I am probably too willing to use metrics to quantify football. I like the way numbers can provide an objective check against what is sometimes a very biased view. However, numbers taken out of context–or used by people who simply don’t understand what they mean–can be a problem. Worse, people can take numbers out of context in order to distort what really happened.
In simple terms–anyone worrying about Justin Fields’s perfect passer rating in the Chicago Bears’ preseason game against the Titans because of a lack of air yards is being ridiculous. Not deserves-the-Hall-of-Fame Devin Hester ridiculous. The other kind of ridiculous. The kind that makes reasonable fans roll their eyes and walk away.
As far as football “arguments” go, complaining that Fields “only” made passes that relied on yards after the catch is either looking for something to worry about or is a tacit admission of not understanding what numbers like this mean. Completing air yards is not a struggle for Justin Fields and it never has been in his professional career.
Per Pro Football Reference, in his rookie campaign, Justin Fields led the league in “completed air yards per completion” (7.4) and was fourth in “completed air yards per attempt” (4.4). The next year (last season), Fields was fourth in the league in completed air yards per completion (6.7) and eleventh in completed air yards per attempt (4.0). In fact, adding those two seasons together, of the qualifying passers in the league, Justin Fields has the second- and eleventh- highest percentage of passing yards coming from air yards. Air yards have never been this young man’s problem.
Nor has Fields historically relied on his skill players to get him first downs. Next Gen Stats has a metric called Air Yards to the Sticks, which “shows the amount of Air Yards ahead or behind the first down marker on all attempts for a passer. The metric indicates if the passer is attempting his passes past the 1st down marker, or if he is relying on his skill position players to make yards after catch.” Last season, Fields was tied for 10th among the 40 qualifying passers they had ranked in terms of air yards; the prior year saw Fields place 3rd among 38. Fields has nothing to prove in terms of completing deep passes or airing it out.
In fact, the willingness to let his players make plays, to set his receivers up for yards after the catch, has arguably been among his greatest weaknesses (though it’s questionable if the players he had around him in prior seasons would have been able to make those plays, anyway). Utilizing yards after the catch is not a sign of a bad quarterback. By way of example, here are the quarterbacks who relied on yards after the catch for more than half of their total yards in both of the last two seasons: Jimmy Garoppolo, Patrick Mahomes, Jared Goff, and Aaron Rodgers.
Justin Fields did not register that many air yards in the first preseason game of 2023 because, honestly, he did not need to do so. Instead, whether it is an increased willingness on his part to trust his teammates or an increased ability on their part to deliver when he trusts them, Saturday saw Fields add yet another tool to his toolbox–and it is a tool that many good quarterbacks use frequently.
Unless critics of #1 want to go back and recalculate the passer ratings of all quarterbacks, subtracting the times that Travis Kelce or George Kittle have managed touchdowns after the catch, for example, then what does it mean to say that Fields did not “earn” the yards delivered by his teammates? He threw the ball to set them up for success. If skeptics are honest, the threat of his legs and his deep ball probably helped open up those opportunities for the teammates in question.
When the time comes to deliver down the field, recent history has shown that Fields will be just fine, there, too, so long as he has adequate time to throw and any sort of talent in place to catch the ball. One of the areas he most needed to improve was in terms of YAC. He did so, and now it seems to be the basis for further criticism.