Justin Fields getting a chance to finish with flourish
The Bears’ rookie quarterback will start Sunday’s season finale against the Vikings after missing two games with an ankle injury. “Every opportunity to play the game I love, I’m gonna do it.”
Almost from the day he stepped onto the practice field at Halas Hall in rookie minicamp, Justin Fields seemed to pass the base-level eye test: He was better than Mitch Trubisky.
The Bears’ rookie quarterback not only had impressive arm strength and accuracy, mobility and speed, but also a keen sense for the nuances of the position. Trubisky was an assembly-required quarterback who too often looked like a guy who had started just 13 games at North Carolina. But playing quarterback seemed more natural to Fields, who actually started only nine more games in college than Trubisky but had more big-game credentials.
Fields’ rookie season hasn’t necessarily changed that outlook. Even in flashes, you can see how his superior athleticism can create plays Trubisky couldn’t make. But in a disjointed rookie season, all we’ve seen are flashes. He hasn’t proven anything yet. He’ll get one last chance to make a first impression when he starts Sunday against the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I think I’ve made a lot of progress in terms of being a successful season,” Fields said. “Of course we would like to get more wins. But I think I learned a lot and I’m definitely looking forward to the future.”
In 12 games this season (10 starts), Fields has a 73.2 passer rating — completing 159 of 270 passes for 1,870 yards, seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also has rushed 72 times for 420 yards (5.8 average) and two touchdowns.
There’s no doubt that most rookie quarterbacks struggle. But Fields’ rookie season still pales compared to other first-year starters. Of the 19 quarterbacks since 2017 to start eight or more games in their rookie season, Fields ranks 14th in passer rating (73.2). He’s 14th in completion percentage (58.9), 19th in yards per game (155.8), 17th in interception percentage (3.7), 15th in touchdown percentage (15th). He’s sixth in yards per attempt (6.9), second in rushing yards per game (35.0) and seven in rushing yards per attempt (5.8).
Rookie performance is not necessarily defining. Though the Chargers’ Justin Herbert (98.3 rating) heads that five-year list of rookie quarterbacks, the Bills’ Josh Allen is 17th (67.9) — and he could get some MVP votes this season.
But it surely is a little disconcerting to some Bears fans that Fields even lags slightly behind Trubisky’s rookie season in 2017. Trubisky had a 77.5 passer rating in 12 starts as a rookie — completing 196 of 330 passes (59.4%), for 2,193 yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. He also rushed 41 times for 248 yards (6.1 average) and two touchdowns.
Fields still is a superior prospect. But that the he and Trubisky are that close statistically seems like a poor reflection on coach Matt Nagy’s offense. Trubisky’s best weapons were wide receivers Kendall Wright, Josh Bellamy and Dontrelle Inman, tight ends Dion Sims, Adam Shaheen and Zach Miller and running backs Tarik Cohen and Jordan Howard.
Fields’ best targets include wide receivers Allen Robinson, Darnell Mooney and Marquise Goodwin, tight ends Cole Kmet and Jimmy Graham and running back David Montgomery.
And Fields also figured to have a schematic advantage with quarterback-centric coaches in Nagy, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor. Trubisky had earnest but less experienced coaches in offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone under coach John Fox.
When DeFilippo was the offensive coordinator with the Jaguars in 2019, rookie Gardner Minshew replaced an injured Nick Foles in the season opener and became a revelation. Minshew, a sixth-round draft pick from Washington State, completed 60% of his passes, threw for 3,271 yards, with 21 touchdown passes and only six interceptions for a 91.2 passer rating.
If Gardner Minshew can be that effective in a bad offense with the Jaguars, why couldn’t Fields be any better with the Bears?
“Every player has a different starting point,” DeFilippo said. “One thing I tend to stay away from is player comparisons, because everybody’s situation is different. Every playing situation [with] young guys that are playing is different.”
When Nagy was asked about bright spots this season that might portend to success in 2022, he mentioned the development of young players — “creating a culture to be able to take off and do great things,” but did not mention Fields in particular. Bears fans surely hoped by now that Fields would be the obvious answer as a bright spot in a tough season. The reality is that Fields has promise, but is no sure thing after Year 1.
“I think he’s a big part of that [young core],” Nagy said. “And he’s done everything that we’ve asked him to do in the developmental part. As we know, at the quarterback position, it takes time. And as I’ve said from the very beginning, whether it’s games or years, you look at some of the greatest quarterbacks to play this game, they’re still getting better and better, whether they’re in their eighth, ninth or 10th year.
“So he definitely has developed and improved this year from the day he got here — what he can do within this offense to the experience he’s had to building relationships with his teammates and coaches.”