How to respond to Justin Fields’ training-camp struggles: A primer

You can freak out or you can hope. Neither answer is wrong.

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Justin Fields practicing at Halas Hall for Bears training camp.

Justin Fields looks on during the Bears’ training camp at Halas Hall.

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One of the great things about the NFL is that every game feels like it matters, even though many games don’t. The Lions-Bears “showdown” on Nov. 13 isn’t going to be freighted with meaning, but by kickoff, we in the media will have analyzed the matchup to such an extent you’ll think the Super Bowl is about to be played. And you, being the passionate consumer of all things pigskin, will cheer and rage and throw things at the TV as if the fate of the planet were being decided over those three hours.

That same fervor extends to training camp, which doesn’t make much sense. Watching large, sweaty men grunt through a day’s work that doesn’t involve a scoreboard? In essence, it’s heat exhaustion as a spectator sport. Yet loads of significance is attached to what certain players do in August. When that certain player is the quarterback, it starts to feel like a search for the meaning of life.

Life hasn’t gone well for Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense so far in camp. If you want to play the role of wise counsel and remind all of us that it’s early August and that there’s plenty of time for improvement, go ahead. But what does that have to do with the rabies-like symptoms that some worried fans are presenting?

Even Fields’ most ardent supporters have had to rein in their enthusiasm a tad and admit that, if the reports emanating from Halas Hall are correct, their man has struggled. But those supporters are open to the possibility that it’s fake news. You try to tell them that fans are allowed into some training-camp practices, adding to the veracity of the reports. They reply that those observers are probably Packers fans.

The problems for Fields to date aren’t small but they aren’t impossible to overcome, either. They are concerning, however, if you think that footwork and accuracy and a solid grasp of a new offense are critical. This leaves your typical Bears fans with three possible approaches to take:

1) Freak out over less than two weeks of workouts.

2) Carry on with the unshakable certainty that Fields is a superstar in the making who, due to the football sins of his offense-challenged former head coach, is playing catch-up.

3) Admit that Fields hasn’t been good in camp but hope that his raw skills point toward better days ahead.

I suppose there’s one other approach:

4) Tell loved ones to begin preparing your burial plot.

For sanity’s sake, the recommendation here is Door No. 3. The talented Mr. Fields hasn’t been good but it doesn’t mean he can’t be. He’s having a hard time in his second offense in two seasons, and this one happens to be populated by players who, by all appearances, aren’t very good at football.

That doesn’t stop the questions about the Bears’ woes. Is it the quarterback? Is it the offensive line? Is it the system? Is it still all Matt Nagy’s fault?

This is what I love about the NFL and what I alluded to earlier. It can’t be overstated: Training camp started less than two weeks ago and we’re already at Defcon 1. Beautiful.

Fields has a lot of natural ability, and we’re going to spend time this season looking for it in the construction zone that is the Bears’ rebuild.

I would advise against overreacting to Fields’ lack of progress so far in camp, but if your panic-button finger is getting itchy, I would direct you toward Mitch Trubisky. The former Bears quarterback hasn’t looked good while trying to win the Steelers’ starting job. Some observers have chalked this up to the burden of being on his third offense in the past three seasons, but it needs to be pointed out that he created that burden by not succeeding as the second overall pick in the 2017 draft. It’s why there is some chatter, mostly on talk radio, about the attractiveness of a Steelers deal for 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.

Fields is in his second season, so it’s not fair to mention him and Trubisky in the same sentence. But it is disconcerting that the impassioned public defense of Fields sounds so similar to the impassioned public defense of Trubisky that Mitch-ophiles made during his first three years in the league. It’s kind of hard to get a sober read on a quarterback’s ability when Pharrell Williams “Happy’’ is blasting nonstop.

There has to be an in-between somewhere. Fields isn’t as bad as some of his training camp performances have been, and he won’t be as good this season as whatever future Hall of Famer his backers are comparing him to these days.

Two things I’m sure of: It’s going to be an interesting season. Interesting doesn’t necessarily mean good.

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