Justin Fields must improve — but ‘it’s not just the QB on dropback passes’

General manager Ryan Poles was right in saying quarterback Justin Fields “needs to get better as a passer” on Tuesday — but doing so requires help from Bears teammates and his coaches.

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Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws before the Lions game last week.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields throws before the Lions game last week.

Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Bears general manager Ryan Poles was right in saying quarterback Justin Fields “needs to get better as a passer” on Tuesday — but doing so requires help from Bears teammates and his coaches.

“The one thing that’s lacking right across the board is some of the dropback passes,” said Dave Wannstedt, the Bears’ coach from 1993-98, said Wednesday. “I attribute that a little bit to … the receivers: are they open? Question mark. Is the protection good enough? Question mark.

“It’s not just the quarterback on dropback passes. Let’s be real. People don’t like to see it that way, but that’s how it works.”

It’s not a this-or-that choice — both Fields and his teammates need to improve. Fields can work on his own this offseason and throw with Bears players off-campus to get better. Poles, meanwhile, can give the franchise the talent infusion it so desperately needs.

Fields threw 71.5% of his passes on target in 2022, per Pro Football Reference, the sixth-worst mark among regular starters. His receivers and offensive linemen were both graded last in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, too. The result was the NFL’s worst passing attack by a wide margin — a fear realized after Poles declined to add star power at receiver and offensive line during his first preseason in charge.

Wannstedt believes Fields will improve as a passer. He even invoked the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts, who went from a somewhat tenuous handle on the starting job to begin 2021 — “Some people said he’d be benched by midseason,” he said — to the quarterback of the NFC’s No. 1 seed this season.

The Bears’ struggles at receiver and offensive line, coupled with Fields’ dynamic running, prompted the Bears to adjust their playbook midway through the season. Moving toward runs and movement passes was “great coaching,” Wannstedt said — but it was a change from the original playbook. Combine that with the fact Fields was playing in his third offense in three seasons — first at Ohio State, then under Matt Nagy, then coordinator Luke Getsy — and Wannstedt believes he’ll benefit from consistency this offseason.

“I think it’s too early to say [Fields] is not a dropback quarterback,” Wannstedt said. “Do you have to do that in this league, and do it effectively? Absolutely. But that’s the last thing coming on right now.

“It’s more than just him who has to improve in that area.”

Bears coaches were scheduled to spend the rest of the week in meetings breaking down specific areas in which their team had to improve. But long before Poles made clear that Fields needed to improve through the air, Bears coaches detailed how they wanted him to improve the following:

• Rhythm and timing. Head coach Matt Eberflus said Fields needed to focus on “rhythm and timing.” It’s nuanced, Getsy said last week, and not limited to the quarterback.

“In the passing game, that’s all we really talk about, is, timing and rhythm,” Getsy said. “Receivers have got to be where they’re supposed to be, when they’re supposed to be there. The quarterback’s feet have to match the progression of the play. So all that stuff is really important for us to go through.”

• Footwork. Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko worked to transform Fields’ footwork in their first season together, starting with the way Fields took the snap. In the shotgun, Fields put his left foot forward this season. Under Nagy, it was his right foot. Changing it helped sync up Fields’ timing with that of his receivers.

The Bears view Fields’ footwork as a work-in-progress — but claim that can be said about any quarterback.

“I don’t know that you ever conquer something like that,” Janocko said last week. “I think that’s going to be an ever-evolving thing. If you watch [Buccaneers quarterback Tom] Brady and all those guys, I think they’re always continually working on their footwork.”

• Familiarity. Fields will have plenty of new teammates, but he knows what to expect from the playbook, coaches and culture at Halas Hall. At this time a year ago, he didn’t know what either would look like — the Bears fired head coach Matt Nagy and GM Ryan Pace on Jan. 10, 2022.

“As we go into next year, now he’s had this experience, he’s had his opportunities to get more comfortable with the communication of the system, hopefully get more comfortable with the people around him,” Getsy said. “All that stuff. Any time you can get that cohesiveness of the unit together, and knowing what the culture looks like and he’s the leader of that culture, I think all that stuff is promising stuff.”

Wannstedt thinks it’s promising enough to eschew drafting a passer with the No. 1 overall pick. He said he wasn’t “fired up” about Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, who, along with Kentucky’s Will Levis, are considered the draft’s top quarterbacks — in that order.

“Trevor Lawrence is not in this draft,” he said. “Point blank.”

The Jaguars took Lawrence first in 2021, when he and Fields were part of a five-quarterback Round 1.

“Do you want [the Jets’] Zach Wilson? You want [the Patriots’] Mac Jones? That’s the guys he was drafted with,” Wannstedt said. “I don’t think so.

“I was encouraged by the progress [Fields] made from Week 1 to the last week, on the field as well as off the field. … I think the guy’s got total confidence of everybody in that locker room.”

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