Any chance for Justin Fields to play is a chance for him to improve
Bears coach Matt Eberflus makes the right call by deciding to give his quarterback a half of action in final preseason game.
It’s too early to make any judgments on new Bears coach Matt Eberflus, who hasn’t had a chance yet to fully implement his H.I.T.S. philosophy — Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and (playing) Smart, which sounds like something you’d see on a high school football player’s T-shirt. OK, that’s one not-too-early judgment.
But Eberflus has done at least one very good thing, and I suppose it has something to do with his favorite acronym. It’s hard to hustle, be intense, get takeaways and play smart if you’re not, you know, playing. Eberflus announced Tuesday that many of his starters, including the only guy who really, truly matters, Justin Fields, will play the first half in the Bears’ last preseason game against the Browns on Saturday night. Good move.
For NFL teams, the last exhibition game traditionally has been used as a sideline couch for starters and as an opportunity for coaches to make final determinations on players who are vying for special-teams spots. It’s not what anyone would call must-watch stuff, unless you’re the parents of those players vying for special-teams spots or the girlfriend of the third-string quarterback.
But this situation is different, and Eberflus apparently gets it. He can come up with all the morale-building slogans in the world, but he needs to find out if Fields is the real deal or if he’s the product of a certain metropolis’ vivid imagination. The only way to find out is by eyeballing him. It certainly isn’t by dreaming him into something spectacular, which has become Chicago’s fifth major sport.
No, Fields needs to play a lot, and he needs to learn a lot. If he gets hurt Saturday, he gets hurt. I don’t mean to be cavalier. It’s not my anterior cruciate ligament that’ll be in the line of fire, and it’s not my shoulder that could get mashed by a tubby defensive tackle. But it’s clear that he’s far from a finished product, and the only way to point him in that direction is by playing him more. If only bad things can happen at a bar at 2 a.m. and in an NFL preseason game, so be it.
Wherever you fall on the Fields spectrum — from “he’s a future Hall of Famer” to “he reminds me of Mitch Trubisky” — you have to admit that he has a long way to go. In the Bears’ first two preseason games, he completed 9 of 14 passes for 87 yards (good) and no touchdowns (worrisome?). It’d be nice to see him drive the offense to a TD or two in Cleveland.
It’d be nice to see something more than the occasional spark from the kid. The pro-Fields crowd will argue, rightly, that he’s operating behind an offensive line that appears to have a death wish for him. That seemed to be the case last season, as well. But here’s the thing about transcendent athletes: You can’t hide their light under a bushel. They’d make plays even if an offensive line of sports columnists were blocking for them. When Aaron Rodgers was sitting behind Brett Favre for three years in Green Bay, it wasn’t lost on teammates how good he was in practice. Talent finds a way.
That’s the most disconcerting thing about Fields. There weren’t many reports of him wowing observers during this year’s training camp. There wasn’t much to report in the way of “wows’’ last season, either. You are correct: He was a rookie on a bad team in 2021. But at some point, he has to start making plays. To date, the ratio of excuses made for Fields to plays he has made on the field is about 15:1.
That’s why it’s good and important that he’ll be competing Saturday. There will be more chances for him to improve and more chances for us to see if all the fuss about him is legit. More opportunities for him to get his footwork right and more opportunities for us to see if a star is actually being born.
So far, most of his flashes have come when he’s running the ball. His athleticism is on full display when he tucks the ball under his arm and takes off. But that was also true of Trubisky (sorry). Also, a steady diet of running is a good way to get a quarterback hurt.
Nothing is easy about this situation. The Bears are walking a fine line, and they know it. They want to find out about Fields, and they don’t want him to get hurt. But they have the right order in terms of importance. Finding out takes precedence.
Eberflus has another coach-y thing he’s pushing.
“It’s the M&M principle,” he said earlier this year. “It’s about having a great motor and about being mean.’’
I’d throw in one more M: It’s about making plays.