The Bears walked onto the field Sunday without coach Matt Nagy and outside linebacker Khalil Mack. They left it with a playmaker.
Quarterback Justin Fields was in one moment efficient and another breathtaking, leading the Bears in rushing and awe-inspiring moments. That might not take the sting out of a 33-22 loss to the 49ers, a game the Bears had to have to discuss the playoffs with a straight face. They’re 3-5 and on a three-game losing streak.
The rest of the year, then, will be all about Fields’ development. Against the 49ers, he gave the Bears more to dream on than at any point this season. Fields went 19-for-27 for 175 yards and a touchdown — an eight-yard laser to a diving Jesse James while sprinting left.
His 84.6 passer rating was almost 20 points higher before he threw his only interception down 11 with just less than two minutes to play. Because he converted 6 of 8 third downs in the first half, the Bears didn’t punt until the two-minute mark of the third quarter.
He ran 10 times for 103 yards, the most for a Bears quarterback in one game since Bobby Douglass had 100 in 1973. Stats don’t do Fields justice, though. His 22-yard touchdown run with 9:32 to play and the Bears down seven will be replayed on the Soldier Field scoreboard — and maybe even the one in Arlington Heights — for a decade.
Acting head coach Chris Tabor — filling in for Nagy, who has the coronavirus — decided to go for it on fourth-and-one from the 49ers’ 22. Fields took the snap from under center and rolled right, looking to dump the ball quickly in the flat to running back Khalil Herbert. The 49ers were blitzing from that side, though, and defensive end Arik Armstead was waiting for Fields.
Fields hit the brakes, however, and slipped underneath the diving defender. Still seven yards short of the first-down marker, Fields planted his right foot on the right hash and cut left past another diving defender. He ran parallel to the line of scrimmage and turned upfield once he reached the numbers.
“I just saw the lanes open up,” Fields said. “It was just on instinct.”
Left tackle Jason Peters’ backside block gave him room to run up the sideline and, finally, past the first-down marker. Darnell Mooney’s block of Josh Norman at the 15 allowed Fields to duck back inside and run, untouched, for the touchdown. It was the longest run of his career.
“He was going back to pee-wee days on that one,” Mooney said.
Fields, whom the Bears have praised as playing even-keeled in good times and bad, knew in the moment that what he’d done was extraordinary.
“I’m not gonna lie; that was awesome,” Fields said.
In explaining the play, Tabor hit on precisely what could make Fields special — he has the ability to erase the Bears’ many flaws with his own athleticism.
“He made nothing into something and got us going there,” Tabor said.
Fields flashed excitement all game long. On the first drive of the second half, Fields faced third-and-eight from the 49ers’ 14. He rolled left, stepped over a diving Nick Bosa and seemed trapped by All-Pro linebacker Fred Warner, who was rushing from the left.
Fields performed a pirouette back toward the middle of the field, escaping for a five-yard gain before running out of bounds. A defensive hold on the play gave the Bears a first down, though they had to settle for a field goal.
“Although it wasn’t a crazy gain, it just says or it tells the defense that, ‘Man, you’ve got to really work on tackling this guy,’ ” Bears defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said. “Maybe he slows them down a little bit, so it gives you other options.”
Just as Fields got better, though, the Bears’ defense got worse. The usually steady unit allowed the 49ers to score on their last seven possessions, not counting the kneel-down.
After Fields’ touchdown run, Cairo Santos missed the extra point, leaving the Bears down one. Rolling Meadows High School alum Jimmy Garoppolo needed five plays — four of which were first downs — to march the 49ers 75 yards. He scored on a five-yard run to go up eight.
On the next drive, Fields took an unconscionable sack on third-and-10 from the Bears’ 40, forcing the Bears to punt. The 49ers bled 2½ minutes off the clock and kicked a field goal to seal the victory.
For maybe the first time all year, though, Fields’ exhilarating plays outnumbered the rookie mistakes.
“I’m not a quarterback analyst,” Hicks said. “But I will say this: He’s elite. Like, it’s fun to watch, right?”