Oh, what a difference a quarterback makes.
After a typically awkward and conflicting end-of-season press conference in January in which the Bears patted themselves on the back for climbing out of a hole they dug to make the playoffs at 8-8 after losing six straight games, many Bears fans were in an all-too typically awkward and conflicting position: rooting for failure in 2021 to elicit regime change.
Then came draft night.
Bears general manager Ryan Pace’s trade to move up from 20th to 11th in the first round and select Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields changed everything. In one bold stroke, Pace reversed the course of fanbase discontent and provided the best salvation this franchise could hope for in lieu of success: hope and excitement.
The drafting of Fields elicited a giddiness that never existed with Mitch Trubisky, who was the people’s choice as a rookie in 2017, but largely because he wasn’t Mike Glennon. Fields has bona fide credentials — a 20-2 record at Ohio State, with a signature win against Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Experts who panned Pace’s move up to take Trubisky were giving him A-plusses for the Fields gambit.
Three years ago, Pace created an invigorating buzz when he traded for Khalil Mack, but the drafting of Fields dwarfs that. As good as Mack is, the Bears have had elite defenders before — many of them, in fact. But they’ve never had a quarterback prospect like Justin Fields in the modern NFL era.
With the Fields buzz at an early fever pitch, notes of dissent have been pushed into the background. Why did 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan prefer comparatively unproven Trey Lance? Why did quarterback-needy teams like the Broncos and Eagles pass on Fields? Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, an analyst with an impressive record of quarterback prospect evaluation, rated Fields sixth in this year’s draft — behind even Mac Jones and Kellen Mond — and has issues with Fields’ throwing mechanics. “It’s gonna be a tough fix,” Simms said on a YouTube video evaluating Fields, whom he ranked 39th among the top 40 quarterbacks in the NFL.
We’ll see about that. Or will we? Fields is slated to spend his rookie season in an apprenticeship behind veteran Andy Dalton. History says he’ll likely play at some point of his rookie season. But whether he does or not, the Bears’ prospects for 2021 are a huge unknown. Even if the offensive pieces are in place, does Matt Nagy know what to do with them? Will the offensive line be better without starting tackles Charles Leno and Bobby Massie? Will the once-vaunted defense get better or just older?
The Bears have upside, but also plenty of doubt. They are 50-1 to win the Super Bowl (up from 40-1 at this time last year). Their over/under win total is 7-7 1/2 in a 17-game season. In a perusal of major-outlet preseason power rankings, they range from 16th (Chicago Sun-Times) to 24th (espn.com). They’re a team to watch — along with the Chargers, Cardinals, 49ers, Raiders and Vikings among non-winning teams in 2020. But a lot depends on when Justin Fields steps into the huddle.
With that in mind, here is our annual test of Bears fans’ optimism/pessimism for the upcoming season. Rate these categories, with 10 points for an optimistic vote, minus-10 for a pessimistic vote and zero for a neutral vote.
90-100: Lay off the Kool-Aid.
70-80: Must be new in town.
20 to minus-20: Seeing is believing.
Minus-50 to minus-70: Waiting for Ditka’s return.
Minus-80 to minus-100: Packers fan.
Optimist: The heralded rookie thrives in the spotlight, learns quickly and pushes Andy Dalton almost from the start with impressive preseason performances that ignite the offense and make it clear it’s only a matter of time. He starts by midseason and almost immediately, the Bears are winning games because of him.
Pessimist: The NFL learning curve proves problematic even for the talented Fields. He gets his chance to start when Dalton falters, but as it turns out, the rookie is not yet ready to lift an offense on his shoulders and his struggles create more doubt than excitement.
Optimist: With a better hand to play, the veteran proves to be an upgrade from Nick Foles, wins the games he’s supposed to win and keeps the Bears within striking distance of a playoff spot before Nagy turns to Fields for a mid-season spark.
Pessimist: At 33 and six years removed from his last winning season, Dalton ends up only being in the way of Fields, robbing the rookie of valuable learning experience until Nagy’s hand is forced by a stagnant offense that Dalton is unable to spark.
Optimist: Deftly manages a tricky quarterback situation — keeping his promise to Andy Dalton but also being open-minded enough to realize that Fields is his best quarterback. Makes the move at the right time, the offense takes off and with the wind finally at his back, Nagy is back in 2018 “Willy Wonka” mode and looks like the Andy Reid disciple he was expected to be.
Pessimist: The Fields apprenticeship plan goes awry as the Nagy offense continues to spin its wheels with Dalton at quarterback and Nagy turns to Fields in less than favorable circumstances. Fields’ NFL introduction is rocky and as a disappointing season concludes, the Bears’ biggest issue is the offense and not the quarterback.
SEAN DESAI’S DEFENSE
Optimist: After two years of regression under veteran coordinator Chuck Pagano, the 38-year-old Ivy-leaguer is the right guy at the right time. With his background and experience with Vic Fangio’s defense and knowledge of the current talent, his fresh ideas and intelligent approach provide the missing spark and puts the aggressive takeaway/sack bite back in the Bears’ defense.
Pessimist: Desai brings a fresh approach but can’t turn back the clock — the loss of Kyle Fuller and the stagnation, if not regression of stars Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks and Danny Trevathan proves too much to overcome, and despite the rookie coordinator’s best efforts, the Bears defense takes another step back toward mediocrity.
Optimist: Finally over a mental and physical funk from a difficult first-year in Chicago, Quinn regains his spark and — with a helping hand from first-year coordinator Sean Desai — becomes the double-digit sack force he was expected to be.
Pessimist: Another half-step slower at 31, Quinn’s struggle to adjust to the Bears’ 3-4 defense becomes mental as well as physical and he loses his starting job to second-year linebacker Trevis Gipson.
Optimist: The second-year wide receiver takes a giant leap from an impressive rookie season and gives the Bears’ offense home run potential with every catch. When Justin Fields takes over, he approaches a Tyreek Hill-level role — often wide open downfield for big plays as Fields scrambles out of trouble.
Pessimist: No longer a secret after an impressive rookie season, Mooney stagnates in his second year as Javon Wims, Riley Ridley and others fail to step up and provide support. Big plays here and there, but his developmental arc is slowed by a dormant offense.
Optimist: After scratching the surface in an unproductive offense as a rookie, Kmet takes a big step as an all-purpose tight end — helping unleash the run game and ignite the passing game. He approaches Travis Kelce second-year numbers (72 receptions, 875 yards, five touchdowns), with room for massive growth heading into 2022.
Pessimist: Overlooked and underutilized as Matt Nagy’s offense continues to flail, Kmet flashes big-play potential but is always well-covered and rarely targeted and hits an early career plateau. He struggles to exceed his first-year numbers (28 receptions, 243 yards, two touchdowns).
Optimist: After opting out of the 2021 season, the 27-year-old Goldman is fresh and productive and the defensive MVP. His ability to stop the run has a chain-reaction impact — rejuvenating Akiem Hicks and invigorating the pass rush, which turns Jaylon Johnson and Desmond Trufant into third-level playmakers.
Pessimist: Goldman shows the rust of the one-year layoff from football and isn’t the impact player he was in his first five seasons. With line coach Jay Rodgers no longer around, Hicks regresses and the supporting cast of rotation players doesn’t make the impact it used to, which puts a weight on the rest of the defense it cannot bear.
Optimist: The rookie from Oklahoma State lives up to the hype as a versatile first-round talent the Bears acquired in the second round. He adjusts quickly to become an immediate upgrade over Charles Leno and create a ripple effect that takes James Daniels and Cody Whitehair — and the entire offensive line — to another level.
Pessimist: Jenkins struggles to adjust to the NFL, which causes more work for Whitehair and Daniels, which leaves Germain Ifedi vulnerable at right tackle, which makes the offensive line a work-in-progress, which stifles the run game, which ignites the opposing pass rush, which makes it too dangerous to put Justin Fields on the field.
Optimist: Bears catch a lot of teams at the right time — Matt Stafford in his first game with the Rams; Joe Burrow coming off an injury; the Packers in free fall without Aaron Rodgers; the Buccaneers in a post-Super Bowl funk; Ben Roethlisberger finished — and get off to a 7-2 start that propels them to a 12-5 season and a playoff berth.
Pessimist: Bears catch a lot of teams at the wrong time — Matt Stafford just what the Rams needed; Joe Burrow taking a giant leap toward Brady-like greatness in Year 2; Baker Mayfield emerging as elite; Rodgers back with the Packers; Tom Brady out to avenge a 2021 loss to the Bears; Roethlisberger revitalized — and get off to a 2-7 start that dooms them to a 5-12 season and an offseason of change at Halas Hall.