Bears GM Ryan Poles would be smart to wait before going all in on Justin Fields
He should keep the same emotional distance from the quarterback as he has from the rest of the roster he inherited.
A fan once asked George McCaskey at a public gathering who his favorite Bear was at the time. “Jay Cutler,’’ the team’s chairman told the crowd. I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you how many people needed to be transported to area hospitals after that declaration of love. But it couldn’t have gone over well with a fan base that had tired of Cutler’s mercurialness on and off the field.
It might have looked like an indictment of McCaskey’s ability to recognize talent and attitude, but more likely it was something else.
NFL franchises regularly fall in love with players they shouldn’t fall in love with. It’s not unique to the Bears. The love is contagious. It spreads throughout a team’s headquarters, inspiring otherwise sober football people to doodle sonnets about an edge rusher or a quarterback when they should be Xing and Oing. It’s often reserved for first-round draft picks and big-salary players. Everybody in the building knows which players they’re supposed to love, so they do. McCaskey, who has admitted he’s a Bears fan, not a talent expert, was told by his coach, his general manager and his checkbook that Cutler should be the apple of his eye. So he was.
I find it extremely encouraging that new Bears general manager Ryan Poles has yet to publicly proclaim Justin Fields his Honeycrisp or Golden Delicious. The previous regime of GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy went out of its way to praise the rookie quarterback last season, in much the same way it for years praised Mitch Trubisky beyond all reason and evidence.
Others might have viewed Poles’ introductory press conference in January differently, but I saw a man who, given every opportunity, wouldn’t extol Fields’ abilities just yet.
I’d like to think he wants to see the kid play before starting the Hall of Fame discussion. I’d like to think he wants to see the kid practice. I’d like to think he wants to see the kid read the playbook and NFL defenses.
The one thing that sticks out about Poles’ first few months on the job is the emotional distance he has shown toward the roster he inherited. He shipped star pass rusher Khalil Mack, who was Pace’s biggest acquisition, to the Chargers. He waived defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, linebacker Danny Trevathan and running back Tarik Cohen. Wide receiver Allen Robinson has signed with the Rams, and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks likely will be somewhere else next season.
It’s important that Poles keep an emotional distance from Fields, too. That’s not to say Fields lacks talent or potential. It’s to say: Don’t keep making the same mistake that teams have made forever. Don’t fall in love with someone before the first date. That hasn’t worked out too well for the Bears and quarterbacks lately.
Just because Cutler didn’t live up to the mile-high expectations the Bears had when they acquired him from Denver in 2009 and just because Trubisky didn’t have success in Chicago doesn’t mean that Fields will walk a similar, potholed path. He had more than a few highlights in 2021, and we should get a clearer picture in the next year or so of how much blame Nagy gets for Fields’ struggles.
But quickly going all in on a young quarterback is a fool’s errand. It makes apparently intelligent people do dumb things, like sticking with Trubisky much too long. A team can recover from a bad draft pick or a bad trade. The trouble starts when a team is recklessly blind to its mistake. The sin is in not seeing the obvious and in failing to doing something about it.
The hope and dream in Chicago is that Fields turns into a great quarterback. But if he doesn’t, Poles can’t compound the problem. I’d warn that it could cost him his job, but Pace somehow lasted five years after drafting Trubisky instead of Patrick Mahomes. Maybe the key to continued employment with the Bears is a very public mistake.
You love whom you’re supposed to love in the NFL. It happens too often. In May, 2017, McCaskey released a statement when it looked like Cutler was retiring (he wasn’t; he signed with the Dolphins).
“Jay epitomized what it was to be a Chicago Bear,’’ McCaskey said. “His ability, toughness and intelligence were on daily display at Halas Hall and Soldier Field.’’
Those attributes weren’t on display enough for the average fan to discern, so it’s hard to understand what the chairman saw when he watched Cutler play. I wouldn’t be surprised if McCaskey had the same glowing thoughts about Trubisky and has the same glowing thoughts about Fields. Everybody at Halas Hall always seems to be huddled up in groupthink.
The next time a fan asks McCaskey who his favorite employee is, he should stick to what he knows and loves: “My favorite? Whoever is working out the tax breaks for our new stadium.’’