It’s the kind of play Justin Fields was built for.
The Bears faced a fourth-and-one from the Vikings’ 21 in the third quarter of their 17-9 loss Monday night. They lined up wide receiver Darnell Mooney behind and to the right of the rookie quarterback. Fields took the snap from under center, rolled right and looked downfield for someone — anyone to pop open. He ran across the hash and toward the numbers. Fields took two jab steps, as if he was going to run, only to see two defenders line up to tackle him.
Mooney was covered in the flat. Tight end Cole Kmet slipped and fell, stood up and was covered. Running back Khalil Herbert flashed open while running a crossing route from left to right — but not for long.
Tight end Jimmy Graham ran up the field when Fields scrambled and put his left hand in the air — I’m open! — as he sprinted toward the navy NFC logo in the north end zone.
Fields kept running toward the sideline and eventually swallowed the ball. He was tackled by three Vikings. In fact, the six closest players to Fields when he fell to the ground were wearing purple.
“They obviously covered it,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said.
It encapsulated Fields’ rookie season perfectly. He has shown flashes of being special — but not special enough, often enough, to overcome the circumstances of the Bears’ season.
Some problems are of his own making — Fields fumbled twice and lost one, continuing a disturbing trend — and many aren’t. He played on a roster ravaged by the coronavirus. By the time the Bears went for it on fourth-and-one, Fields was without three regular receivers — Allen Robinson, Marquise Goodwin and Jakeem Grant — as well as his starting tackles from the previous week.
Fields ran a fourth-down play that seemed misguided from the get-go, called by a head coach who spent another game punting in cases when he should go for it, given the fact he’s coaching a 4-10 team with nothing to lose.
How much of the Bears’ struggles is Fields’ fault? How much is inexperience to blame? His coaches? A training camp when he mostly played with second-stringers? The personnel that has been inferior to their opponent in almost every game?
The Bears have three weeks to try to find some answers. After that, new leadership — definitely at head coach and perhaps at general manager — will do the same.
Fields did little to separate himself again, the latest in a disturbing series of popgun performances. He went 26-for-39 for 285 yards and one touchdown — but 36 of those yards and the only score came on the last two plays of the game, when the Vikings were playing shell coverage.
Throw away Fields’ second half in Pittsburgh, and here’s what Fields’ stat line looked like entering the game: 121-for-213 for 1,356 yards with five touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. That’s a passer rating of — wait for it — 64.21.
The lack of results has sent panic through Bears fans. If he were special, would it be apparent by now? That would seem obvious, until you scan the bottom of the NFL’s passer-rating list. Jets quarterback Zach Wilson is 32nd. The Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence is 30th. The Texans’ Davis Mills is 27th. Fields was 31st. All are rookies.
“Every rookie in this sport wants it to happen overnight,” Nagy said. “It takes time.
“Justin’s built the right way. He’s going to be really, really good.”
He’s not there yet. The Bears got into the red zone five times. They fumbled once and turned the ball over on downs twice. They kicked a field goal and scored a touchdown on the game’s final play.
In the fourth quarter, the Bears methodically marched 81 yards — they had seven first downs — in which their best play was Fields getting bullied. The Vikings were flagged for hitting Fields late twice.
On third-and-goal at the 9, Fields rolled left, scanned the end zone and saw Graham boxing out his defender near the front left pylon. Graham reached out with both hands — and dropped the pass. On fourth down, Fields lofted a pass toward the back right corner to a leaping Mooney, who got his right foot down — but no more — as he fell out of bounds.
“You have to score in the red zone,” Nagy said. “Field goals do you no good. Missed field goals do you no good.”
It was another near miss. It’s too soon to say the same about Fields — but the next complete game he plays will be his first.