Justin Fields’ rookie year with the Bears will be full of firsts, and he’s already had a few.
But here’s a new one: For the first time, he’s under substantial pressure. All the patience typically afforded to rookies has dwindled after back-to-back disastrous performances that left the Bears under .500 and raised the stakes for their game Sunday against the 49ers.
It has been right around this time the last two years when the Bears’ season fell apart, and it certainly seems they’ve arrived at that juncture again. Which way it veers next hinges on Fields.
He got some leeway the last two weeks because he went up against all-time greats in the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady, but there will be little tolerance if he stumbles against a middling 49ers defense.
Over the last two games, Fields threw one touchdown and four interceptions, posted a 58.4 passer rating and lost two fumbles while losing by a combined score of 62-17. Those were his fourth and fifth career starts, but he’s approaching the end of the rookie runway. It’s time to take off, but how?
“Just play better,” Fields said. “It’s that simple.”
It’s trite, but he’s correct. As obvious as it is to say, he really needs a good game.
And the 49ers offer an opportunity.
They aren’t the Lions, but they are 21st in scoring defense, 20th in opponent passer rating, 17th in opponent completion percentage and have just one interception in 194 passes against them. They also rank 21st in opponent yards per rush, so Fields should have a reliable running game working in his favor.
That being said, they’re probably looking at the Bears the same way.
They’ve scored the third-fewest points in the NFL at 14.4 per game and are one of two teams yet to break 25 in a game.
“We’re very close to having a breakout game,” Fields said. “All we need to do is put the little plays together... We’re close.”
Fortunately for him, there’s still enough enthusiasm that people want to believe him. His talent is undeniable. But amid coaching dysfunction, offensive line struggles and his own mistakes, it hasn’t translated to a dynamic performance.
Not only is he last in the league in passer rating at 61.8, he hasn’t chipped in much as a runner, either, with 20 yards per game. Nearly 25% of his passes have been off-target, according to Pro Football Reference. Granted, it’s tough when he has been pressured on 26% of his drop-backs and sacked a league-high 22 times.
But, to Fields’ credit, none of this seems to deter him. He gave a fervent response to getting drubbed 38-3 by the Buccaneers and continues to view his and the offense’s failures clinically.
“No matter how many picks I throw, no matter how many Ls we take, I’m gonna keep going,” he said. “That’s just the fact. And that’s just who I am. Never gonna stop.”
It’d be better to stop all the picks and Ls sooner than later, but he made his point. His calmness truly is an asset in this scenario, and his mentality conveys confidence throughout Halas Hall at a time when the Bears are desperate for it.
“If [bad performance] causes you to be different, then it’s going to be a long career,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “There are going to be so many ups and downs in this game. His steadiness is the right way.”
But it must result in something. Fields has consistently handled himself the right way, whether it was waiting out coach Matt Nagy’s fixation on Andy Dalton being the starter or enduring the offensive line’s struggles. At some point, though, his smart moves behind the scenes have to translate to a grand performance on center stage.