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Justin Fields has not beaten the odds

After three years, there are still no decisive answers on whether or not Justin Fields is a franchise quarterback. That’s a problem.

Arizona Cardinals v Chicago Bears Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Disclaimer

I do not want to write this piece. In fact, I have held off on writing this piece longer than I should have, more or less hoping that the tone could be different. Heading into the 2022 draft, after Fields had spent a year on the team, I offered the following pronouncement: “Justin Fields is probably not going to be The Guy.” I offered three supporting arguments for that claim indrawn from his initial play, his pedigree, and his available support.

Here was my conclusion: “As of this moment, if Fields reaches the level of [Jay] 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…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..” That piece was not especially popular, and there was at the time a great deal of probably justified hope that Fields would have a breakout season once Matt Nagy was safely in another city.

Six months later, when he continued to struggle, I argued that he still was not beating the odds. I concluded the following: “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.”

I have deliberately avoided revisiting this series until now because of my desire as a fan for the team to be able to avoid investing more premium resources in the quarterback position. However, as Chicago limps to the end of yet another futile season, it’s time to consider the same three lines of analysis.

Fields Still Isn’t Playing Well

Correcting for the non-interception that actually hit the ground during the Cleveland game, Fields has posted a passer rating of 85.8 this season. That is his best season as a professional football player. To put that into context, Fields’ best passer rating for a season is below the league average for the last eleven years. That’s not just starters’ games. It’s the games of backups and trick plays by punters and wide receivers. In 2012, he would have been the 16th-best passer in the league, edging out the Raiders’ Carson Palmer.

If this were considered Fields’ rookie season, he would be behind CJ Stroud (98.7) and Anthony Richardson (87.3), essentially on-pace with Will Levis (85.3), and ahead of Bryce Young, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Aidan O’Connell. In terms of adjusted net yards per passing attempt (ANY/A), which takes into account sacks and tends to be a little more complete of a measure of quarterbacks, the 2023 version of Justin Fields is at 5.07, which places him behind Stroud (7.36), Richardson (6.19), Levis (5.79); he is, however, ahead of O’Connell (4.82) and Thompson-Robinson (1.86).

However, Fields is not a rookie. In his 38 career games to date, Justin Fields has only eleven games with a passer rating above 90.0; Drew Lock has just as many in 28 games–the same Drew Lock who was widely considered a bust.

To put it another way for those who point to Fields’ best games–if Fields were to turn in two more games with a passer rating above 100 to finish out the season, he would have played in eight more games than Gardner Minshew II had prior to his current run in Indianapolis, and he would have turned in thirteen games with a passer rating above 90 and nine with a passer rating above 100. With 80% of the opportunity, Minshew had sixteen games with a passer rating above 90 by then, and ten above 100. Minshew is now on his third team, was once traded for a conditional sixth-round pick, and is the 36th-highest paid quarterback in the NFL at the moment.

As mentioned, other statistics such as ANY/A and QBR (which takes into account running plays but also penalizes fumbles) are even less favorable to Justin Fields. However, the short form is that he is not playing like a franchise quarterback. He is playing like a compelling backup. He lacks the consistency as a passer that teams need from the position.

Fields does make some good plays. He does suffer from some miscues from his teammates. He does a few things very well. However, his improvement to date has been to pull him even with the performance of average and replacement-level quarterbacks or neophytes, not to distinguish him as a star.

His Pedigree is Awful

The general manager who determined that Justin Fields was worth more than two first-round picks as the future of the franchise is no longer in Chicago. His decision to invest heavily in Fields was based upon his evaluation of Fields’ potential. It’s fair to remember, then, that man’s track record at evaluating quarterbacks.

The last quarterback selected by that same general manager with as much conviction was Mitchell Trubisky. Trubisky ended his time in Chicago with a passer rating of 87.2 and has since been with two more teams, always in a backup role. When he left, his supporters believed that a new team would unlock his potential. That potential has turned out to be sub-50 passer rating in Buffalo (with a negative ANY/A) and a lower passer rating in Pittsburgh than he managed with Chicago. Trubisky has been slightly worse than Kenny Pickett for the Steelers, and he was pulled from a game in favor of Mason Rudolph partway through his last start. That same Mason Rudolph has since briefly outshined both Pickett and Trubisky, although only time will tell if that is sustainable. In other words, Trubisky has turned out to be a moderately disappointing backup quarterback, not a star.

The other quarterbacks who received significant investment from Ryan Pace are Mike Glennon (out of the league), Nick Foles (looking for work), and Andy Dalton (on his second team since Chicago).

To be blunt, there is no indication that the general manager who chose Justin Fields had any notable talent at identifying the traits of a successful quarterback. There is no indication that the process he employed was meaningfully better than the dozens of armchair analysts who scout box scores and watch YouTube breakdowns every season. If that seems harsh and insulting, that’s because the track record is brutally bad. Those inside Chicago’s front office have confirmed that avoiding Deshaun Watson was a decision based on football potential and not character. That means that of the three potential first-round picks in the 2017 draft, Ryan Pace identified the only one whose play would not end up good enough to hold on to a starting job. That means that of the available “security backups”, Ryan Pace identified two players who were not able to last in the NFL and one whose current success is predicated on a long and established career before Pace ever considered him.

Is it possible that the selection of Fields is the exception to the rule and that of all of the quarterbacks in whom Ryan Pace had “conviction,” Justin Fields is the one who might go on to great success outside of Chicago? Of course it’s possible. It is, however, very unlikely. It is instead more likely that Fields was simply a very talented college quarterback whose game did not translate well to what he was going to be asked to do in the NFL, and a GM who was not good at finding quarterbacks once more made a bad decision on that front.

His Support has Improved

The reason this has been such a hard article to write is that this year was the first year wherein Justin Fields finally had what felt like adequate support. Depending on whose metrics are used, two or three members of the offensive line are playing well (Jones, Jenkins, and Wright). The trade with the Carolina Panthers involved the Bears gaining the services of DJ Moore, who is in the Top 10 of wide receivers in success rate, first downs, and total yards; he is also just outside of the Top 10 in yards per game. Meanwhile, Cole Kmet is also in the Top 10 of tight ends in success rate, first downs and total yards (but not near the top in terms of yards per game). Fans will focus on dropped balls as missed opportunities, but Chicago only suffers from dropped passes at a rate of 3.9%, which is at the twelfth lowest rate in the NFL.

There is also an adequate run game independent of Justin Fields, with Khalil Herbert managing 4.5 yards per rushing attempt (12th among running backs), and D’Onta Foreman turning in 3.9 yards per attempt (26th).

The defense has been an asset as well. Chicago’s defense is eleventh in takeaways per game (at 1.5) and ninth in the percentage of their opponents’ drives that have ended in a turnover (13.4%). This is all while only allowing a middling rate of scoring on drives (34.8%). In simple language, the defense has been at least average and is taking the ball away at a high enough rate to give the offense extra opportunities. However, despite having a pair of top receiving threats, Fields is not delivering on a passing offense.

Chicago’s roster has improved to the point that in July, one prominent voice on Chicago football declared: “Let’s be real, the offensive line of the Bears is stronger, the wide receiver group is much better than it was a year ago and the run game should be at least as strong if not stronger. This offense will put up points, and Justin Fields will have his best year as a pro. Not only will he be successful, but the negative narratives will go away.”

There are legitimate problems worth noting, especially along the interior of the offensive line and in the offensive skill positions outside of the top two receiving threats. Multiple coaching calls are suspect, as well. However, there are just as many reasons to believe that Fields is being artificially boosted by the improved quality of the team around him as there are to believe that the team itself is still what is holding him back.

Conclusions

If the Chicago Bears end up with one of the top two picks in the 2024 NFL Draft thanks to the trade with the Carolina Panthers, then history has shown that they would be able to trade down and thereby net a tremendous advantage in the long-term construction of their roster. Beyond such analytical and detached concerns, there is every sign that Fields is well-liked by his teammates and even by the front office of Chicago. He is certainly beloved by many fans. There is a path forward where a team is built around Justin Fields to minimize his mistakes and to make the Bears competitive despite his limitations.

However, Fields shows no sign of outplaying the baseline performance he has shown from the beginning. His third career start, against the Raiders, saw him turn in a 91.9 passer rating; his first season away from Matt Nagy, with a 10% buffer, would suggest a maximum performance of 93.7 for his career. Interestingly, if the next two games see Fields play at the level he managed against Denver (managing a career-best 132.7 passer rating), he would end up with a 94.52 passer rating on the season. That would push him above the line where NFL teams typically retain a first-round quarterback heading into the fourth year. In other words, the best-case scenario for Fields is that he establishes himself as a barely good-enough passer.

However, this season alone he has twice as many games with a passer rating below 80 as he does with a passer rating above 90, so guessing that he will suddenly show his best work for the next two games would be built on hope instead of evidence. Soon, Chicago will need to make a decision on whether or not Justin Fields is capable of playing well enough, consistently enough, for the franchise as a whole to put together a winning season. So far, he has not shown that his play alone is enough to earn him that consideration. It will likely be up to Ryan Poles to decide if the other advantages he brings are worth the risk.