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Bears QB Justin Fields is not beating the odds

It’s worth asking whether or not Fields was ever given a chance at all.

Washington Commanders v Chicago Bears Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

Six months ago, I wrote that the odds were against Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields. I expressed concern that despite his “elite traits,” he had an uphill battle in establishing himself as The Guy. At that time, my concerns were based on three lines of analysis: his problematic play to that point in time, the questionable judgment of the man who drafted him, and the low quality of his surrounding cast. This time, it’s worthwhile to handle these concerns in reverse order before making a general observation on the state of the quarterback position in Chicago. For the sake of clarity, I want to note that unlike many of my more data-driven pieces, I have added a greater-than-usual amount of personal commentary.

Fields Has Inexcusable Support

When I wrote the initial article in April, the Chicago Bears were on the cusp of a draft with a deep receiver class. Sitting with two second-round picks, there was hope that Chicago’s roster was about to improve in such a way as to help Fields turn the corner, but I urged caution in expecting too much. In addressing concerns over the roster, I wrote the following:

Fans might be hoping that the draft will fix some of these issues, and it might. However, only 6% of players drafted after the first round make the Pro Bowl in their first five years and under half even play in 40 games across the next 80. In other words, without a first round pick in 2022—due to the trade to secure Fields in the first place—the chances of drafting a quality player to support Fields in his second year are dramatically reduced.

Ryan Poles responded to the challenge by barely even trying to support Fields. The first three picks in Chicago’s draft went to a pair of defensive backs and a special teams player. Thus, Fields has been limited to the cast assembled over the Pace years and during a very tepid free agency.

The “major” wide receiver acquisition was Byron Pringle, who has contributed 26 offensive snaps. Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet are combining for under 60 receiving yards per game. The running game has come on with greater strength than I anticipated (7th, with 5.2 yards per attempt), but those runs are doing little to make life easier on Fields. One explanation is that the running game is actually being driven by a boom-or-bust style of playing. Under 24% of all rushing attempts are resulting in first downs, and 733 of Chicago’s 1025 rushing yards have come in situations where they needed 10+ yards to go (and they’ve only been averaging 6.14 yards in those situations).

Meanwhile, there are the continued struggles of the offensive line. My assessment at the time was grim:

There is exactly one “reliable” player on the offensive line in the form of Cody Whitehair, with Lucas Patrick being a strong contender for the same label. Patrick, at least, is familiar with Luke Getsy’s system. However, neither Jenkins nor Borom are proven tackles. Fans can project that they will play well, and they can even assume that Jenkins will suffer no additional back issues, but neither player is more than a projection at the moment. Also, there’s Sam Mustipher.

While Jenkins has been a true bright spot at right guard, Whitehair’s injury and the confusion surrounding Lucas Patrick’s role (and even ability) has not helped with the league-leading 16.7% sack rate Fields is suffering. To be fair to Poles, he did draft a left tackle. In fact, Braxton Jones arguably represents the greatest investment in the offense made since I wrote my original piece...and he was drafted in the fifth round.

Commentary: I have no explanation for ESPN’s supposed “pass block win rate” score, which consistently considers Chicago’s offensive line better than most in the league. I have seen plays that they consider to be objective wins in favor of the line simply not match the visual evidence in front of me when I take a stopwatch to the same plays.

His Pedigree Is (More) Suspect

As noted above, the offensive roster around Fields was largely assembled by Ryan Pace, the same man who drafted him. The other quarterback Pace traded up to draft is actually playing better than Justin Fields at the moment, but by no means is he playing well. Mitchell Trubisky’s 80.1 passer rating is enough to create a small amount of controversy over whether or not the Man from Mentor should start for the Steelers or whether or not that honor should go to Kenny Pickett, but Trubisky is playing about the same as Cooper Rush and Davis Mills in terms of passer rating and around Daniel Jones in terms of Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt.

Meanwhile, “bridge” Mike Glennon is out of the NFL, “acquired by trade from the Jags” Nick Foles is backing up Matt Ryan in Indianapolis, and Andy Dalton is proving to be the valedictorian of the Ryan Pace Quarterback Club.

It’s worth noting here that Dalton provides at least an anecdotal example that the quarterback is at the mercy of his team situation, in that while playing for the Cowboys, Dalton posted career-typical numbers (87.3 across 11 games compared to the 87.5 he averaged in Cincinnati), but in Chicago he fell to a meager 76.9. Then, freed from the Windy City, Dalton has edged ahead of his career average to a 90.6 passer rating in New Orleans.

Commentary: Another way of looking at all of this is that at the cost of nine draft picks (including three first-rounders) and roughly $55million in free agency contracts, Ryan Pace was able to identify one player who doesn’t play that badly once he gets to New Orleans.

He (Still) Has Not Performed Well

In April, I removed the Cleveland game from Fields’ record to set a baseline of 590 snaps and a passer rating of 75.78. This season, on 346 snaps, Fields has played worse by some measures (his passer rating is only 72.7), but he has made marginal improvements in terms of yards per attempt and touchdown rate, while also seeing an increase in interception rate and sack rate with a decrease in his completion percentage. As a whole, he has the 32nd highest passer rating of quarterbacks who qualify at Pro Football Reference, and he’s 33rd in Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (though he climbs to 29th if we limit ourselves simply to net yards per attempt). His 144.8 yards per game land him at 36th, one spot behind the man he replaced—Mitchell Trubisky.

Commentary: I have recently explored how unlikely it is for a quarterback to come back from a slow start—let alone a slow restart as well—but here I need to offer a few explanations about why this is the case.

First, defenses study quarterbacks. It is true that the more Fields plays, the more he is able to learn. However, the more he plays the more other teams are able to learn about him. New quarterbacks and quarterbacks coming off the bench frequently have a small surge in their performance because the defense that they are facing is not ready for them. However, as quarterbacks settle into their habits, defenses settle into how to explore those habits. To put it into gaming terms, the other side gets to level-grind, too.

Second, teams are rate-limited in how quickly they can improve the situation for quarterbacks. There are no two-a-days since the 2011 collective bargaining agreement. There are only so many talented support players available in free agency or via the draft. Thus, while some quarterbacks (like Geno Smith) can experience a resurgence after a long layoff and in a completely new situation, a quarterback playing in consecutive seasons on the same team is likely to experience the same problems.

Fields can have all of the drive to succeed imaginable, but the avenues open for him to improve only allow so many opportunities.

Chicago Needs to Build an Offense, not Find a Quarterback

Six months ago, I referenced Jay Cutler as a player who could win games for his team. I pointed out that three of Cutler’s first five years in Chicago were at or above the league average for passer rating. While Fields has yet to reach that level of performance for the Bears, Cutler provides an archetype for how Chicago sets up quarterbacks to fail.

Cutler (then only 25) was acquired for two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Kyle Orton (himself a starting quarterback). Cutler was then expected to work with the weapons around him and to succeed with a defensive head coach. After three years of struggles, the team finally started adding more offensive weapons around him by trading for Brandon Marshall after first trying to change up the offensive system. Mitchell Trubisky was acquired for four draft picks (including a first-rounder) and was expected to work with the weapons around him and succeed with a defensive head coach. After he struggled, the team found him exactly one wide receiver and then tried to change up the offensive system.

Fields is now once more being asked to work with what is around him, and it is not very much. While he started with an offensive coach, it was a coach with a pink slip already filled out and awaiting delivery. He is now on a team with a defensive head coach trying to change its offensive system. Here is what I said in April:

However, without fan goggles, I see a poorly constructed team that will drag down an incomplete quarterback who is trying to develop into a league-average starter. I see a player whose gifts will make him a fascinating “what if” story, if anything. I hope I am wrong. I want Justin Fields to prove me wrong.

Commentary: Fields is about to face two defenses in the top ten in terms of how stingy they are regarding passer rating allowed. If I am not wrong, and if Fields continues to struggle, Chicago should still give Fields an actual chance at success, even if it turns out to be too little and too late (and even if, as critics suggest, Fields was never going to be worth the investment made in him). It is time for Chicago to stop asking young men to fix the problems created by the older men who run the team. Chicago needs to build a functioning offense before spending yet more draft capital on a player who is simply going to be crushed by the poor decisions made above them.

Ryan Poles needs to do what Chicago has traditionally avoided doing. He needs to make regular and consistent investments in the offense and then–if the need is still there–he can try to find a new quarterback to run that offense.