Looking for Justin Fields in Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow — and not finding him. Yet.
The Bears quarterback isn’t like either Super Bowl quarterback. Is there hope?
One of the go-to gadgets in the sportswriter’s toolbox is the Super Bowl quarterback exercise. You take the QB of your local NFL team and compare him with the two quarterbacks who will be playing in the big game. You sift through the grain, looking for insights into how their journeys might inform our understanding of the local guy’s path. Mostly what you want to know is whether there is hope for our parched town.
Could Local Guy have have a rags-to-riches story like Super Bowl Quarterback No. 1 did? Did Super Bowl Quarterback No. 2 struggle early in his career like Local Guy has? Are there comparable skills? Speed? Intelligence? Arm strength … I’m sorry, arm “talent?’’
And if he and they had similar experiences or abilities, would it not follow that he might, if the fates smile on him, be a Super Bowl quarterback someday?
That brings us to the Rams’ Matthew Stafford and the Bengals’ Joe Burrow, who will square off Sunday in the big game, and to the Bears’ Justin Fields, who will watch them square off.
What can we learn from their odysseys that might apply to Fields’?
Um, not a whole lot.
And that’s OK.
There is no right road. We know this because Stafford spent 12 seasons bearing the massive burden of being a Detroit Lion. He put up excellent numbers for mostly bad to mediocre teams and earned the tag of being the king of empty calories. And then, like a gift from above, an almost unthinkable gift, the Rams traded for him last offseason. And here he is, coming off a 41-touchdown regular season, finally playing in a Super Bowl. Although doubts about him as a quarterback still linger, the sun is starting to burn off some of those doubts.
Can you see Justin Fields anywhere in Stafford’s story? A little, if you squint. Fields struggled in his rookie season, with seven touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and a passer rating of 73.2 in 2021. So did Stafford, who had 13 TD passes, 20 picks and a rating of 61.0 in 2009. But he had one thing Fields didn’t: one huge game. In Week 10, Stafford threw for 422 yards and five touchdowns in a victory over Cleveland. It let the Lions know there was reason to believe they had chosen wisely with the first overall pick in the draft.
There wasn’t that signature game for Fields, the 11th overall pick in 2021. Oh, there were plenty of people waiting to jump on a particular throw or run or even a half as reason for galloping hope, but there wasn’t one game where it could definitely be said, “Yep, he most certainly is the guy.’’
Before you jump on me for suggesting that Fields isn’t a sure thing or even a Stafford-in-training, concentrate on this: Stafford’s trajectory is not the trajectory you Bears fans want for Fields. You don’t want that story. You do not want a talented quarterback wasting away in the basement of a losing franchise. That would mean years of good individual play in an underwhelming setting, like an A-list actor playing summer stock in suburban Wichita.
Is there anything that would point toward Fields being more a Burrow than a Stafford?
Burrow transferred from Ohio State after three years as a rarely used backup to LSU, where he had one of the greatest seasons in college football history, leading the Tigers to a national championship. Fields, too, was a transfer, going from Georgia to Ohio State, where he helped lead the Buckeyes to the College Football Playoff championship game.
Burrow, like Stafford, is a former No. 1 overall pick. He was playing well for the Bengals in 2020, his rookie season, when he suffered a devastating knee injury in Week 11. He returned this season to lead the Bengals to their first Super Bowl appearance since 1989. He plays like a 10-year veteran. Great arm. Incredible poise.
You can’t look at Fields’ rookie season and say he’s obviously on the same path. He might be, but we don’t know yet. We knew Burrow was headed for greatness before he hurt his knee. If you want to argue that Fields was negatively affected by having Matt Nagy as his head coach, that’s fair. And it would also be fair to say that Fields doesn’t have nearly the talent around him in Chicago that Burrow has now in Cincinnati. In a recent Sun-Times story, Bill Polian, the man who led the search for a new Bears general manager and coach, said the team’s talent level was low.
Fields could end up being a wonderful player, but did you notice that neither new general manager Ryan Poles nor new coach Matt Eberflus gushed about him during their introductory press conferences? That was a refreshing shift from Nagy, who never stopped telling us how talented the rookie was. How about letting his play speak for him?
Burrow and Stafford are drop-back quarterbacks, and although Fields can be that, he’s more of a dual-purpose threat. Nagy didn’t use him correctly, but it doesn’t follow from the coach’s failure that Fields someday will be a star.
There is hope for Fields, but it’s not necessarily found in Stafford and Burrow.