With small steps, Justin Fields can take a giant leap in 2023

A year ago the Bears needed Fields to only elicit hope. Now they need he third-year quarterback to make it perfectly clear that he is indeed their franchise quarterback — and avoid putting GM Ryan Poles in a tough spot heading into 2024.

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Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) was having one of the best games of his NFL career against the Packers last season — 16-of-19 passing, 224 yards and a 115.8 passer rating, plus a 55-yard rushing touchdown — before throwing two late interceptions in a 28-19 loss on Dec. 4 at Soldier Field.

Quinn Harris, Getty

A year ago, Bears general manager Ryan Poles pushed back against the notion that he was setting up Justin Fields to fail by giving him a sub-standard supporting cast. Fields’ receivers in the opener against the 49ers were Darnell Mooney, Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, Byron Pringle and Ihmir Smith-Marsette. His big additions on the offense line were fifth-round draft pick Braxton Jones and free agent center Lucas Patrick.

“I’m not going to overreach and do crazy things to get a name or anything,” Poles said prior to Week 1 last year. “I understand that to do it all right away, that’s hard to do with some of the resources that we have. So over time, we’re going to continue to do that. That’s always in our head: to put the quarterback in the best situation.”

One year later — after Fields finished seventh in the NFL in rushing (1,143 yards, with eight touchdowns) but last in passing (149.5 yards per game) in 2022 — Poles has kept his word. He traded for wide receivers DJ Moore and Chase Claypool. He drafted right tackle Darnell Wright with the 10th overall pick. He spent $30 million ($19.25 million guaranteed on guard Nate Davis. He signed tight ends Robert Tonyan and Marcedes Lewis — both of them upgrades — in free agency.

Even Fields acknowledged his confidence is higher with the upgraded supporting cast.

“I think so. We have a lot of great players around us,” he said. “But no matter who’s on the field, you’ve got to go out there and execute … do your job. Everybody has to do it. It’s gonna take all 11. And as long as we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”

Of course it’s going to take all 11 players on offense doing their job. But there’s a reason why a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes is 9.1% of the offense but takes up 37.6% of the salary cap on offense in Kansas City. At some point, it’s the quarterback who has to make everyone else better. That’s why he makes the big bucks.

Fields probably won’t be that guy in Week 1 against the Packers on Sunday at Soldier Field. But becoming that guy by Week 18 — or much earlier — is what this season is all about. The last thing the Bears need is to get caught inbetween with a quarterback who puts Poles in a tough spot heading into 2024 with the Big Tease — spectacular one moment, disappointing the next. A year ago the Bears needed Fields to elicit only hope, and he did that. Now they need concrete results. Fields has to be the reason the Bears win.

The next step needs to be a big one, because the cost of incremental progress is going up. The Giants signed Daniel Jones to a four-year, $160 million contract after they went 9-7-1 and won a playoff game last year. Jones is in good hands with Brian Daboll, but that’s a big chunk of the salary cap for a team that isn’t considered a Super Bowl contender.

The Cardinals signed Kyler Murray to a five-year, $230.5 million contract ($160 million guaranteed) after going to the playoffs in 2021. That already is looking like an albatross deal after Murray struggled in 2022 and suffered an injury that still has him on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list to start the season.

So, while it takes all 11, the onus now is on Fields to use the other 10 and take his game and this offense to another level in 2023 and be the reason the Bears win. Hit the open receiver. Be accurate on swing passes. Don’t hold onto the ball too long, but don’t run too early. Find the open man downfield late. Make the free play count.

Those are the little things. But first things first. With Justin Fields, small steps could lead to a giant leap.

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