Column: Backup quarterbacks are traditionally a Chicago Bears fan’s best friend — until they aren’t

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Sitting in the north end zone of Soldier Field on Sunday during the third quarter of the Chicago Bears game with the Minnesota Vikings, I noticed quarterback Justin Fields heading toward the exit holding his right hand.

I nudged one of my friends and pointed to Fields.

“We (bleeped) now,” he said.

Neither of us had any idea Fields had been injured on a previous play, and we weren’t really sure who the backup was that day. Would it be the guy called “the Peterman” or the rookie whose first name escaped us?

It turned out to be the rookie, Tyson Bagent, who would be making his NFL debut.

We were all excited to witness the start of the Bagent era, knowing it couldn’t be much worse than the current era, or any recent era for that matter.

Bagent fumbled the ball away on the first series, but eventually righted himself and led a spirited fourth-quarter comeback that had Soldier Field rocking. I flashed back to my favorite unknown quarterback, Kent Nix, coming off the bench to spark a late win in my first game at Soldier Field.

Nix did it in the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1971. Could Bagent be Nix 2.0?

You know the rest of the story. Bagent’s underthrown pass to DJ Moore resulted in a drive-killing interception, and the Bears went on to lose 19-13. No one was really surprised. Not because we didn’t trust Bagent, but because we’ve watched the Bears long enough to know how this works.

Now Bagent reportedly will get an opportunity to show what he can do with a week of practice under his belt as the starting quarterback, thanks to Fields’ dislocated right thumb.

He’ll join a long list of backup Bears quarterbacks thrust into a starter’s role with a chance to erase the status quo. From Zeke Bratkowski to Mike Phipps, and from Mike Tomczak to Nick Foles, QB2 has been a central figure in the Bears’ history.

The franchise’s historic inability to find dependable starters always means there’s someone waiting in the wings to take over. And that person is typically the people’s choice, since the unknown is almost always preferable to the known when it comes to Bears quarterbacks.

Only when the backup becomes the main man do Bears fans realize they might have been a little too giddy about the new guy.

Fans clamored for Phipps over Bob Avellini, and then for Vince Evans over Phipps. Tomczak was the local boy who could do no wrong as Jim McMahon’s backup, until he could do no right as the full-time starter after McMahon’s exit.

We seemingly waited forever for Kyle Orton to replace Rex Grossman, and then saw him dealt for Jay Cutler, the only Bears quarterback disliked by a large segment of fans no matter how he performed on the field. We couldn’t wait for rookie Mitch Trubisky to replace the statuesque Mike Glennon, and then couldn’t wait for the Bears to draft someone new to replace Trubisky.

It’s been a vicious cycle of Bearsness our whole lives, and something we’ve learned to live with.

I recall as a young fan thinking Nix would be the one to lead the Bears back to glory. I was already tired of watching “old” Jack Concannon, who was only in his late 20s. After that comeback win over the Steelers, Nix came off the bench again to upset the Vikings and was then named a starter for the New Orleans Saints game. The Bears scored five first-half touchdowns in a 35-14 win to go 3-1, and a new star was born. Tribune Bears writer Cooper Rollow called him “the cool, implacable Kent Nix.” I was sold.

But Nix was injured the following week in a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, so I quickly found a new backup hero, the immortal Bobby Douglass, a left-handed QB who ran a lot and threw passes so hard it could break his receivers’ hands.

Douglass preceded Gary Huff, who eventually led to Avellini, and so on.

There was a Cade McNown and a Josh McCown; a Rusty Lisch and a Peter Tom Willis; a Henry Burris and a Chad Hutchinson. The litany of backup quarterbacks includes names that are remembered long after anything they did on the field is recalled, only because of the Bears’ storied inability to find someone who could actually get a football into a receiver’s hands.

I don’t know enough about Bagent to know whether he will succeed where the others didn’t. I do find it mind-boggling that Bears management made a totally inexperienced rookie the backup to a relatively inexperienced Fields based on a couple of preseason performances and expected him to be ready in mid-October.

But Bagent seems competent, poised and fearless enough to deserve his shot, and he’ll get the benefit of the doubt from fans Sunday if he starts against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Until he doesn’t. That’s the beauty and the curse of being the Bears’ backup quarterback. Everyone loves you when you’re on the sideline not throwing interceptions. But that new-car smell quickly wears off once they’ve seen you a few quarters and you still haven’t delivered.

Hopefully he succeeds in a short stint, and Fields returns soon to finish out the season that will decide whether he deserves a new deal, or whether the Bears need a new QB1.

Bears fans are always waiting on something. It’s what they do best.

Why should this year be any different?


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