Football is a complex game. But one thing is for sure: The quarterback is the most important man on the field.
How goes your quarterback, so goes your team.
Bears rookie quarterback Justin Fields lit up the Dolphins in his preseason debut Saturday afternoon. And he also — and appropriately — lit up Bears fans everywhere.
What we glimpsed was a young man with exceptional poise in the pocket, the ability to scan the field and make confident decisions, and an arm that is accurate and pro-ball worthy.
We also saw speed.
Indeed, we saw exceptional speed from Fields — a 4.45 in the 40 speed — which is essentially receiver and cornerback speed.
Yes, you hear about the guys who run 4.3s, even the rare 4.2s. But those are track stars, human bullets, and, remember, the 40-yard dash is run in a straight line, and not much on a football field goes in a straight line.
When Fields scored on an eight-yard scramble to his left in the third quarter, he arced around the Dolphins’ pass rush, blew away from pursuing linebacker Duke Riley and beat closing safety Jevon Holland to the end zone. It was grace and athleticism and spatial awareness. And it was pure speed.
Nobody can say for sure that Fields will be a mighty success in the NFL. Preseason games are like invasions of seasonal cicadas — a lot of flying around and noise, signifying almost nothing.
But when he said the professional game he was playing seemed “kind of slow to me,’’ you had to perk up your ears and think to yourself, ‘OMG, we found one!’ Because the NFL game is fast, very fast.
Yes, the players are bigger and stronger, and assuredly meaner, than in college. But every position is played with as much speed as possible. And that makes all the difference.
Even blimp-like offensive linemen are selected according to foot speed and agility in their little pig-like spaces. So if a sturdy, 6-3, 227-pound quarterback says he has time to think and he sees the field well and time has slowed down for him, it means his own speed transcends the normal borders of his position.
What Fields demonstrated in his brief outing against the Dolphins is that a good quarterback who is fast is better than a good quarterback who is slow. Or even average speed.
Here’s a test. Imagine Tom Brady with speed. The soon-to-be Hall of Famer would be absolutely terrifying if he had sprinter’s lightning to go with his computational genius and deadly arm.
So we are left to wonder why the NFL took so long to covet swift and athletic quarterbacks, to feverishly seek them out and draft them and change the game to utilize their gifts.
One reason is that it’s rare to find anyone who can throw rockets, who is a leader, who gets the game, and who is fast as hell.
Fran Tarkenton was slippery and elusive. So were Joe Theismann and Doug Flutie. But those quarterbacks were on the smallish or slender side.
Steve Young could move, and quarterbacks like Joe Montana, John Elway, and even old Bears helmsman Bobby Douglass were very good athletes. But they didn’t have blazing speed, and, of course, as they aged, they got beaten up pretty good.
The truly fast quarterbacks — Michael Vick, Donovan McNabb, Robert Griffin III, and more recently, Colin Kaepernick, Tyrod Taylor, Deshaun Watson, and Lamar Jackson are, as a point of fact, Black. And the NFL, as I’m sure you’re aware, has only followed society, not led it, in giving Black men the opportunities they deserve and can excel at.
There was on old saying in the game: White up the middle. That meant all the “thinking’’ and leadership positions were segregated: i.e., free safety, middle linebacker, center, and — of course — quarterback.
The change was slow to come. And the lesser positions went first. The great ones stand out. There was middle linebacker Willie Lanier with the Chiefs, center Dwight Stephenson with the Dolphins, free safety Emlen Tunnell for the Packers, all in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But Black quarterbacks were subtly nudged aside. Their speed, if they had it, was almost a detriment. Hey kid, line up with the wide receivers.
But finally stars like Warren Moon and Randall Cunningham came along, and their gifts opened eyes. Now Chiefs superstar Patrick Mahomes blows people’s minds.
The Bears might have a gift in Justin Fields. If he blazes across the football sky, fast and furious, what a joy it will be.