LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Justin Fields' arrow was trending up after back-to-back impressive performances against two bad defenses. The calls for Caleb Williams had subsided. The fringe asks to bench Fields have quieted.
Fields played well in Weeks 4 and 5, but the Bears need to see 12 more weeks of relatively consistent growth to be confident in putting all their chips behind him as the franchise quarterback.
Fields is exciting and incredibly talented. Of that, there's no doubt. But it takes more than flashes to be an NFL quarterback, and the cold truth is the Bears are still looking to find their quarterback.
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There's still a chance Fields is the guy. Given the up-and-down nature of his play and the bad habits he can't break (holding the ball too long, dropping eyes), I'd say it's an uphill climb. But Fields can still cement his position as the franchise signal-caller.
However, Fields' dislocated right thumb, an injury that will at least force him to miss Sunday's game against the Las Vegas Raiders, if not more, will allow the Bears to get a real look at another young quarterback.
Tyson Bagent has climbed the depth chart since he arrived at rookie minicamp after going undrafted out of Division II Shepherd University.
Bagent impressed during the preseason and played well enough to force the Bears to cut backup quarterback P.J. Walker despite the veteran having guaranteed money on his deal. Bagent holds the NCAA's all-time record for touchdown passes, has shown the Bears a "hunger" to develop, and earned his teammates' belief with his confidence and poise.
The Bears like Bagent and now will get a controversy-free opportunity to give him QB1 reps in practice and have him start one or multiple games to see where he is and if there's real room for him to grow into a franchise quarterback.
"His work habits, his functional intelligence on the football field, his acumen in the classroom being able to operate is very high," head coach Matt Eberflus said Monday of Bagent at Halas Hall. "He's able to chunk a bunch of information together and simplify in his mind to understand concepts. I think his release is really quick. I like that. I like how he sees the field. He's very patient, very poised in there and it's a good opportunity for Tyson."
Bagent going from an undrafted rookie out of Division II Shepherd University to Bears franchise quarterback would be the kind of tale that only materializes on silver screens. There's undoubtedly a much better chance that Fields is the Bears' quarterback in 2024 than Bagent.
But if you're a team still on the ground floor of a rebuild with uncertainty at the sport's most important position, you have to see what you got. Brock Purdys don't appear often, but you won't know if you have one if you never see what he can do when thrown in the fire.
With Fields unable to grip a football, the Bears now get the chance to turn things over to Bagent and get a real look at what he can do.
"I feel like a talented arm, confidence," cornerback Jaylon Johnson said of Bagent on Monday. "I feel like he just carries himself, I feel like different than a normal rookie quarterback, undrafted. So I mean, it's not surprising because he honestly surprised me because I didn't know he was that Division II quarterback that set all them records. When I found out, everything started to make sense.
"He knows he can play at a high level, he knows he can sling the ball, and he knows he can play at a high level at the end of the day."
Bagent entered Sunday's 19-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings and led a nine-play, 77-yard touchdown drive on which he went four-for-four for 55 yards. He capped off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run. He also turned the ball over twice -- a strip-sack and game-sealing interception -- in what was a mixed bag in his NFL debut.
It probably wasn't fair to expect much from Bagent against the Vikings. He came in cold and had to operate a game plan built around what Fields does well. He executed it well, got the ball out quickly, and targeted DJ Moore several times.
"He's got something to him," an NFC scout told NBC Sports Chicago about Bagent. "He's got a live arm and processes quickly. It's going to be a big jump for him to go from D-II to the NFL and find any kind of consistent success. But there's a lot to like. He's a hard worker with raw talent. When you combine the two, good things can happen."
Depending on the swelling in Fields' thumb and when his grip strength returns, Bagent could be looking at a several-week audition. If Bagent starts multiple games, the Bears will get a good gauge of where he's at and whether or not there's enough there to hope that they might have unearthed a Division II diamond.
That the Bears get this look without making a real quarterback change is a plus.
Fields has been up and down through five-plus games. There have been duds and flashes of brilliance. The same issues that have plagued him through the first two seasons have been prevalent throughout the early part of the season. The potential and talent that had teams drooling over Fields coming out of Ohio State remain, but eventually, the theoretical has to become reality.
Fields entered the NFL as high-ceiling prospect built for the modern NFL. I firmly believe that if you play his career 10 times, this might be the worst possible outcome and Fields owns almost no responsibility in that outcome. He was drafted by a lame-duck general manager-coach combination before playing on a stripped down roster in a critical year for his development in 2022.
Fields has all the talent to be great, but the Bears' organization has given him little chance to succeed. He should still be their primary option, but his injury gives them an opening to get a look at something different.
In the NFL, there's not much time for that change to occur. It either happens fast, or a team moves on. That's life at the highest level.
Finding a quarterback is an inexact science. Sometimes, the unlikeliest candidate takes the mantle and never gives it back.
It's rare, but it happens.
Now the Bears get to see if it might happen to them. If the NFL gods might finally bestow a gift upon them.
The most likely scenario is that Bagent has some good moments but looks like a D-II quarterback taking a big jump in competition.
The chances of him being the franchise savior that Purdy appears to be or that unlikely legends Tom Brady and Kurt Warner became are so minuscule it would take a doctorate in mathematics to fully calculate.
"Fields' best is better than Bagent's best," the NFC scout said. "But based on what the Bears want to do on offense, Bagent could have a steadier floor than some of the poor games we've seen from Fields. It's a free roll to find out. "
There's enthusiasm around what Bagent might become around Halas Hall. He has the raw tools, the work ethic, the football IQ, and the confidence.
Now, the Bears will find out if all of that can (one day) equal something special. They can find out what Tyson Bagent is all about when he gets all the practice reps, and the game plan is tailored to what he does best. They can do so without a hint of controversy.
If Bagent thrives, perhaps they found something special where few looked. If he wilts under the pressure, they can hand the keys back to Fields when he's healthy.
It might be the only no-lose situation the 2023 Bears face all season.