A quarterback in need of growth, Justin Fields should have played Saturday

The reward of improvement outweighs the risk of injury for the Bears.

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Bears quarterback Justin Fields looking on during warmups before a preseason game against the Colts.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields looks on during warmups before a preseason game against the Colts.

Justin Casterline/Getty Images

NFL preseason games are mostly meaningless exercises whose main purpose is to stuff money into owners’ already stuffed pockets.

And Justin Fields should have played in the Bears’ inconsequential contest against the Colts on Saturday.

I suspect that some of you Bears fans, having read the previous paragraph, are looking for something hard and jagged to throw at me.

But if you were so married to the idea of Fields’ not playing Saturday, where was the outcry over his participation in the Bears’ first preseason game last week? Where was the debilitating fear that he’d get injured by a second-string defensive end in that game? And wasn’t that you madly celebrating his two quick touchdown passes against the Titans, especially the one to his new best buddy, DJ Moore?

I’m pretty sure that was you.

No one who has paid attention the past two seasons and is in possession of their senses would argue that Fields is anything close to a complete passer. Someone out there will find a stat showing that he was extraordinarily precise in 2022, forgetting that the Bears were allergic to pass plays longer than 20 yards. They took that conservative approach because Fields didn’t have much help around him in terms of people who could block and people who could get open. They surely took that approach because they knew his accuracy was wanting. He finished 29th in the league in on-target throws.

The two short passes that turned into long touchdown plays last week didn’t do anything to answer the question of whether Fields can become a good passer.

Coach Matt Eberflus said he decided to sit his quarterback Saturday because the Bears’ offense had gotten in quality work in practices against the Colts during the week. He’s surely worried about injury, a legitimate concern. But the only way for a young, unproven passer to get better is by being on the field. Better quarterbacks than Fields think it’s important to see live action in the preseason.

The problem in Chicago is that too many people see Fields as a superstar already. He is a star when he’s running the ball. He has a long way to go as a passer — passing being everything in the NFL. That’s why he needs to play as much as possible. At this stage of development as a quarterback, the embryonic stage, it doesn’t matter if he gets hurt in a preseason game or a regular-season game. He needs work in game situations with his teammates, especially new teammates.

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has a similar preseason predicament with quarterback Jordan Love, who sat behind the now-departed Aaron Rodgers for three years. There’s not much of a Plan B if Love gets hurt. But Gutekunst understands that the reward of more reps for an unproven quarterback outweighs the risk of injury in a preseason game. Love was 5-for-8 for 84 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots on Saturday.

“It’s not always comfortable,” Gutekunst said. “But for me, I just think we need to see what these guys can do together, what we have, so that we can move forward. And without playing, I don’t know how you do that.

“In years past, I think we had a bunch of guys that we kind of knew what we had, we knew what they were able to do, the group knew. And even then we started slow, right, coming out. So, I think as we approached it this year, really no matter who was here I think we were going to probably play some in the preseason.”

Is Fields further along than Love? Of course he is. He’s started 25 games to Love’s one. He’s seen up close what Love has seen from the sidelines.

And, yet, much like the Packers don’t know what Love and the rest of the players can do in their offense, the Bears don’t truly know what they have in Fields and in this offense. A team that finished 3-14 last year sat most of its starters against the Colts. If you say so, Coach.

The Bears have put all their eggs in a basket named Fields. But that doesn’t make him a sure thing. It means the franchise has decided it’s going to ride with him wherever he goes. On display here is the yawning gap between hope and realization. The only way Fields makes that leap is by playing.

The only way the Bears become a winner is if Fields turns into an excellent quarterback. The NFL is a passing league. Successful teams almost always have great passers.

How do quarterbacks become great passers?

By seeing as many different defensive looks as possible.

By passing as often as they can.

By playing.

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