The Chicago Bears are experiencing the normal growing pains that come along with a first-round rookie quarterback. Justin Fields has been equal parts frustrating and exciting over the last few weeks, and in Week 15’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, it was apparent that his 2021 season isn’t going to have a sudden ‘ah-ha moment’ over the next three games.
Fields’ struggles aren’t entirely his fault, however. In fact, he’s probably the least culpable for what’s plagued his game. The Bears’ lack of playmakers and somewhat shaky offensive line have forced Fields into becoming a ‘swing for the fences’ player right now. He’s always looking for the field-flipping play, even if he’s left to do most of that flipping on his own.
The fact that Fields has been sacked 36 times this season is proof that he’s waiting too long for that big play to develop. And while Bears fans certainly appreciate his desire to create, it’s cost the team a chance to build momentum at times. Fields took one of those 36 sacks against Minnesota when he was waiting for a screen intended for running back Damien Williams to develop. As Matt Nagy said, it was a learning experience for the rookie.
“That would be the lesson there,” Nagy said this week. “We always talk about, is it dart or free throw? What that means is when you get back, it’s a rocker step. You set it up. Now you’re gonna let the defensive end come get you. We want to have the defensive end rush you. It’s the quarterback’s job to throw a dart or free throw. Dart meaning you gotta laser it to him or free throw meaning it’s over the top.
“What happened was, he kinda jumped a little bit … and he got caught trying to make the throw. He made a good decision of … in his eyes he felt like it was gonna get tipped. He pulled it back down. The problem is he got caught in mid-air and wasn’t able to dirt it.”
A bad decision by Fields led to a bad result—a 14-yard loss—for the Bears. Chicago was still in the game at that point, trailing the Vikings 10-0. Who knows what may have happened on that possession if, as Nagy put it, Fields ‘dirted it.’
But if we’re doing an honest assessment of Fields’ first year on the job, we can’t ignore the fact that the coach who’s charged with helping him learn from those lessons is also putting Fields in some awful—just AWFUL—situations. Take this horrendous coaching blunder by Nagy on 4th-and-1, a play that clearly demanded a timeout because of the chaos and confusion caused by David Montgomery being forced off the field with an equipment issue:
There’s no lesson to be learned there. Instead, it’s just Fields being a sacrificial rookie quarterback. He had no chance, at all, to convert in a big moment, and it had nothing to do with him.
Still, the Bears owe it to Fields to protect him from himself. The lessons he’s learning in the pocket are as important as the lessons he’s been forced to learn when he escapes it, too. He’s been subjected to many big (if not brutal) hits over the last few weeks, including this near-knockout by Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, which resulted in Kendricks’ ejection:
The big hits are only part of the risk Fields has taken when on the move. His ball security has been a problem, and it was on display in front of a national audience Monday night:
And while all of those concerns need work, Fields’ raw talent is simply undeniable. Check out this throw to Darnell Mooney:
As for that whole playmaking mentality? Fields’ final throw of the game resulted in his seventh touchdown of the season, and it was a great display of his ability to keep plays alive with his legs while slinging a laser with his right arm:
The bottom line is this: Fields’ rookie season is going to end with an incomplete grade. The haters will refer to his stats as evidence that he’s been a disappointment while his advocates will point to Nagy and the depth chart to claim he’s actually excelled. The truth right now lies somewhere in between, which is fine.
With a new coach and upgrades in the wide receiver room, Fields’ jump from year one to year two is expected to be significant. But for the rest of the 2021 season, it’ll be more of the same ups and downs from the Bears’ QB1.