The Chicago Bears knew they didn’t have the infrastructure to support a young quarterback when they traded two first round picks to move up for Justin Fields in the 2021 NFL Draft. In a league where nothing is more valuable than adding a QB on a rookie-scale contract to a win-now roster, the Bears chose to bring in Fields to an already decaying depth chart in a move motivated by nothing more than pure desperation.
Head coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace both should have been fired before they had the opportunity to draft Fields. Instead, Chicago’s comically incompetent ownership group let them have one more season before mercifully pulling the plug. Pace and Nagy had already failed at building a championship-caliber team in the wake of the infamous double-doink, with Pace’s trust-your-gut approach botching draft picks and salary cap space while Nagy twisted his brain into a pretzel every time he called a play. Bringing Fields into that mess was its own kind of Hail Mary: the current situation was unsalvageable, but perhaps Pace and Nagy could save their tarnished legacies by finally delivering Chicago a franchise quarterback before they were inevitably fired.
Fields possessed all the talent to be great. He was stamped as one of the best high school recruits of the century by 247 Sports. He was a superstar from the moment he stepped onto the field for Ohio State, throwing 41 touchdowns to three interceptions in his first year as a starter. He famously out-dueled Trevor Lawrence to beat Clemson in the College Football Playoff, putting together a brilliant six touchdown performance in the win despite playing most of the game with broken ribs.
Beyond his immaculate pedigree and staggering production, Fields also had overwhelming physical gifts that any armchair evaluator could see: he was built like a brick house at 6’3, 230 pounds, with a rocket launcher for a right arm and blazing speed certified by a 4.44 40-yard dash time. Most impressive of all, Fields was incredibly accurate every time he threw the football.
Fields had every component to be a superstar quarterback, but overcoming literally 100 years of Bears offensive ineptitude was going to be a monumental challenge in itself, even before factoring in the crumbling supporting cast around him.
The 2021 Bears will mostly be remembered for a tweet calling Andy Dalton “QB1” and the even more puzzling decision to give Dalton valuable first team reps in practice over Fields. When Fields eventually did find his way into the starting lineup, his debut against the Browns resulted in one of the worst offensive performances in NFL history: the Bears gained 47 yards on 42 plays, with the QB being sacked nine times behind a porous offensive line.
The Bears finally fired Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy after a 6-11 season. The sensible move would have been to invest every resource in Fields’ development. Instead, the Bears did basically the opposite of that.
New GM Ryan Poles hired head coach Matt Eberflus as his first move, choosing the Colts defensive coordinator over impressive offensive minds like Mike McDaniel and Brian Daboll. The Bears’ big move of free agency was signing Bengals defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a $40 million deal … only to see him fail his physical and have his contract voided. When the Bears came up in the draft, they spent their first two picks on defense as well, taking cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker over a few members of what was supposed to be a loaded wide receiver class.
The Bears lost their top receiver in the disappointing Allen Robinson in free agency, but didn’t replace him with anyone worthy of the same status. They lost arguably their best offensive linemen in James Daniels, too, and didn’t do much to replace him either (Chicago tried to sign Bills guard Ryan Bates, but Buffalo matched their offer sheet).
The Bears headed into the season with the most dead cap in the NFL and the smallest payroll in the league. This was supposed to be a year where the Bears would bottom out, give some young players a chance to prove themselves, and see what they had going into the next offseason when they would have more cap space than any team. It’s a plan that would have made plenty of sense if they didn’t already have the most talented QB in franchise history wasting away on a roster without any intention to support him.
The fear going into this season was that Fields’ development would be compromised by perhaps the NFL’s worst offensive line and worst group of wide receivers. Those fears have mostly played out through the Bears’ 2-4 start.
The Bears haven’t been able to protect Fields all season. After allowing more sacks than any team in 2021, Fields has again been sacked as much as any quarterback this season. He was drilled repeatedly in Chicago’s heartbreaking Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders, with a constant stream of pressure leading to some big hits on the QB’s body.
Updated QB/blocking sack numbers and improved the expected sack rate. Was able to add more detailed variables like number of pass rushers & dropback depth.
Fields looks bad, but his blocking is also is the worst with this update.
Herbert the best at preventing sacks pic.twitter.com/v7xfufzn2t
— Kevin Cole (@KevinColePFF) October 14, 2022
Justin Fields was pressured 18 times tonight, tied for the most in a game in his career.
Fields has now been pressured on 46% of his dropbacks this season, the highest rate of pressure a QB has faced in the first 6 games of a season since ESPN began tracking pressures in 2009. pic.twitter.com/ol5CdnPXK8
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) October 14, 2022
The wide receiver play has also been abysmal. Darnell Mooney made arguably the best catch of the season against the Vikings, but has mostly looked overmatched in a WR1 role. The Bears have no one alongside him who can truly threaten a defense: with free agent signing Byron Pringle on IR with a calf injury, the rest of the WR room is made up of players who barely deserve to be on an NFL roster. The pass catchers hit a low point when Ihmir Smith-Marsette was stripped during a potential game-winning drive against Minnesota.
The offensive playcalling has also been about as conservative as can be. The Bears are playing football like it’s 1982 instead of 2022, choosing to pound the run at the expense of exploring where Fields can be effective as a passer. The Bears threw the ball less than 20 times in each of their first three games, and still have by far the lowest passing percentage in the league.
A bad line, bad receivers, and poor playcalling has put every mistake from Fields under a microscope. Fields has missed open receivers and air-mailed throws to be sure, but each miss has felt more devastating than it should simply because the Bears give him so few opportunities to make a play in the passing game.
Surrounded by such marginal talent in every other spot on the offense, Fields has had to take it upon himself to give the Bears a chance to win. Somehow he’s done exactly that despite making plenty of errors himself.
In crunch time against Washington, Fields took off for a brilliant 39-yard scramble to put the Bears into the red zone. Once on the goal line, he made two game-winning touchdowns throws that his receivers either dropped or failed to score on.
Fields was on his way to another game-winning drive against Minnesota before the Smith-Marsette fumble. It would have mattered if this amazing touchdown run counted. Instead, it was brought back for a block in the back.
Fields has proven he can throw a nice deep ball, too. He hit Dante Pettis for an incredible throw for the Bears’ first touchdown against the Commanders, and has found Mooney a few times on deep shots as opposing defenses load up to stop the running game.
Fields doesn’t always see open receivers. He missed an easy touchdown throw in the second quarter against the Commanders. He still has a problem holding onto the ball too long when he drops back to pass. The physical tools are all there for Fields, but his processing can still run a little slow.
The early success of quarterbacks like Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes have put more pressure than ever on young quarterbacks to succeed. The reality is that even Mahomes and Herbert would have had trouble breaking out behind this Bears offensive line while throwing to these Bears receivers. Fields optimists only need to look at the third year improvement of Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts to see a developmental path the Bears’ QB can follow. Of course, Tagovailoa and Hurts play for teams that prioritized protecting them up front and surrounding them with game-breaking weapons in the passing game.
The Bears need to use their cap space and draft capital to fix this offense around Fields. They need a top-line, go-to receiver, and then one more competent pass catcher who can help move the chains. They need two new offensive linemen at minimum. Poles and Eberflus simply cannot continue adding to the defense before they address the pathetic offensive talent around their young QB.
There is still plenty of time for Fields to live up to the hype. He has the arm to make any throw, as long as he realizes it’s there. He has a special ability to extend plays and extend drives with his legs. The touch on his deep ball is real, and should be a major priority of the Bears’ passing attack moving forward.
For any of this to happen, though, Justin Fields needs some help. So far, the Bears haven’t given him any.