The Justin Fields era is upon us — now the Bears must build around him
The Bears have spent 101 years trying to find a quarterback who could live up to the franchise’s place in history. Now they need to spend 3 1/2 months crafting an offense that complements the potential of their rookie passer.
Justin Fields had been the Bears’ permanent starting quarterback for less than 24 hours when someone asked if he’d grasped the gravity of it all. Wednesday was the first step, but had he stopped to consider what his life could look like in 10 or 15 years?
“I don’t even know if we’re going to be on this earth in the next 10-15 years,” he said, smiling. “I’m just worried about today and tomorrow. Just taking it day by day.”
His statement was the just-as-macabre cousin of what 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said when asked, after drafting a quarterback in April, whether starter Jimmy Garoppolo would be cut over the weekend.
“I can’t guarantee that anybody in the world will be alive Sunday,” he said.
Last week, Trey Lance, the quarterback the 49ers drafted third overall, replaced an injured Garoppolo and threw for 157 yards and ran for 41 more. Sunday against the Raiders, Fields will make his first appearance since coach Matt Nagy named him the unquestioned starter.
In the NFL, the future comes at you fast.
“We’ve been patient with this,” Nagy said. “We’ve grown with him. We’re proud of Justin.”
Now the Bears need to build something around him — starting Sunday in Las Vegas.
They’ve spent 101 years trying to find a quarterback who could live up to the franchise’s place in history. Now they need to spend 3½ months crafting an offense that satisfies the potential of their rookie passer.
That, as much as anything, will dictate the futures of Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. Can Fields show steady progress from week to week, even as Nagy acknowledges the “ebb and flow” that all rookies experience? Freed of having to honor Dalton as the team’s nominal starter, can Nagy craft an offense during the week that plays to Fields’ scrambling speed and deep-ball prowess? On game days, can offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, the new play-caller, make the right decisions?
The win Sunday against the Lions provided some promising clues. The Bears moved Fields out of the shotgun, gave him more blockers — and told him to let it rip.
No one in Week 4 threw deeper, or into more open windows, than Fields did against the Lions. His 12.8 air yards and 13.2 intended air yards — the distance the ball flew through the sky during his completions and attempts, respectively — were tops among any passer that week, according to NFL NextGen Stats. The deep balls are in line with what Fields did last year at Ohio State, when Pro Football Focus gave him a 96.5 grade on deep passes. The average for quarterbacks was 50.
In his first two starts this year, Dalton had zero explosive passes — defined as completions of 20 yards or more. During Games 2 and 3, Fields had one. Sunday against the Lions, he totaled five.
“Even if you don’t complete them — there are some that are not completed — you’re helping your run game out,” Nagy said. “You’re helping your linemen out. So when you connect on them and you’re able to flip the field? Huge.”
It was no coincidence that running back David Montgomery posted 106 rushing yards, the sixth-most in his career, before spraining his left knee in the fourth quarter. Damien Williams, who will take his place Sunday, will answer an important question: whether the run-game success was more about Montgomery or the scheme.
The scheme looked different with Lazor in charge. In 42 plays against the Browns, Nagy put Fields in shotgun all but twice. Against the Lions, Lazor put Fields in the shotgun only 19 of 57 times.
Nagy prefers the shotgun in general and was drawn to it because it resembled what Fields ran at Ohio State. But he said Fields has made the transition under center well; in practice, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo tells Fields to imagine he’s standing on a clock face and then calls out times for him to follow with his feet as he drops back.
“Justin has been great with that,” said Nagy, who apparently still wasn’t inspired to put him under center.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Nagy had his team run three plays in “13” personnel — one wide receiver and three tight ends. In Week 3, with Lazor calling plays, the Bears ran 10 such plays. That didn’t look like Ohio State, either.
“It’s a big difference, yeah, of course — the personnel and stuff,” Fields said. “But, I mean, from practicing . . . I’ve just gotten used to it over time, just repping it out with my teammates and stuff like that. When you do it so much in practice, it just comes easy in games.”
The Bears ran “12” personnel — one running back, two tight ends and two receivers — on 18 percent of their plays in Weeks 1-3. In Week 4, they were in “12” personnel 37 percent of the time. With Nagy calling plays, they were in “11” personnel 74 percent of the time this year. Against the Lions, Lazor ran “11” personnel only 40 percent of the time.
Putting Fields under center allowed the Bears to run more “downhill.” It helped, too, that they had extra blockers. Tight ends J.P. Holtz and Jesse James played 20 snaps against the Lions one week after they combined to play one. Even backup guard Alex Bars played three downs as an extra tight end.
“That makes my job way easier, of course,” Fields said. “When the defense sees that we’re in that kind of personnel, they’re most likely thinking run. So it definitely sets up the play-action well. It gets the passing game going a lot.”
Fields completed five play-action passes against the Lions for 86 yards. In the season’s first three weeks, the Bears completed only 15 for 61 yards.
Against the Browns, Nagy used only five blockers on 28 of 33 pass attempts and called quick passes eight times, per PFF. Sunday, Lazor used five blockers on 12 of 20 dropbacks and called quick throws only twice.
Wednesday, Nagy praised Lazor’s deep passing attack and how it was connected to the run game. It was a far cry from his awkward description of Lazor’s role after Sunday’s 24-14 win.
“I must have told [Lazor] like five times on the headset [Sunday], ‘Just keep doing it, man. You’re rocking and rolling,’ ” Nagy said. “And it was awesome. And so for them to be doing that, he’s giving those guys a chance.”
Nagy’s future depends on the Bears’ ability to keep giving Fields a chance.
Making him the starter was just the first step.
The next one comes Sunday.
“It’ll be our job now as coaches to continue to teach and help him grow as we go,” Nagy said. “And develop him into that NFL quarterback that we know he can be.”