The excitement and anticipation for the first start of Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ career are palpable. He’ll take the field this Sunday against the Cleveland Browns in the same state he dominated for the Buckeyes, but it’s important to maintain reasonable expectations for the first-time starter.
Fields joins fellow first-round rookies Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars), Zach Wilson (Jets), and Mac Jones (Patriots) as a starting quarterback this weekend, with Lawrence, Wilson, and Jones lining up for their third starts. Lawrence threw three touchdowns and three interceptions in his debut against the Houston Texans—a loss. Wilson kicked off his career in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers, completing 20-of-37 passes for 258 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception in a losing effort. Jones, also in a losing effort against the Miami Dolphins, completed 29-of-39 for 281 yards, one touchdown, and zero interceptions.
Lawrence was an uninspiring 14-of-33 in his follow-up effort, Wilson regressed in Week 2 with four interceptions, and Jones was a pedestrian game-manager in New England’s first win.
Every player is different, of course, and Fields has a chance to make the biggest first impression of the four because of his ability to make plays with his legs. His rushing talent will keep the Browns defense honest and on its heels, potentially creating opportunities downfield for players like Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney. Tight end Cole Kmet admitted the Bears will, at times, be playing a version of backyard football with Fields behind center.
“With Justin, there’s the play that’s called and then there’s the second play that turns into kind of some backyard football,” Kmet said Tuesday. “You know I’m going to be getting some sprints in after practice.”
Fields’ start this weekend won’t be his first gameday experience, which helps. He entered Week 1 for a few designed plays, and his number was called in relief of an injured Andy Dalton in Week 2—he played the entire second half. Fields flashed his exciting blend of arm talent and escapability during that extended action in a preview of an offense that’s of the sort Chicago’s never had.
But it’s not all rainbows and butterflies waiting for Fields on Sunday. The Browns are a talented defense that’s primed and ready to face a mobile quarterback. Cleveland plays the NFL’s best dual-threat quarterback twice a year: Lamar Jackson. No matter how talented we think Fields is or can be, he has a long way to go before he stresses a defense as much as Jackson does.
Still, Fields has the advantage of the unknown. No defense has seen him with a week of starter’s reps in practice. The Fields we saw against the Bengals isn’t the same Fields the Browns will see on Sunday.
It’s critical to remember another important point. The outcome of the game, while obviously significant, isn’t nearly as relevant as how Fields’ play is defined. As long as the Bears don’t lose because of a mistake that he makes or because he’s completely ineffective, then the outcome is at least a push. If Fields shines and the Bears still lose, it’ll be a successful day for him. It’ll be the first step in proving he’s a player Chicago can build around.
Similarly, if the Bears win in spite of Fields, if they overcome mistakes he makes that should’ve otherwise cost the team the game, the victory will feel hollow. How he plays is much more important than the final score.
Stats are king these days, whether via analytics or fantasy football. So it’s only fitting to make a prediction about what Fields’ final stat line will be. So, here it goes: 20-of-33, 207 yards, two passing touchdowns; 11 carries, 60 yards.
That would qualify as a good day at the office and a strong box score for Fields’ first start. It will be elevated to a great outing if the Bears win because again, those numbers mean the Bears won because of—not in spite of—Fields.
The Browns’ defense ranks 14th in total yards allowed, 23rd in passing yards per game, ninth in rushing yards per game, and 20th in points allowed. Essentially, it’s a middle-of-the-pack group so far this year. There will be opportunities for Fields to make plays.
It’s time for him to go make them.