In my role as Optimist Prime and bringer of hope, I feel compelled to comfort Bears fans with an actual possibility — Justin Fields can still be The Guy.
The 2021 season for the Chicago Bears was dreadful due to many reasons. However, most expected the actual highlights to arrive in the form of (the real) QB1 - former Ohio State Buckeye gunslinger Justin Fields. He possesses everything you’d want to see for a prospect bidding to become a future franchise quarterback. Especially for a franchise that has truly never had such a player in its 100+ year history.
Throughout a rocky rookie season, those highlights and signs of real potential were put on display by Justin Fields. Yes, he had his apparent issues. Footwork, holding onto the ball too long, playing hero ball when the day can’t be saved, etc.
Guess what? Most QBs who go onto having successful NFL careers faced the same issues during their rookie season. And, guess what else? Real progression was shown by Justin while facing a slate of eventual playoff contenders. Overall, completion percentage increased, yards per attempt increased, decision-making and the timing of his throws improved from the nightmare in the Dawg Pound to his final game against the Vikings. Real improvement was seen from start to end.
The numbers are almost never pretty during any rookie QB season. Justin Fields falls into that category as my curmudgeon counterpart suggests. But, as you all will see, it’s not always about raw statistics when determining the prospects of success or failure. Especially after just one season in the big leagues.
He Has Performed Better Than The Numbers Suggest - Blame the Coaching Staff
If this was purely a fantasy points driven league or one dependent on their Madden ratings, then yes, Justin Fields is squarely a bust to the eyes of most fans. I full-heartedly agree with Josh’s assessment that the Cleveland game was indeed an act of attempted homicide by Matt Nagy on his own hand picked rookie QB. Hell, even Justin Fields himself was pissed off about the game plan. Who wouldn’t be - oh, wait, the guy who developed said plan. A display of systemic sabotage if one may suggest.
Something dangerous has taken over the league as of late. That dangerous development is dismissing a young QB way too quickly, particularly one that was so royally screwed over by their own (former) coach. The QB draft classes in general between 2011 and 2018 have been historically bad. A fascinating fact to mention here - a majority of QBs Justin Fields was compared to were all draft picks by the Cleveland Browns. A franchise that might be even worse than the Bears when looking for their guy.
My single biggest issue when depending on raw numbers and data like Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt or Passer Rating is they can be a huge byproduct of the environment said QBs are stuck within. “QBs are the single biggest eraser to any offense.” Kind of - it does not excuse a team from utilizing a piss poor developmental strategy, or game plans, or lack of effort in obtaining credible building blocks around the QB, etc. As someone who has a professional background in data analytics myself, data can be skewed in any possible way to paint any possible picture. Never ignore the data completely, but use sound judgment and every possible resource when making an evaluation. Always look for contrasting data prior to drawing a conclusion. I’ll post another resource below.
A key form of data not utilized in the case against Justin Fields is Big Time Throws % created originally by PFF. Per their own definition, a Big Time Throw is “a pass of the highest end of both difficulty and timing.” Yes, PFF is not the most popular source, but there is credible information to be had. In particular, dating back to 2011, Justin Fields ranks 7th amongst all rookie QBs in Big Time Throws % with a whopping 6.1%. The only QBs ranked higher are Cam Newton; Russell Wilson; Deshaun Watson; Andrew Luck; Baker Mayfield; and Matt McGloin. The later two guys aren’t household names, but take a peek at the first four names.
Here’s what distinguishes Justin Fields from his peers. He not only made plenty of big time throws, he was forced to attempt a lot of big time throws. Matt Nagy never tailored his offense to a prized rookie QB learning that system for the first time. It is *not* an easy offense to pick up. In fact, in some cases, it appeared Matt Nagy simplified his offense for the veteran backup QBs instead. A most severe case of coaching malpractice.
The concepts utilized while Andy Dalton or Nick Foles were the starting QBs asked those veterans to take far fewer risks downfield than Justin Fields. Where was the screen game while Justin Fields was under center? Where were the slants despite having the best receiver in the league – Allen Robinson – when it came to running slants? Where was the diversity in layered route combinations – a staple I’m sure new OC Luke Getsy is already installing – that we were so used to seeing in Philly while Mike Vick was the starting QB? Why did Matt Nagy continue to ask Justin Fields to execute the hardest route combinations in terms of timing and tight windows? All of that, along with the useless pass protection concepts shown throughout the season, placed Justin Fields in a position to fail. Almost intentionally in a bid to have Andy Dalton return to the lineup once healthy.
It’s one thing if Andy Dalton lit up the scene and Justin Fields played like an absolute rookie. It’s the complete opposite when every QB who has played under Matt Nagy has struggled to produce exceptional results consistently. When everybody is bad in your system, your system and philosophies are even worse. Hanging a QB out to dry systemically is worse than simply not getting the talent around them. That is what appears to happen when looking past the numbers and metrics. Just what the hell was Matt Nagy aiming to accomplish?
His Pedigree Is Just Fine
I’ve never chastised former Bears GM Ryan Pace on his decisions to move up for either Mitchell Trubisky or Justin Fields during those two drafts. Rather, the level of stupidity shown in the veteran “bridge” QBs chosen for each situation is what stands out to me. I absolutely abhor the concept of any “bridge” QB signed as a way to stash the rookie onto the bench and absorb the game like a sponge.
Here’s the thing with bridge QBs - it’s almost always a move made following the recommendation of the HC presiding the team. John Fox wanted Mike Glennon in an attempt to recapture the magic observed from the Jake Delhomme signing by the Carolina Panthers years ago. Matt Nagy wanted Andy Dalton as a veteran QB following their failed attempt of trading for Russell Wilson. Both veteran HCs were facing “win or else” situations and didn’t want to put their trust into a rookie. At least, until their veteran saviors turned into their veteran nightmares. The fault lies squarely on both the HC and the GM in any bridge QB situation. There’s no way around that.
When anyone attempts a bridging situation at the QB position… you actually have to have a credible veteran already under center. For instance, Alex Smith had already been with the Kansas City Chiefs since 2013 prior to the Chiefs selecting Pat Mahomes in the fabled 2018 draft. Brett Favre had already re-written the history books for the Green Bay Packers until Aaron Rodgers fell to their laps in 2005. Drew Bledsoe had been the guy for the New England Patriots since 1993 before the legend of Tom Brady began. Even Jon Kitna was decent for the Cincinnati Bengals from his signing 2001 up until they selected Carson Palmer in the 2003 draft.
In direct comparison, both Mike Glennon and Andy Dalton were signed the same offseason their eventual replacements were drafted. And… they’re learning the playbook at the exact same time that rookie is learning said playbook. What were Mitchell Trubisky and Justin Fields supposed to learn from Mike Glennon and Andy Dalton, respectively?
What was worse with Matt Nagy is the documented history of his complete refusal to allow Justin Fields any chance at winning the starting job under center. John Fox at the least hinted Mitchell Trubisky could take reps away from Mike Glennon leading into the 3rd preseason game. Also, Mitchell Trubisky took reps with the 2nd team offense once the regular season was underway. Justin Fields was assigned to the freakin’ scout team! Competition breeds excellence when done right. Don’t tell the rookie “no” just for the sake of preserving veteran privilege.
Lastly, you don’t draft the player under the college logo. You draft the player that is the player. Ohio State has a god awful history of QBs trying to survive the pros. So did Michigan, aside from Tom Brady. And Cal, besides Aaron Rodgers. And Tennessee… with the exception of Peyton Manning. I could go on and on.
Ryan Pace was a fool in how he handled the construction of the QB position group. His coaches did him no favors whatsoever. Justin Fields might actually have a chance at success now with the complete overhaul of philosophies and *gasp* building the system around the QB.
He (Still) Has Inadequate Support… Or Does He?
I wrote that subtitle while fully admitting to my absolute disdain towards how the Bears have approached this 2022 off-season. I’m still not a fan of the current results. What, with the humongous questions at receiver and the O-line still remaining unsolved. Justin Fields needs help, there’s no argument against that. Very little help, outside of a few additions and a complete change in schematics, has been brought to Chicago so far. That is generally an idiot’s game to assume scheme by itself will be the biggest difference for any QB entering year two.
In complete honesty, an even dumber situation happened in Chicago when Ryan Pace couldn’t figure out how to fill out his receiving corps with top notch talent. He basically told Allen Robinson, one of his crown jewels from the 2018 offseason, to kick rocks in the 2021 offseason. A majority of his draft picks didn’t stick at receiver as well. Aside from Darnell Mooney, that is. It is unbelievable how Ryan Pace repeated identical mistakes when attempting to build around Mitchell Trubisky and Justin Fields - the tools and weapons provided to them were either dull or misfired completely. And the O-line… oof.
However, there is the possibility that Justin Fields’ best possible support may already be in the building. I’ve previously considered this idea as outlandish. It’s still a far fetched concept that can fail spectacularly. But, there’s no denying that WR Darnell Mooney is a sneaky good fit into what’s set to happen on the Bears’ offense. OL Teven Jenkins is still a mystery and essentially a rookie after being mismanaged in every possible way last season. TE Cole Kmet took a few steps in the positive direction last year, especially when he finally got into a groove with Justin Fields. And I definitely think Luke Getsy will have a lot of fun utilizing David Montgomery as a weapon to inflict massive amounts of abuse on defenses.
The draft hasn’t happened yet either. Amazingly, Ryan Pace made the brilliant decision to get the Bears’ QB during a draft class loaded with talent in 2021. Now, Ryan Poles takes over, and the 2022 draft is deep at both receiver and the O-line. Receivers in particular have exploded onto the scene as rookies in recent years. Having 3 picks on Day 2 will be huge when considering these factors.
Of course, there’s still time for Ryan Poles to make some credible additions on the veteran market as well. Lately, we’ve seen some of the biggest splashes made late into the league year. It has been known the Bears are active in the trade market, just not pulling the trigger on any major deals aside from shipping Khalil Mack to the Los Angeles Chargers. A move I’m still incensed by, yet I understand the logic behind it. They were in on receiver Robert Woods before he was dealt to the Tennessee Titans. They could, still, be making phone calls around the league. Particularly once the draft has concluded.
It’s way too damn early to fold on Justin Fields. The situation and adversity he faced as a rookie were so extreme, there’s almost no historical equivalent. Most teams pick bad QBs and attempt to build around them as quickly as possible. In Justin Fields’ case, he might very well be the correct choice at QB, but placed in such a bad position by their former GM and coaching staff. Environment absolutely matters with any QB situation.
Jay Cutler is the closest thing the Bears have had to an actual franchise QB. Jerry Angelo picked right, he just failed to capitalize on his Ron Wolf-esque strategy. Once Ron Rolf landed Brett Favre in that trade for the Green Bay Packers years decades ago, he built around him immediately. Jerry Angelo, on the other hand, kicked the cans down the road and made feeble “cost effective” attempts at building up the O-line or receiving corps. It wasn’t until 2012 and Phil Emery’s arrival that actual weapons were acquired in the receiving corps. And, in 2013, a solid O-line was constructed. Then… Well, Phil Emery missed just about everything else. Which led to Ryan Pace taking over in 2015, and the rest is history.
I will say that, until further moves are made, Justin Fields faces an uphill battle in 2022. The receiving corps is still paltry. The O-line is still a mess. I’ve broken many tables for a difference maker to be brought in at those positions. Which is easier said than done at this point.
To dismiss Justin Fields right now is simply shortsighted. Data and history will make us nervous when looking at what we’ve seen so far. New history is being made every single season. I’ve seen just enough out of QB1 to say he can be the guy. That will only happen if Matt Eberflus, his coaching staff, and Ryan Poles’ crew in the front office can do their jobs collectively.
Time is ticking.
Earlier today Josh Sunderbruch presented the flip-side argument that the odds are stacked against Justin Fields becoming a franchise saving player we all want him to be, and you can check that out here.