Andy Dalton was watching film in the Bears’ quarterbacks room during organized team activities in June when he turned to ask Justin Fields a question.
“I asked him, ‘What is it like to run 4.4?’” Dalton said.
Fields, the Bears’ rookie quarterback, ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at Ohio State’s pro day. With no NFL Scouting Combine because of the coronavirus, Fields’ time — along with those of every other prospect who couldn’t travel to Indianapolis — was recorded into the combine record books. Fields ran, simply, the second-fastest 40-yard dash time of any quarterback prospect this century. He trails only Robert Griffin III, the former Washington quarterback who ran hurdles in the U.S. Olympic trials. Griffin ran a 4.33 in 2012.
“Not many people can do that at the quarterback position,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “But when you have designed runs and you have plays that break down, and [Fields] can just make anybody on the field not catch him, that’s a pretty good strength that he has that a lot of guys don’t have.”
When the Bears run onto Soldier Field to face the Dolphins on Saturday, they’ll play perhaps the most anticipated preseason game in franchise history. It’s partly because fans are returning to the lakefront for the first time since the end of the 2019 season. But it’s mostly because of Fields, whom the Bears traded up to draft in late April.
Hungry for any sign of progress, fans will eat up every throw — heck, some cheered a handoff he made at Family Fest — but they should pay attention to every run. For the first time since he wore Buckeye stickers on his gray helmet, Fields will be able to show his speed on a football field, when opponents chase him with bad intentions.
His teammates will watch, too.
“I’m excited for the first preseason game for us to really be able to see him get a chance to get outside the pocket and make a play with his legs,” receiver Allen Robinson said. “We see his throwing ability every day. It’s exciting seeing him, when he pulls the ball down, seeing his athletic ability and how he moves and how he can run.
“I’m definitely excited to see him get that opportunity against another opponent when he can actually possibly break a long one. Because I think he has that capability in him.”
In 34 college games, Fields ran 260 times for 1,133 yards. One reason for the unimpressive 4.4 yards per carry average: in college football, sacks count against the quarterback’s rushing yards.
Fields’ most notable play came when he didn’t have the ball at all. On Dec. 5, he handed off to Ohio State running back Trey Sermon and chased after him, looking to make a block. Fifty-seven yards later, having passed Sermon, Fields blocked a Michigan State defender at the 7-yard line. Sermon scored.
“[Speed] is a huge weapon that he brings and that’s been a part of his game,” Nagy said. “I don’t think you see him overuse it; he just uses it when he needs to, in college. And it’s worked for him.”
Nagy calls it “burst” — both the zip that the rifle-armed Fields puts on his passes but the gear he shifts into, like a sports car, when he takes off running. Nagy sees it on tape, but he feels it on the practice field. Strangely, too, it’s not even when Fields is running with the ball. It’s when he’s jogging from one practice session to the other.
“Watch his burst when he throws routes on air to the wideouts,” Nagy said. “Watch that burst when that drill is done and he bursts to the other end of the field. You can see it. That’s where you feel it.”
Nagy’s felt it before — he coached Michael Vick in Philadelphia from 2009-12. The NFL’s career rushing leader for quarterbacks, Vick led the league with 6.8 yards per carry in 20210.
“Michael Vick was somebody that, when he was in practice he did his stuff and he did everything he was asked to do, but on Sunday — and I was on the sideline when he was playing — it was electric how he played,” Nagy said. “It was a different level. That was crazy. Anybody that coached Michael can say that.
“But Justin, again, you feel that burst.”
Nagy has coached a speedy quarterback before, but the threat didn’t last long. Mitch Trubisky averaged 6.2 yards per carry — and totaled 421 rushing yards — in 2018.
As Trubisky’s injury history grew — he bruised his shoulder in November 2018 and tore the labrum in his shoulder in September 2019 — Trubisky ran less. By October 2019, Nagy was preaching that he wanted him to be a thrower.
“You have to be a quarterback that can run,” Nagy said then.
Trubisky didn’t reach 400 rushing yards — combined — over his final two seasons.
The tone with Fields has been different. The coaching staff has yet to question Fields’ aggressiveness the way they did Trubisky. Nagy used to say he wanted Trubisky to have a “touchdown-to-checkdown” mentality when throwing — look deep first, then short. During draft week, Nagy joked about Fields having a “touchdown-to-touchdown mentality,” a line he repeated in mandatory minicamp and again in training camp.
The Bears liked that teams had to prepare for Trubisky’s legs. They knew that there were coverages some teams wouldn’t play on third down — man being one of them — for fear of having their defenders’ backs turned if Trubisky scrambled.
That remains true with Fields. When Nagy interviewed nine defensive coordinators in January, each one brought up the challenge of defending an athletic quarterback.
“It adds a whole other dynamic they have to defend,” general manager Ryan Pace said. “A lot of guys have it. A lot of guys don’t. And [Fields] has it.”
By the second week of training camp, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo was challenging Fields to attack the defense even more. The message: not a lot of people walking the earth can throw and run like Fields.
“When you escape,” DeFilippo said he told Fields, “I want to see that full speed. And if there is a throw to make, you make it. And if there is not, then you use your God-given ability to create. ...
“Justin has that added gift, for sure. And you can never take that out of a guy.”
It comes with its risks, though.
About halfway through the second quarter of Ohio State’s national semifinal win against Clemson, Fields scrambled up the middle. Eleven yards later, at the Tigers’ 19, Fields saw linebacker James Skalski running right at him, and turned his back to protect the ball.
Skalski tackled him helmet-first — he was ejected for targeting — but the damage was done.
“One of the more vicious shots I’ve seen in a long time,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said.
Fields’ ribs ached for weeks — and hampered him in the national title loss to Alabama.
“I’m still scarred from that Clemson hit,” Fields said. “Literally every time I tuck the ball down and run I’m thinking about getting out of bounds or getting down. There’s of course going to be times when you have to, of course, try to fight for extra yardage. I’m definitely smarter and trying to protect myself more. …
“The hit hurt so much, every time I run now, I just think of that hit and I’m not trying to take a hit like that again. So I definitely get out of bounds or getting down.”
He should have slid.
“We want him to cut it loose — but don’t take that extra hit,” Nagy said. “We’ll live to see another down. We don’t need you guys getting speared.”
Fields, a former baseball shortstop, knows how to slide. Vick, one of the game’s greatest athletes ever, did not.
“We had to get the Slip ‘n’ Slide out in practice with Michael …” Nagy said. “Learning how to slide and not take a hit, that extra hit, and there’s that timing element too. Because some guys if you slide too late and they hit you — you know, even if it’s a penalty, you’re still getting hit.”
Just ask Trubisky. At home against the Vikings in 2018, Trubisky scrambled left and tried to slide. Instead of going feet-first like a baseball player, he went head-first — which, per NFL rules, still grants him protection from oncoming defenders.
That didn’t stop Vikings safety Harrison Smith, who hit Trubisky. He was flagged and fined, but Trubisky’s right shoulder was jammed into the ground. Trubisky missed two games. The Bears lost one. They missed a first-round bye by one win — and lost in the wild-card round.
“We lost him for a few weeks,” Nagy said. “You’ve got to be smart. That’s where we’ve got to educate [Fields]. Things happen a little faster. Don’t be stupid. You know, get down when you get a chance.”
During practice earlier this month, Fields scrambled and, to his coaches’ delight, slid.
“I was just thinking about baseball, actually,” Fields said.
Fields is looking forward to taking his first hit in eight months Saturday — but not like that.
“Moving a little bit, running around a little bit definitely pumps me up a little bit more rather than staying kind of calm in the backfield,” he said. “Running around and getting hit — it’s of course gonna be the first time since January, but I’m definitely excited.”
He’s not the only one.
“He’s special,” Dalton said. “If he’s got that room in front of him, that’s a part of his game that he can definitely use, with his speed that he’s got.”