QB Justin Fields’ progress changes everything about how this Bears season feels
This 3-2 start has a much different vibe than the Bears’ unconvincing openings to the last two seasons. It’s not about where they stand now, but where Fields could take them once he gets rolling.
LAS VEGAS — The emphasis for the Bears and rookie quarterback Justin Fields is more so on where they’re headed than where they stand at the moment.
And, for the first time, that outlook is optimistic.
There was nothing spectacular about their 20-9 victory against a middling Raiders team, but something shifted Sunday. It looked like one of those typical score-17-points-and-pray-it’s-enough Bears escapes on the surface, but it’s bigger.
Fields is the burst of hope that gives this 3-2 start a different feel than when the Bears were 5-2 last season or 3-1 in 2019, only to plunge. He only will get better, and staying afloat as he rides out a choppy beginning to his career sets the Bears up to do something much more meaningful once he’s rolling.
It’s an upbeat conversation just two weeks removed from his debacle of a debut as the Bears’ starter in Cleveland. But a lot has changed since then.
The offense looks more cohesive and coherent under coordinator Bill Lazor’s direction, even with a poorly put-together offensive line and an injury to starting running back David Montgomery.
The defense is defying decline and buying time for Fields to find his footing. Imagine a day in the near future when the Bears can have an off-game defensively and still win.
And Fields still is standing after a flurry of literal and metaphorical hits.
‘‘Just trying to get that swagger about us, especially on the offensive side of the ball,’’ he said, putting swagger and the Bears’ offense in the same thought for the first time since Sid Luckman. ‘‘Just try to keep building.
‘‘I’m always going to bring [toughness] to the table. I’m going to put myself out there to win games, so that’s what they can expect from me.’’
He’s by far the most promising thing about a team that hasn’t been promising in years. Mitch Trubisky wasn’t getting better. Andy Dalton and Nick Foles had plateaued, to put it gently.
But Fields? He’s on the way up.
And at the end Sunday, after the Raiders sent him wincing to the sideline twice, he stepped up and made a game-sealing throw.
On third-and-12 from his own 27-yard line, with the Bears’ 14-9 lead at risk as the Raiders threatened to wrest control, he threaded a pass to Darnell Mooney for 13 yards with 6:45 left despite four defensive backs guarding the first-down line. A few plays later, the Bears got a 46-yard field goal from Cairo Santos to deaden the Raiders’ momentum and take a 17-9 lead.
Fields finished 12-for-20 for 111 yards and a touchdown for a 91.9 passer rating.
That’s far from amazing, but consider what it foreshadows.
He did that, by the way, after two hits that looked as though they could have ended his day — or even his season.
Raiders safety Johnathan Abram hit Fields in the back so hard in the first quarter on one of those ill-fated spin moves — he swears he’s trying to quit — that a Bears staffer put a trash can near him in case he threw up. Fields said he couldn’t breathe well for a few minutes.
A play late in the second quarter was even scarier. As Fields scrambled, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue lunged at his feet and caused Fields’ left knee to bend severely in the wrong direction.
‘‘I knew I hyperextended it,’’ Fields said matter-of-factly. ‘‘After a while, I could start feeling my strength getting back, so I was just trying to see how stable it was and seeing if I could run on it.’’
Dalton took three snaps in Fields’ place, then Fields returned to finish the touchdown drive and put the Bears ahead 14-3 as they neared halftime.
Coach Matt Nagy said there was no need for further medical evaluations Monday, and Fields brushed any concern aside by saying he would be good to go Sunday against the Packers.
Not surprising, really, from a guy who played through a major rib injury that made every throw hurt against Clemson and Alabama in the College Football Playoff in January.
‘‘That son of a buck is tough,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘He proved that when he was in college. He proved it out here.’’
He also has proved he has a very necessary quality for anyone who dares to sign up for the job of Bears quarterback: He can deal with imperfect circumstances.
In short, he’s Bears-proof.
Fields offset several deficiencies Sunday, surviving behind an offensive line that powered the running game well but left him dodging traffic all afternoon. He threw a touchdown pass to No. 5 tight end Jesper Horsted, who was only active because other players were out. Horsted wasn’t even open; Fields made him open with the throw.
The Bears can do everything wrong, and Fields is talented enough to make it work. And that’s after only three starts. Imagine where he’ll take them next.