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Frustratingly fitting: Justin Fields’ choppy rookie season ends prematurely

As if enough hadn’t gone wrong and worked against him as a rookie, Fields’ latest misfortune is that he’ll likely miss the season finale.

Fields started 10 games, but his rookie season was riddled with disruption and dysfunction.
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To the very end, Justin Fields’ rookie season has been a total mess.

It has been so disrupted and dysfunction-riddled that it’s hard to tell if much has really been accomplished or if he’s essentially going to be a rookie all over again next season, playing in a new offense for a new coach.

The latest misfortune is that just as he was set to return from an ankle injury that kept him out the last two games, Fields tested positive for the coronavirus Thursday morning. That means it’s a near-certainty he’ll miss the season finale Sunday at the Vikings and cede his start to Andy Dalton or Nick Foles.

“Another week of not having a QB, whoever it ends up being, taking every rep of practice for the week,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor lamented.

More importantly, though, another week of stalling Fields’ development. This game means nothing. Fields’ progress means everything.

It’s one less opportunity to read coverages, signal changes at the line, make split-second decisions in the pocket and more. Every snap builds toward an eventual breakthrough, and nothing will have more effect on the franchise than him fulfilling or falling short of his potential.

Even with the NFL’s recently loosened return-to-play protocol, it’s unlikely Fields will fly to Minneapolis. He must either test negative twice or show a high enough level of “cycle threshold” that the league believes he wouldn’t be contagious.

So most likely, Fields’ rookie season ends after 10 starts, and he finishes with a completion percentage of 58.9, 1,870 yards, seven touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a 73.2 passer rating. He also rushed for 420 yards and two touchdowns.

But it’s imprecise work trying to separate his deficiencies from the effect of the many deficiencies around him.

From the night the Bears traded up to draft Fields No. 11 overall, there was far more concern about their ability to facilitate his growth than whether he possessed the talent to ascend. And through the turbulence of this season, much of which was self-created, that worry has only mushroomed.

It’s one of the reasons coach Matt Nagy is expected to be fired after this game, and it factors into the extremely shaky ground on which general manager Ryan Pace stands.

Nagy announced from the beginning of offseason practices that Dalton was his starter and there was no opportunity for Fields to rise above the backup spot. That was unwarranted and inflexible, and it was disadvantageous given that Fields ended up taking the starting job in Week 3.

That accelerated the Bears’ unnecessarily slow timeline, and Nagy wasn’t ready for it. He called such an awful game in the loss to the Browns that the Bears had their lowest yardage output since 1981, and he was compelled to give up play-calling to Lazor days later.

“You almost can’t even make it up,” Nagy said of the offense that day in Cleveland. “It’s that bad.”

Yeah. Now imagine being a rookie quarterback and stepping into that kind of situation as opposed to landing in New England, as No. 15 pick Mac Jones did. And Pace’s personnel missteps have been woven throughout the ineffectiveness of Nagy’s offense.

Still, Fields seemed capable of overcoming everything that was working against him and looked poised to turn a corner with his impressive rally in the fourth quarter against the Steelers in Week 9. He put the Bears ahead 27-26 with 1:46 left on a touchdown pass to Darnell Mooney, only to watch his defense cough up the game.

Fields never built on that momentum. He suffered cracked ribs in the ensuing game, knocking him out of the next two. He returned for two games but hurt his ankle and was out the next two. This would have been his first game back.

Instead, it’s a frustrating end to a frustrating season.