I am launching a new series looking at the state of the Chicago Bears and looking for reasons to be optimistic about this team moving forward. Admittedly, there will be at least small amounts of copium in each of these arguments, but each one will have some basis in evidence.
I want to begin with what might be the most controversial and unpopular “what if” first, because it is the possibility that perversely offers the most hope for the franchise.
What if Justin Fields is just really bad? I don’t mean “what if Fields was broken by the Bears,” because I think most of the fandom is settling in on that conclusion one way or another. However, I mean what if he was just never going to get there? Football Outsiders’ QBASE gave him a 41% chance of being a bust, after all. First-round quarterbacks frequently bust.
Justin Fields was the fourth quarterback drafted. If we knew nothing else about him as an individual besides his age and draft position, but we did know the history of the fourth quarterback taken in the NFL during his lifetime, we would have a reason to be skeptical that he was going to turn into a franchise quarterback.
The fourth QB off the board is seldom a world-beater. Collectively, NFL front offices are simply too efficient at identifying talent and too eager to upgrade talent at this position for it to be otherwise. It is possible and even likely for one team to make a mistake. Two teams can even make a mistake. However, by the time that three teams have paid whatever premiums necessary to draft their “guy” at the top, the likelihood that a truly capable quarterback fell all the way to the fourth choice is low.
In the ten years running up to Fields being selected, the drafted quarterbacks are Jordan Love, Drew Lock, Josh Rosen, DeShone Kizer, Christian Hackenberg, Sean Mannion, Derek Carr, Matt Barkley, Brandon Weeden, and Christian Ponder. Of those, only Love and Carr stand out as candidates for being good quarterbacks. The list gets slightly more promising if we go back to April 1999, when a newborn Justin Fields was first exploring the world. That lets us add Colt McCoy, Pat White, Chad Henne, John Beck, Kellen Clemens, Charlie Frye, JP Losman, Rex Grossman, Josh McCown, Marques Tulasosopo, Tee Martin, and Daunte Culpepper.
That’s not a great list. Of the 22 of them, only Carr, Grossman, McCown, and Culpepper should really be considered “successes” by even the most reasonable stretch of the imagination. Add in Love, and we would be at a 23% success rate.
Perhaps that’s an unfair comparison because those aren’t all first-round picks? Well, here are the first-round quarterbacks taken fourth or later in that same time period: Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Jordan Love, Josh Rosen, Brandon Weeden, Christian Ponder, JP Losman, Rex Grossman, Daunte Culpepper, and Cade McNown.
Of the nine who aren’t Fields, the best chances for “good QBs” are Jones, Love, Grossman, and Culpepper. That’s still under a 50% hit rate, and the only reason it’s not a 33% hit rate is because it includes a player with a total of three starts under his belt over the first three years of his career so far.
Placed against this track record of the NFL as a whole, we have the judgment of Ryan Pace, whose other decisions at quarterback including signing Mike Glennon to a contract that paid him more than half of his career earnings for just four starts, trading up with the San Francisco 49ers one spot for Mitchell Trubisky, trading the Jacksonville Jaguars for Nick Foles, and signing the desiccated husk of Andy Dalton to a $10million contract.
Yes, Fields had backers heading into the NFL Draft. But so did virtually every quarterback who has busted in the first round. Mel Kiper thought Jimmy Clausen was such a sure thing that he (supposedly) bet his career on him being a success, and current Fields-backer Dan Orlovsky thought that Kellen Mond was going to surprise people in the NFL. Fields also had plenty of detractors. What if the doubters were the ones who were right?
What if Justin Fields was just always a flawed prospect?
If we simply accept that maybe Ryan Pace made another mistake at quarterback on the way out the door instead of making an uncharacteristic good decision there, then the offensive line that is actually giving at least league-average time to throw is in fact salvageable with a few upgrades. The offensive tools might be adequate for success. If we believe that Fields is most of the problem, then the Bears are in an excellent position moving forward.
In that case, the Bears have an offensive line that is allowing no worse than average pressure. With two games in the books, Pro Football Reference reports that Fields still has 2.8 seconds of pocket time–enough to lead the entire NFL. He’s being pressured on 24% of his snaps, which is just barely in the bottom half of the league, but that disparity is easily explained by him having one of the longest times-to-throw in the NFL. The 50% of those pressures that are becoming sacks (compared to the 31% that’s the league average) again is a sign of a quarterback who is simply taking too long to make a decision, even if that decision is a simple throwaway. Likewise, this means that maybe there’s a good reason that ESPN gives the Bears’ offensive line a 61% pass-block win rate (11th in the league) and a 74% rush-block win rate (8th in the league), instead of something being wrong with their measurement system.
The Bears also then might very well have solid weapons available. They already have a potential (or actual) #1 wide receiver under contract for next season (DJ Moore) and at least one mediocre tight end (Cole Kmet). They have the inside track on signing a solid WR2 (Mooney), and multiple developmental prospects at wide receiver and at running back. The anemic offensive production comes from Fields having the worst Air Yards to the Sticks measure in the league with the second-lowest aggression index while still somehow having a completion percentage 11 points below what would be expected for the throws he is attempting per Next Gen Stats (that league-worst rate is twice his -5.5 from 2022, when he was the third-worst in the league).
Thus, this team might then be a single draft away from having a functional NFL offense (a quarterback and a left tackle come to mind with the first two picks, but a quarterback, an edge rusher, and a second-round interior lineman would also work).
If Fields is simply bad, predictable play-calling becomes an attempt to simplify the offense to make it easier for Fields to at least try to succeed. Those oversimplifications are then responsible for some of the problematic nature of the offensive line. Here, too, discarding the offensive coordinator in order to bring in a more suitable offensive mind for the new guy might be reasonable. It might be unfair to Luke Getsy, but a clean slate could help everyone, and the league is seldom fair.
If Fields really is the key problem, then the Bears’ offense has the potential to contend in 2024, and all that needs to happen is the players and the coaching staff need to work around #1 until they can move on.