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QB Justin Fields’ progress matters more to Bears than 45-30 loss to Packers

In his return from three cracked ribs, Fields continued showing signs that he’s on the rise. And with this season already lost, that’s the most important thing for the Bears.

Fields had 150 yards passing and 44 yards rushing in the first half.
AP Photos

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Justin Fields is getting better, and that’s the only thing that matters about this Bears season.

Regardless of a 45-30 defeat Sunday night, he’s the only one in the organization who can say he took a step forward in the Bears’ game against the Packers at Lambeau Field. He would say he’s too competitive to accept a figurative victory, but he’s too new to the Bears to see this through a wide-angled lens.

The true purpose of Sunday and the Bears’ remaining four games is to build toward a Fields-led future. Anything that brightens that outlook is a positive, and Fields provided some good indicators in his return after missing two games with cracked ribs.

He completed 18 of 33 passes for 224 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions (one was a desperate shot at the end) and ran nine times for 74 yards. With the help of Jakeem Grant’s punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, he had the Bears up 27-21 at halftime. That alone was better than how almost anyone thought they’d fare at Lambeau.

The Bears’ various maladies — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers clubbing the withered defense in another monstrous embarrassment, coach Matt Nagy’s questionable decisions, the roster moves that led to Xavier Crawford covering Davante Adams . . . they’re just ancillary — and temporary.

Nearly everything around Fields is irrelevant at this point because most of it probably won’t be around him next season.

The Bears stumbled into giving him a season of learning on the job, diverted to that course only after original starter Andy Dalton hurt his knee in Week 2, and it was the best thing for them. It might not have been the best thing for Nagy and his job security, but that’s where the gauging of success for Fields and the rest of the organization split.

Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace needed to win now. They’re overdue and long past their grace period. Dalton, tight end Jimmy Graham, defensive end Akiem Hicks and other veterans face that same level of urgency as they try to prolong their careers.

But Fields has time. It’s not imperative that he arrives this season — only that he continues in the right direction. The real evaluation comes next season.

And so far, everything looks right. Fields is far from a finished product, but he has consistently shown elusive running ability, precise deep passes and decisiveness. All of those abilities have improved steadily as he has expanded his understanding of NFL defenses.

To his credit, he has done all of that in spite of the Bears’ disarray and his injury. Nagy put Fields on a slower track than necessary because he had already locked into the idea of Dalton being the starter all season and Fields learning through observation. But there are some things Fields must learn through his own interceptions rather than Dalton’s, and that’s a choppy process everyone is going to have to accept.

Back-to-back possessions in the second quarter Sunday illustrated that growth. Fields misfired to wide receiver Darnell Mooney in the flats with 5:09 left in the half, and cornerback Rasul Douglas jumped the route for a pick-six to give the Packers their first lead of the night, 14-10. The throw needed to be between Mooney and the sideline, but Fields left it too far inside and allowed Douglas an opportunity.

Fields atoned for it three snaps later when he dropped a spot-on pass over the middle to Damiere Byrd, who went 54 yards for a touchdown. It would be easy to overlook Fields’ contribution to that play since the throw was just six yards past the line of scrimmage and Byrd did most of the legwork, but his accuracy and touch were essential. Had Fields not hit Byrd perfectly in stride, he wouldn’t have been able to outrace the three defenders in proximity. Had he needed to reach up or back at all, he likely would have been stopped.

“It was a great ball by him,” Byrd said. “He put it right where it needed to be.”

In addition to the throw being accurate, it was just the right speed. That’s a big upgrade from the beginning of the season, when virtually every pass was a fastball.

Fields’ most impressive drive, though, was when he led the Bears to a field goal just before halftime. The Bears were up 24-21 and had the ball at their own 42 with 37 seconds left. It was an easy time to take a knee and go into the locker room with a lead, but the threat of Rodgers getting the ball to start the second half prompted the Bears to go for it.

Fields hit tight end Cole Kmet near the sideline so he could get out of bounds and stop the clock, then ran out of bounds on a 20-yard run to put the Bears in scoring range. They capped the drive with Cairo Santos’ 44-yard field goal as time ran out.

Throughout all the turmoil and turbulence, Fields is rising. That’s crucial because he was one of the few players on the field Sunday who is clearly part of the Bears’ future. He’s central to it and driving it, and that’s the best thing about the Bears as they close out another underwhelming season.