1st-and-10: Will Justin Fields make the 49ers pay for snubbing him?
When the 49ers moved up from No. 12 to No. 3 in the 2021 draft, they took Trey Lance over Fields. Lance might not play Sunday against the Bears, but Fields will get a chance for his own Patrick Mahomes finger-counting moment at Soldier Field.
What did Kyle Shanahan see in Trey Lance that he didn’t see in Justin Fields?
That was a fair question when Bears general manager Ryan Pace made the bold move to trade up from 20th to 11th in the first round of the draft to get Fields. Not only was Fields the fourth quarterback taken, but Shanahan — the 49ers’ head coach and a quarterback whisperer of some repute — chose the relatively unproven Lance of North Dakota State over Fields, who was considered in a class with Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Brigham Young’s Zach Wilson as an NFL prospect. The 49ers, in fact, traded three first-round picks to the Dolphins to move up from No. 12 to No. 3 to get Lance.
It was nearly the opposite of the 2017 scenario, where the Bears bypassed battle-proven Deshaun Watson with the No. 2 overall pick to take Mitch Trubisky, who had started just 13 college games. This time, the 49ers moved up to take the unproven quarterback — Lance had thrown even fewer college passes than Trubisky, and against lesser competition — over the battle-tested Fields, who was 20-2 at Ohio State with a signature win against Lawrence and Clemson in the college football playoff.
Seven weeks into the season, it’s a no-decision as the Bears prepare to face the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Both teams had planned for their rookie quarterback to serve an apprenticeship — Lance behind Jimmy Garoppolo; Fields behind Andy Dalton. But all four quarterbacks have struggled this season — Garoppolo (90.2), Lance (88.4), Fields (61.8) and Dalton (90.0) have a combined 79.2 passer rating (12 touchdowns, 12 interceptions), well below the league average of 94.9. And their team has followed suit: The 49ers are 2-4, ranked 18th in the NFL in total offense. The Bears are 3-4, ranked 32nd and last in total offense.
The 49ers are fully in quarterback limbo with Garoppolo coming off a poor game — three turnovers in a 30-18 loss to the Colts at home — and Lance returning to practice after recovering from a knee injury. Shanahan said he will evaluate both quarterbacks this week before naming a starter against the Bears.
Fields, meanwhile, will make his sixth start for the Bears — facing another challenge against the 49ers sixth-ranked defense. Bears fans are still feeling the burn from Patrick Mahomes counting to 10 with both hands following a 26-3 Chiefs victory at Soldier Field in 2019 — taunting the Bears for bypassing him in the 2017 draft. A breakout performance by Fields against the team that snubbed him — with or without the taunting — could ease some of that pain.
2. Should Pace and Bears coach Matt Nagy be nervous after back-to-back losses to the Packers (24-14) and Buccaneers (38-3)?
When the Bears faced Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers in back-to-back games in 2014, the Hall of Fame-bound duo combined for 11 touchdowns and no interceptions as the Bears lost to the Patriots 55-14 and the Packers 51-23 in 2014 — an embarrassing episode that led to a house-cleaning at Halas Hall, with both general manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman fired.
This time, Brady and Rodgers combined for just six touchdowns with no interceptions. But a dreadful loss to the Buccaneers off any loss to the Packers reverberates at Halas Hall. And merely righting the ship doesn’t figure to be enough to prevent a similar upheaval to 2014. George McCaskey still reads his mail.
3a. Red Flag Dept.: The Bears are the only team in the NFL with more rushing yards (917) than net passing yards (871) — a dubious distinction in this era. The Bears’ rushing accounts for 51.3% of their total offense (1,788 yards). The NFL average this season is 31.3%.
A productive running game, especially in the Andy Reid offense, is supposed to facilitate the passing game, but that’s not happening with the Bears. They’re sixth in the NFL in rushing, but 32nd in passing. In fact, of the top seven rushing teams in the NFL, six of them are in the top 11 in total offense. The Bears are the outlier — 32nd and last in total offense.
3b. The Ravens had more rushing yards than net passing yards the past two seasons. But that’s because Lamar Jackson is the best rushing quarterback in NFL history. (Prior to Jackson and the Ravens in 2019, the last team with more rushing yards than net passing yards was John Fox’s 2011 Broncos with Tim Tebow.)
The Bears have that Jackson-like potential with Fields, one of the fastest quarterbacks in the NFL. But Fields continues to struggle to find a groove as a runner. He has rushed for 140 yards (4.1 yards per carry) with one touchdown this season. But he rarely has clean runs — either running out of bounds or sliding — and continues to take a higher risk of injury as a runner than he should.
4a. Wide receiver Allen Robinson saying Tuesday that his lack of reps with Fields in training camp has stunted his chemistry with the rookie quarterback has re-ignited the criticism of Nagy’s handling of the quarterback situation in the offseason. If only Nagy had named Fields the starter on draft night …
But this is still one instance where Nagy and the Bears were a victim of bad timing more than guilty of bad judgment. One more time: The Bears were not going to renege on their promise — tacit or otherwise — to Andy Dalton that he would be their starter. It’s almost certainly the only reason Dalton signed with the Bears. They didn’t think they’d get a prospect like Fields in the draft.
It’s easy from the outside to say the Bears should have pulled the rug out from under Dalton. But it’s a little tougher if you’ve been in the room and made the deal. Just like with quarterback-wide receiver chemistry, timing is everything.
4b. In retrospect, it would have been better if the Bears’ quarterback plan for 2021 was to let holdover Nick Foles compete with the best quarterback the Bears could get in the draft for the starting job. In that scenario, Foles would have competed with Fields in training camp and the preseason — and Fields likely would have won the job and started in Week 1. A much easier call for Nagy.
But just think how that plan would have gone over with Bears fans in March, before anyone knew the Bears had a shot at Fields. Narrator: Not very well.
5. Veteran Jason Peters provided updates on rookie tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom that Nagy has refrained from doing — and it sounded promising. Borom, out since Week 1 with a high ankle sprain, is returning this week, Peters said. And Jenkins, also on injured reserve after having back surgery in August, is expected to return this season.
Borom figures to eventually land at right tackle, where the Bears have used four other players this season. But Jenkins could be a tougher call. The Bears surely would like to get him experience at left tackle in advance of next season. But Peters has been their best offensive lineman this season — ranked eighth in the NFL among tackles. Still, unless the Bears are in a playoff chase, the rookie has to play.
6. Sign of life: Rookie running back Khalil Herbert’s 100 rushing yards (on 18 carries, a 5.6 average) were the most against the Buccaneers’ top-ranked rushing defense this season. Rams running back Sony Michel had the previous best with 67 yards on 20 carries, a 3.4-yard average.
It wasn’t all garbage-time yardage, either. Herbert’s 29-yard run on the Bears’ fourth play from scrimmage, when they trailed 7-0, was the longest run allowed by the Bucs’ defense all season. Herbert, in fact, had three rushes of 10 or more yards in the first half. The Bucs had allowed just one rush of 10-plus yards in the first half in their first six games — Cordarrelle Patterson’s 10-yard touchdown run for the Falcons.
Herbert rushed for 91 yards on 13 carries in the first half — nearly as many yards as the Buccaneers had allowed in the first half in their previous six games combined (44 rushes, 94 yards, 2.1 average).
7. For What It’s Worth Dept.: In his fifth career start, Bengals rookie Joe Burrow had similar numbers to Justin Fields — 19-of-30 for 183 yards, no touchdowns and one interception for a 66.4 rating in a 27-3 loss to the Ravens on the road last season.
In the rematch against the Ravens on Sunday, Burrow was a different quarterback — 23-of-38 for 416 yards, three touchdowns, one interception for a 113.5 rating in a 41-17 rout of the Ravens.
8. The Bears’ blowout loss to the Buccaneers was yet another illustration of how far the Bears have fallen behind the best teams in the NFL. Three years ago, they beat the Bucs 48-10 in 2018 at Soldier Field. That’s a 73-point swing in three seasons.
And while Tom Brady obviously makes a difference, what accounts for the 45-point drop on offense? Mitch Trubisky threw for 354 yards and six touchdown passes against the Buccaneers in 2018. Justin Fields threw for 184 yards and no touchdown with three interceptions on Sunday.
For the record, the Bears had two players Sunday who played in the 2018 game — Robinson and guard Cody Whitehair. The Buccaneers had three defensive players who particpated in the 2018 game — linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, nose tackle Vita Vea and defensive end William Gholston.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Kudos to Saints wide receiver Kevin White for persevering and making it back to an NFL game.
The star-crossed wide receiver — a first-round draft pick by Pace in 2015 — was promoted from the Saints’ practice squad for Sunday night’s game against the Seahawks and downed a punt at the 1-yard line. White, 29, had played in just three games since the Bears let him go in free agency after the 2018 season.
Honorable mention: Saints kicker Brian Johnson, who kicked for the Bears in the preseason and was claimed by the Saints off the Bears’ practice squad, was 2-for-2 on field goals, including a 33-yarder with 1:56 left that gave the Saints a 13-10 victory.
10. Bear-ometer: 8-9 — vs. 49ers (W); at Steelers (W); vs. Ravens (L); at Lions (W); vs. Cardinals (L); at Packers (L); vs. Vikings (W); at Seahawks (L); vs. Giants (W); at Vikings (L).