In my role as curmudgeon and ruiner of joy, I feel compelled to confront Chicago Bears fans with a harsh reality — Justin Fields is probably not going to be The Guy.
Justin Fields undeniably possesses elite traits. He is an intelligent player and an exceptional athlete despite any apparent concerns. As one profile stated shortly after he was drafted, his “combination of athleticism, arm strength and the ability to adjust throws on the fly help make up for the concerns that often show up in his scouting report: the lackluster footwork, the lackluster mechanics, the limitations of the scheme he ran in college.”
Another write-up explained some of the advantages he has going for him heading into his next year: “He will look great running the bootleg, has the arm strength to chuck it anywhere down field, and the athleticism to take off and run it if there is room there. Yes, he is raw but [Getsy’s] offense keeps things simple for the quarterback so this should benefit him early on.”
What about those bad games last year? Partway through the season, one article explained the following: “[He] will still make some mistakes…He’s a rookie quarterback, and I think it’s been a little misleading to sit and watch … three, four games into the season and assume those players are going to play that way for the rest of the year…So he’ll make some mistakes, but that’s the way you grow, by being out on the field.”
It would be easy to find other, similar rationalizations about the young quarterback. After all, none of those quotations are actually about Justin Fields. They are all taken from articles on Paxton Lynch. Who, despite only lasting two years in the league, had a higher passer rating and career ANY/A than Justin Fields currently enjoys while fumbling on only 1.45% of his snaps taken–instead of fumbling on 1.89% of snaps taken like Fields.
So, taking off my fan goggles, what chance does Fields have of making it? Let’s look at the available lines of evidence.
He Has Not Performed Well
Remove the Cleveland game entirely from his record, setting it aside as attempted homicide by Matt Nagy. Fields has a passer rating of 75.78 on 590 snaps. To put that into context, across his first 636 snaps Jared Goff had a passer rating of 83.1 with 5 fewer fumbles and Blake Bortles had a passer rating of 72.19 on the first 641 snaps of his career. Can historical examples be found of successful passers who started with worse ratings? Of course. In the days when defensive backs could all but assault wide receivers and when offensive schemes were more limited, passer ratings in general were lower. In the era before modern roster construction rules, quarterbacks could take time to develop.
However, from 2011-2018, the only first-round quarterbacks who have posted worse passer ratings or Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt than Fields are Christian Ponder (PR), Blaine Gabbert (Both), Brandon Weedon (PR), Blake Bortles (PR), Jonny Manziel (Both), Josh Allen (PR), and Josh Rosen (Both).
Meanwhile the list of quarterbacks who have him beaten in at least one of those categories is diverse: Christian Ponder (ANY/A), Jake Locker (Both), Andrew Luck (Both), Robert Griffin III (Both), Ryan Tannehill (Both), Brandon Weedon (ANY/A), EJ Manuel (Both), Blake Bortles (ANY/A), Teddy Bridgewater (Both), Jameis Winston (Both), Marcus Mariota (Both), Mitchell Trubisky (Both), Patrick Mahomes* (Both), Deshaun Watson (Both), Baker Mayfield (Both), Sam Darnold (Both), Josh Allen (ANY/A), Lamar Jackson (Both).
Being outplayed by EJ Manuel and Sam Darnold is not a great predictor of future success. Instead of looking at the dozens of quarterbacks who have posted sub-80 passer ratings in their rookie campaigns only to fizzle out, fans might gravitate toward singling out Josh Allen. However, one exception does little to argue against the precedent, and this sort of reasoning (the argument from anecdote) is a recognized logical fallacy.
Yes, on individual plays Justin Fields has looked good. The same is true of virtually every quarterback drafted in the first round—except perhaps Josh Rosen. In order for a quarterback to be drafted in the first round, he needs to do some things well. However, on individual plays, Fields has also looked terrible. Thus, it’s not box score scouting to look for objective measures of his performance. It’s simply reasonable to try to capture his performance on net. In that regard, he has not played like a franchise quarterback. It’s not just passer rating and ANY/A. Neither of those stats captures fumble rating, which was a particular problem for Fields. He fumbled on average once per game, such a high rate that only one other quarterback in the NFL managed it last year–Mike Glennon.
Do players improve, especially after changing coaches? Sometimes, yes. However, many times what this shows is that there are coaches who are able to scheme around the flaws of their players, not players waiting for the right coaches to unlock their potential.
His Pedigree Is Suspect
This is not a reference to the idea that quarterbacks from particular schools do or do not perform well in the NFL. Unless those arguments reference specific coaches or systems, the laundry the athlete once wore is fairly irrelevant. However, it is a reference to the demonstrable judgment failures of the man who drafted Fields.
The key quarterback decisions made by Ryan Pace include making Mike Glennon (see above) the highest-paid free agent quarterback of 2017, trading up for Mitchell Trubisky, trading for and restructuring Nick Foles (currently the third-string quarterback on the team while counting more than $10million against the cap), and then signing Andy Dalton for another $10million. The actual move to draft Fields was in fact a dramatic overpay of resources in terms of draft capital, and it was a decision made by a GM with a demonstrable lack of ability at evaluating quarterbacks and likely influenced by a head coach with a demonstrable failure to coach.
In turn, Ryan Pace assigned high-level resources to a bridge that collapsed, then to a nice kid who is currently on his third team in a six-year career, followed by lighting a draft pick on fire for the right to overpay a quarterback who could not get along with the coach who supposedly wanted him, and next trying to resurrect the burned-out husk of a player who has demonstrated repeatedly that he is now a mid-range (at best) backup.
To assume that Ryan Pace must have gotten at least one correct before his tenure ended is to misunderstand how both probability and skill work. GM’s are not due wins, just like a player who has lost at blackjack ten times in a row is not suddenly due for a lucky streak, no matter what believers in the Monte Carlo fallacy would like to think.
Justin Fields’ potential as a passer is essentially based upon his 579 passing attempts at the Ohio State University and whether or not Ryan Pace did a better job of evaluating him on those attempts than he did of evaluating Mitchell Trubisky’s 572 passing attempts at North Carolina.
He Has Inadequate Support
Still, Fields does have elite traits. He has the intangibles. Sure, Ryan Pace drafted him, but he was a highly touted prospect that many draft gurus liked. What is the offensive talent that surrounds Justin Fields heading into the next season?
Newly acquired free agent receiver Bryan Pringle had 898 yards last season, so that’s almost a…no, wait, that’s 898 yards in his career. Pringle only had 568 yards last season (75th in the NFL), which seems to make him more Munchos than premier potato crisp. Darnell Mooney’s 1055 yards (19th) and Cole Kmet’s 612 yards (63rd) do not provide true offensive weapons, either. Is David Montgomery a decent running back? Yes. However, he’s a volume back who produces first downs on fewer than a quarter of his rushes. When the chips are down and you need 4 yards, he has a decent shot of getting you 3.8 (Sharp Football Analysis actually places his situational success rate at 47%, which means he is of the top 64 in the NFL; Khalil Herbert’s marginally better 50% success rate still has him ranked 47th).
Some might blame the offensive line for Montgomery’s struggles, but that only highlights the problems ahead of Justin Fields. 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.
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.
The last time I can recall being truly excited by watching a Chicago quarterback play, thinking that the quarterback’s performance—on its own—could give the team a chance to win, was when Jay Cutler was leading the Bears on what should have been a second playoff run before breaking his thumb.
Cutler was admittedly a polarizing player. He had all of the physical gifts that a fan could want. However, after Chicago spent two first round picks to acquire him, Cutler’s early career was defined by erratic play and bad habits developed behind a suspect line with inadequate weapons around him. The parallels to the position Fields now finds himself in are palpable. That said, Cole Kmet is no Greg Olsen and David Montgomery is certainly not a talent on Matt Forte’s level.
At this point as a Chicago fan, I actually miss Jay Cutler as a quarterback. While he would lose Chicago games with his poor decision-making, he would also win games with his talent. As of this moment, if Fields reaches the level of Cutler, with three of his first five seasons in Chicago at or above the average passer rating for the league, it would have to be considered a success. In fact, Cutler spent eight of his first ten years in the league at or above average-level performance. To a fan who has watched Chicago’s fortunes since then, that seems like a fairy tale.
To be clear, I like Justin Fields as much as I can like someone that I have never met. He seems thoughtful and poised, and he offers a compelling story to fans. Even if I were not a Chicago fan, I would want him to do well. As a Chicago fan, I feel a sense of desperate yearning that this time will be different when he takes the field. 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.
The odds are against him.
A little later today Erik Christopher Duerrwaechter will present the flip-side argument to this Justin Fields topic and you can read that here once it publishes.