I want to take you back to Week 13, if you’re willing to revisit another Bears’ loss to the Packers at Soldier Field.
It’s the fourth quarter. The Packers have just taken an inconspicuous one-point lead completely against the momentum of the game.
Justin Fields, 16 completions and 224 passing yards into quite possibly the best game we’ve ever seen him play, has a fresh set of downs on Green Bay’s 43-yard line. He drops back before stepping up into a collapsing pocket, unleashing the ball like he’s trying to break the sound barrier.
It’s confident, it’s quick, it’s pretty. This is pocket passing done right, another step in the ongoing development of the Bears’ mercurial sophomore passer. It’s what we all want to see.
The pass is intercepted by Packers’ cornerback Jaire Alexander. This isn’t an indictment on Fields. The Bears are running mirrored deep curls off play-action and the Packers are rotating to ‘middle field closed’ with a single deep safety after showing two deep safeties at the snap. Fields quickly identifies the rotation to single-high, recognizes that it gives him the green light to throw the deep curl along the numbers, and lets it rip.
It is everything we’ve needed to see from Fields as a pocket passer — an identification of a post-snap defensive rotation, a quick and confident decision, and a ball thrown with anticipation. It’s straightforward, yes, but for a player whose young career has been defined (only in part, of course) by struggles with the ‘easy’ stuff, it is a critical sign of development.
Equanimeous St. Brown, meanwhile, is running with cement in his feet at the top of his route, taking five whole yards to stop and come back to the football. Alexander, an All-Pro corner, swallows the route whole and calmly intercepts the pass.
Fields does everything right and everything he’s no doubt been taught to do, but his leading receiver on the day can’t separate. A complete rep ends in a game-ending turnover.
I also want to take you back to Columbus, Ohio, and the old stomping grounds that made Justin Fields one of the most highly regarded quarterback prospects of the last decade.
We know what kind of quarterback Fields wants to be.
He is a 6-foot-3, 228-pound terminator who can break any tackle and make any throw. Accordingly, Fields is desperate to throw the ball down the field to clearly defined targets. He knows he can deliver the ball anywhere on the field under any circumstance, armed with a gorgeous deep ball and arm talent that isn’t phased by big hits or funky platforms. Per Next Gen Stats, he’s ninth in the league this season in averaged intended air yards (8.9), and in 2021, he was third (9.5).
Ohio State knew it, too. Fields, by virtue of being a Buckeye, was surrounded by generational perimeter talents (three receivers who would become Top-15 picks) who could run for days but stop in the blink of an eye. The flashes in Columbus that made Fields a first-round pick came down the field, as Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and Jameson Williams dusted opposing corners on longer-developing routes before Fields’ unwavering arm strength and accuracy did the rest.
Fields excelled in college in part because Ohio State’s offense was so good at creating separation, through both schematic decisions and raw talent on the outside. OSU made things simple for Fields — their passing concepts developed slowly and down the field, didn’t have a lot of moving parts, and the receivers were so good that they were always clearly open. Identifying what was and wasn’t open and what should and shouldn’t have been thrown was relatively straightforward.
This isn’t to say that Fields wasn’t (or isn’t) a smart quarterback — he processed the concepts he was working well, consistently made good decisions, and was absolutely capable of moving past his first read. But it was a specific type of offense for a specific type of quarterback — an ultra-productive type, it should be noted — that was always going to require a specific supporting cast to replicate in the NFL.
And the Bears have tried to replicate it, as Fields — understandably — is striving to be largely the same quarterback in the NFL that he was in college. Almost all of Fields’ best throws throughout his two years in Chicago are strikingly similar to the ways that he won so consistently in college. His gorgeously placed Christmas Eve bucket shot to Velus Jones against the Bills lives in the same schematic world as his famous 60+ yard touchdown to Chris Olave in the 2021 National Semifinal against Clemson, for example.
But Fields’ underlying passing numbers in the pros are lightyears behind his production in college. Of course, this is mostly because the Bears don’t have the offensive personnel — separators at receiver, specifically — to create the offense Ohio State was able to create. Velus Jones and Darnell Mooney can both clearly separate with speed, but Jones can only run nine routes and jet motions at this point and Mooney, though theoretically having the tools to do it, has never been a consistent route runner in the NFL. Chase Claypool is an athletic marvel but has seemingly no idea how to use his talent, and even if he does eventually figure it out, it won’t make him a good separator at 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds.
The Bears have the receivers (and the quarterback) to be really, really good at throwing deep posts and go balls and just about nothing else. For what it’s worth, the Bears are really good at completing deep balls; they've completed 43 passes of 20 yards or more in 2022, one of the ten highest marks in the league. But the Bears certainly cannot do anything else, as they still have the worst total passing offense in the league by a comfortable margin.
Everything comes full circle back to the Bears’ Week 13 loss to the Packers and Fields’ interception to Jaire Alexander.
The Bears aren’t anywhere near a complete passing offense because they don’t have the separators to do it, but they also don’t have the quarterback to do it. Fields is a brilliant young playmaker and one of the most dominant athletes in the league, which was more than enough to make him one of college football’s most unstoppable players. The NFL isn’t that simple, and though Fields will continue to win with his talent as he did in college and on the myriad of unbelievable flashes he’s shown in the pros, he needs to improve in other areas for the Bears' offense to become one of the most consistently dangerous in the league.
Fields is a gunslinger in every sense, and therefore struggles with the hallmarks of quick-game passing. He’s never been consistent at deciphering what is and isn’t open in the short and intermediate levels of the field, he’s struggled with post-snap defensive rotations since his time at Ohio State, and he has seldom put anticipatory throws on tape.
If all of that sounds familiar, it’s supposed to. Those are the three biggest weaknesses in Fields’ game, and the three specific areas in which he was showing such critical signs of development on that interception to Alexander. It was an awesome, endlessly promising rep of the type that Fields has very rarely put on tape. And yet, for all of that good, his receiver can’t create an inch of separation at the top of his route, and the play becomes one that he will forever want to forget.
That turn of events is truly damaging, because all three of the skills where Fields was finally displaying improvement are built almost entirely on trust.
If Fields is to develop in these crucial areas, he’s going to need to trust his receivers, mainly on their ability to separate. Like it or not, if Fields doesn’t believe in his receivers to make the plays they need to make and is instead scarred by the memory of an anticipatory throw that ended in an interception, he’s never going to learn to throw with the confidence and the mental forecasting that pocket-passing requires.
And right now, the Bears simply don’t have receivers that are worth trusting. That’s what an elite separator — like Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson, or potentially Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Jordan Addison — do for a quarterback. They give them something to trust.
For Fields, a young quarterback who just needs to come to peace with calling someone’s number that isn’t his own, but still wants to make a living off the big play-hunting made possible by his generational talent, consistent separation is the most important thing.