For the last two weeks, we have been taking extra large doses of copium with a few facts on the side in order to explore ways that Chicago might have a winning football team sooner rather than later. This next idea requires challenging an assumption that is made all too often in fandom (and even in front offices) around the league.
What if Justin Fields can be a bridge to 2025? Supposedly, Caleb Williams has a list of teams he won’t play for, and the Chicago Bears are on it. He might have a point, because the team is in the midst of a year-long losing streak spanning two seasons, so it seems like it will likely take more than a new quarterback to change the fortunes of the club. In fact, relying on one player to change a team’s fortunes is how Chicago has been trapped in this downward spiral for far too long.
What if the Chicago Bears simply accept that they need to build a capable team before they go after a quarterback and they have Justin Fields play another year while investing their top two picks in some combination of offensive tackle, edge rusher, and high-end receiving threat? Actually, with a trade down to let a “more worthy” team take Williams, they might actually manage to grab all three. Fields is on track, at least loosely, to turn in a respectable mid-80s passer rating, which is probably not enough to keep him but is certainly enough to steady the ship and to let the rest of the roster develop.
Conventional wisdom argues that passing on a generational talent or even “just” a franchise quarterback when he is available is one of the worst things a franchise can do. The fear is that if the team lets this player slip through its grasp, they will always regret it. The regret might be there, but it’s not rational. In fact, the last two attempts to get “the guy” for Chicago have failed rather clearly. League-wide, drafting a quarterback without the infrastructure in place is a recipe for disaster.
From 2011-2019, nine quarterbacks were drafted with high picks to teams with fewer than three recent Pro Bowlers on them. Those quarterbacks are Daniel Jones, Dwayne Haskins, Derek Carr, Jake Locker, Marcus Mariota, Sam Darnold, Blaine Gabbert, Teddy Bridgewater, and Brandon Weeden. Of those, only two (Jones and Carr) earned a fifth year on their drafting teams. In fact, that’s not a good list.
Meanwhile, in addition to Jones and Carr, here are the other quarterbacks drafted from 2011-2019 whose teams later went on to extend them for at least a fifth year (i.e. the success stories) and the number of recent Pro Bowlers on their rosters when they started: Andrew Luck (3), Jared Goff (3), Josh Allen (3), Andy Dalton (3), Jameis Winston (4), Kyler Murray (4), Cam Newton (5), Carson Wentz (5), Ryan Tannehill (5), Patrick Mahomes (7), and Lamar Jackson (9). At the lower end of that list? Luck retired early, Goff and Allen struggled early, and Dalton was actually drafted in the second round behind an elite receiving weapon. This seems to suggest that maybe, just maybe, quarterbacks do better when they are on a roster that has the talent to help them out.
One of the arguments made against waiting to take a quarterback until after the rest of the team is built is that the team ends up being out of the range of being able to take a good quarterback, because with a mediocre record the team becomes locked outside of an elite pick. However, of the 13 quarterbacks who have succeeded since the rookie salary scale went into effect, 7 of them were taken in the second round or after their teams traded into position to take them. In other words, a majority of these teams did not need to be struggling when they found their franchise passer.
The Bears have actually tried trading up to “get the guy” afraid he’s going to get away while knowing their team needed help all too often. Maybe the real solution is to give the quarterback help first, and then (and only then) trade into the top tiers to get him? It does seem to be how more than half of the teams that found “their guy” got him.
If the Bears simply accept this scenario, then Fields does not need to turn everything around in order to secure his future. The team does not need to go all in on Caleb Williams or suffer for his absence. Instead, they can simply let Fields bridge to the future next year while investing heavily in the team’s future no matter who is taking snaps at QB. Then, finally, the team can get out of the put that they have been digging for themselves since at least 2017.
This requires more patience than the other two scenarios, but it also offers the hope of a long-term franchise quarterback who is developed instead of one who is crushed under the weight of a roster that isn’t ready to take him to success.