Justin Fields’ breakthrough must come soon, and Bears could help him by providing sturdy defense
Many of the best quarterbacks in the NFL had the benefit of a great defense during their breakout season. Some had a top running game, too. Will Fields have either?
It might seem early to be ramping up the pressure on quarterback Justin Fields to prove he belongs in the Bears’ future plans, but that type of thinking is outdated.
The old framework of a quarterback needing at least three seasons to develop doesn’t apply anymore, and stars such as Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson shredded defenses as rookies.
In Fields’ case, the expectations on his timeline also have been accelerated by the change in administration at Halas Hall. General manager Ryan Poles wasn’t the one who traded up to take him No. 11 overall in 2021, but he is the one who will pay for it if he gives Fields too much time.
Fields must be good on his own, regardless of the circumstances, but it’s a lot easier if he has help.
There have been 11 quarterbacks who have received votes for Offensive Player of the Year in the last seven seasons, and a study of their careers showed all were clear-cut stars by the end of their third season as the starter.
All 11 were paired with a defense that ranked among the top 10 in takeaways during their breakthrough season. Six had top-10 scoring defenses.
Five benefitted from playing in an offense that ranked among the top 10 in yards per carry, by the way.
It makes a big difference to have an overwhelming defense and a burly ground game. Some guys had both. Will Fields have either?
On the incredibly long list of problems Fields dealt with as a rookie sits the fact that the Bears were 26th in the NFL in turnovers forced last season. They gave up the 11th-most points. Those weren’t the Monsters of the Midway.
And neither is the current defense, at least going by names alone. The Bears have two starters who were excellent last season: defensive end Robert Quinn and cornerback Jaylon Johnson.
They have a recognizable name in safety Eddie Jackson and high-potential rookies in cornerback Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker, but none is a certainty.
If you’re wondering how linebacker Roquan Smith’s absence could affect Fields, this is it.
But the Bears hired coach Matt Eberflus in part because he’s a defensive guru. In his four seasons as the defensive coordinator with the Colts, the team was second only to the Patriots in takeaways and 10th in fewest points and yards allowed.
He should have the expertise to make this defense viable. If he doesn’t, it’ll put substantial stress on Fields.
Teams that don’t get takeaways usually are playing from behind, so they have to throw. And everyone knows they’re going to throw.
Teams that don’t have a reliably effective running game have no choice but to throw. And everyone knows they’re going to throw.
It takes a ton of guesswork out of the equation for opposing defenses and makes an already-difficult task for the quarterback that much harder. The Bears trailed going into the fourth quarter in six of Fields’ 10 starts last season.
There were games in which he rose above it, such as when he completed 7 of 12 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Steelers to give the Bears a late lead before their defense collapsed again. There were also nightmarish fourth quarters against the Browns (1-for-8, 10 yards) and Packers (8-for-13, 69 yards, interception).
That’ll happen for rookies. It’s a massive jump to the NFL, even from a big program such as Ohio State, and Fields had countless sandbags tied to him, thanks to former general manager Ryan Pace and former coach Matt Nagy.
But most of those explanations won’t apply this season. While it helps to have a great defense and running game, Fields still will have to prove himself even if he doesn’t have them. That’s what the best quarterbacks do.