fields would take over for veteran Andy Dalton as the team's permanent starting quarterback. It marked a departure from the plan that Nagy and the Bears had shared since the organization selected Fields with the No. 11 pick in the NFL Draft in late April.
Ever since then, the Bears had stood by Dalton as their starting quarterback. They referenced the 2017 Chiefs' development plan with then-rookie Patrick Mahomes, who backed up veteran Alex Smith for one season. Even as recently as Monday morning, Nagy backed Dalton as the starter and declared he would return to that role when deemed healthy, with Fields filling the backup role. Dalton has been dealing with a knee injury in recent weeks.
But Nagy and the Bears could no longer look past how Fields had accelerated their timeline at quarterback – and what he had proved.
“The growth,” Nagy said. “You see when he got here in OTAs, we weren’t sure how it was going to be. When he showed up in training camp, we weren’t sure how it was going to be. And he showed us that he was ready to take that step. We got to the preseason, albeit whoever he’s playing against, he showed us he’s ready to go out there and make plays.
“Then when we got to the season as the backup, he was showing us as we said, ‘Inspire your teammates when you’re out there. When you’re out there as a look team quarterback, inspire your teammate. Make others better.’ He did that.
“This isn’t something that just happened. He’s grown to this point. He's earned it. He’s worked hard. And now he has this opportunity.”
The Bears shared a glimpse into their high opinion of Fields when they named him the backup to open the regular season, meaning he would be one play away from stepping in for Dalton. That play came late in the second quarter of a game on Sept. 19, when the 33-year-old Dalton stepped awkwardly along the Bears’ sideline on a scramble and suffered a bone bruise in his left knee.
While Nagy continued to state Dalton would return as the starter once healthy, he was becoming more and more comfortable in moving forward with Fields as he started the past two games for the Bears.
Another key step for Fields was his response amid the fallout from the Bears' ugly 26-6 loss to the Browns on Sept. 26, which marked his first NFL start. The Bears gained just 47 yards of offense, which was nearly the lowest mark in franchise history, and posted one net passing yard. It wasn’t entirely the fault of Fields, who was sacked nine times. With Dalton still not fully healthy last week, the Bears got to see how Fields could respond to adversity – first in a full week of practice and then at Soldier Field on Sunday, when Fields was 11-of-17 for 209 yards and an interception while Chicago totaled 373 yards of offense in a 24-14 win against Detroit.
Fields' statistics are a reminder that he has plenty of room to improve as a rookie, as he has completed just 48.1% of his passes for 347 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. But the Bears see a player in Fields who has the necessary poise and then talent to be great.
With Fields having proved his readiness and showcased growth, the last step of the transition process – and the most difficult part for Nagy personally – was informing Dalton that he was being demoted to a backup role.
“What he has earned from me and our coaches is a hell of a lot of respect, because that guy is a freaking stud,” Nagy said of Dalton, who joined the Bears on a one-year, $10-million deal in March. “I’m so glad he is on our team and I appreciate the way he understood it and the way he handled it, but he also cares immensely about this team and I appreciate that.”
This unique and often uncomfortable quarterback situation was never supposed to be centered on Dalton, who signed a one-year deal in March recognizing the prospects of Chicago drafting a quarterback. But the Bears' admiration of Dalton allowed them to bide time in bringing along Fields. He showed time wasn't necessary.
When Fields touched down in Chicago on a Friday in late April after being selected in the NFL Draft, he arrived in a city starved for a franchise quarterback. Not since Sid Luckman have the Bears had a star at football’s most important position. The pressure hasn’t bothered Fields, who said after his first practice of rookie minicamp in May that he feels “made for this” opportunity.
Fields has remained respectful of Dalton and everyone around him since joining the organization while also taking ownership of his opportunity. Upon learning that a Bears fan thought of him while in the ambulance after the fan suffered a gunshot wound this summer, Fields sought the man’s address and went to his house. After hearing the Soldier Field crowd jeer Dalton by chanting Fields' name in a preseason game, Fields asked fans afterward to support his teammate. Each time he was asked about the starting role, Fields deferred to Nagy and the plan the team had in place.
Fields has handled himself with the poise of a franchise quarterback while also showcasing the drive of a rookie backup. The Bears (2-2) certainly took notice and couldn’t dismiss how he had blown up their plan.
Fields felt he had something to prove all along. He still does, which is why there's no time for celebration.
“I'm going to continue to grow,” Fields said. “Continue to get better and just try to work hard each and every day to get good wins on Sundays.”
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.