In his 8th start, Bears QB Justin Fields must move beyond rookie turbulence vs. Ravens
The Bears need a good look at Fields — and a sharp assessment of whether Matt Nagy is the right coach to pair with him for 2022 and beyond. The final eight games should provide a fair evaluation.
It’s important to evaluate rookie quarterbacks patiently and to resist the urge to overreact, regardless of whether the performance is dynamic or disastrous. Even in the modern NFL, when the best rookies no longer sit for a season before getting their shot, quarterbacks need time.
That acclimation period is essentially over for Bears rookie Justin Fields. He’ll make his eighth start in the game Sunday against the Ravens, and he’s coming up on the seven-month mark since he stepped into Halas Hall. With eight games left in the season, especially given that he just had a week off to reset, this is the time for the Bears to make a clear assessment of Fields’ progress under coach Matt Nagy.
That evaluation goes both ways, with the Bears needing to gauge whether Fields is the franchise quarterback they think he is and whether they should fire Nagy.
Those are separate conversations. This one is about Fields.
His position coach, John DeFilippo, described a typical quarterback’s rookie season as being marked by ‘‘peaks and valleys,’’ and that certainly has been true for Fields.
Calling Fields’ first start — a game in Cleveland that still makes everyone in the building wince when they think about it — a ‘‘valley’’ would be an understatement. It was more like plummeting into an abyss. On the flip side, he nearly scaled a mountain with his late rally against the Steelers in his most recent start.
As Fields gets more comfortable with the speed and complexity of NFL defenses, the Bears hope to narrow that wide range of possible outcomes. They want him to level out to a point where they generally know what they’re going to get every week.
His season statistics — 59% completions, 142.4 yards passing per game, four touchdowns, eight interceptions, 69.4 passer rating — don’t come close to showing how volatile his season has been. He posted a career-best 91.9 rating to beat the Raiders in Week 5 and looked very good in his last two games, but it was just three games ago that he imploded with three interceptions and two lost fumbles in a blowout loss to the Buccaneers.
Brutal performances such as that one inevitably are part of the growing process for quarterbacks. Bills quarterback Josh Allen had similar numbers in his first seven starts and has blossomed into an MVP candidate. Former Colts quarterback Andrew Luck had 11 turnovers in his first seven starts on his way to becoming a four-time Pro Bowler who probably could have spent two decades in the NFL if he wanted. Same story for eventual MVP Cam Newton, who took the Panthers to the Super Bowl.
How quickly a quarterback finds his footing often depends significantly on the infrastructure around him, and that’s a serious concern as the Bears plunge in the standings.
It’s going to make Fields’ job that much more challenging as the defense deteriorates, with outside linebacker Khalil Mack out for the season and defensive lineman Akiem Hicks out Sunday.
It’ll put pressure on him to score enough points to keep up, and he’ll be attempting that in a shaky environment. Nagy has a lot to prove, it’s hard to fully trust an offensive line that has looked better lately but hasn’t buried the skepticism and now Fields might be missing top receiver Allen Robinson, who is doubtful with a hamstring injury.
That being said, Fields’ circumstances might be indicative of what he’ll contend with for a while with the Bears, so he might as well get used to it.
Like many quarterback-desperate teams who draft quarterbacks in the first round, the Bears took Fields in the hope that he would offset a mountain of mistakes. It’s a lot to ask, but the next eight games should tell them whether he’s up to the challenge.