How the Justin Fields era should be remembered in Chicago: Promise unfulfilled

On Oct. 22, 2022, Justin Fields made the greatest NFL coach of all time look average at best in front of a national audience.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Bill Belichick would say a day later. “We’ve faced those guys before, but obviously he did a better job of playing against us than we did of defending him. Give the Bears credit for all that they did last night.”

Fields deserved it the most.

With a game plan featuring designed runs and rollouts, Fields had a breakout game on “Monday Night Football.” He totaled 261 yards of offense and scored twice, including a short run, in a dominant 33-14 win against Belichick and the New England Patriots.

The Bears and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy were on to something with Fields — and it truly felt like the start of something special. Two weeks later, Fields threw three touchdown passes and ran for 178 yards and another score in a 35-32 loss to the Miami Dolphins at Soldier Field. A broadcast camera captured Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel telling Fields to “stop it.”

Chicago went nuts. The victories weren’t adding up. But Fields appeared to be everything the Bears had been waiting for — forever.



Justin Fields on Justin Fields: Bears QB analyzes film of his top plays of 2022

As the season went on, Fields’ teammates praised him often. So did Getsy, coach Matt Eberflus and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko. But the biggest shift happened outside of Halas Hall. The Bears’ opponents commended him, too. Current and former players joined in the praise.

There was nothing like it. Mitch Trubisky never reached this level, not even in 2018.

All of it felt different.

The Bears finally had their quarterback

Until they didn’t. Again.

The euphoria that Fields created didn’t last. It never does with the Bears quarterbacks. On Saturday, Fields joined the Bears’ long list of former starters when he was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2025 sixth-round draft choice that could rise to a fourth-rounder based on playing time. Fields was always good enough to scare opposing defensive coordinators and players but never became great enough for the Bears to commit to for the long term.

And in the end, a fresh start is likely best for both sides.

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Some of Justin Fields’ most electrifying highlights came when he was running the ball. (Mike Dinovo / USA Today)

On Aug. 12, 2021, Fields was the best quarterback on the practice fields of Halas Hall. He was better than Andy Dalton and Nick Foles. And he was better than Tua Tagovailoa.

Over two days, Fields became the star of the Bears’ joint practices with the Dolphins.

“When he starts making plays, you start feeling that energy, and then that energy feeds off,” then-Bears running back Damien Williams said at the time. “It’s like, he gives you that energy and the swag and when he’s making plays. It makes you want to get behind people like that.”

Playing primarily with backups, Fields stood out during red-zone drills, throwing multiple touchdowns, during the second practice. He had the type of performance that made you wonder if the Bears would change their plan for the rookie behind Dalton.

Would he get first-team reps in practice?

But coach Matt Nagy held firm to his original plan. Dalton was the Bears’ starter. Fields would sit and learn, much like Patrick Mahomes did in Kansas City. Field was also behind veteran Nick Foles during the Bears’ offseason program.

In Week 3, Nagy’s plan for Fields was scrapped after Dalton was injured a week earlier against the Cincinnati Bengals.

If you’re creating a list of the ways the Bears failed Fields, what transpired during his rookie season would be No. 1. Not only was Nagy’s game plan a bad one for the Cleveland Browns in Week 3, but Fields didn’t look prepared. He was overwhelmed. The Browns sacked him nine times in an ugly 26-6 Bears loss.

The pressure increased for the team to develop Fields, though he played primarily with reserves in camp and the preseason. Fields remained the Bears’ starter until he suffered broken ribs in Week 11, a 16-13 loss against the Baltimore Ravens. He returned as the starter but missed the last three games of the season because of an ankle injury.



Jahns: If Justin Fields fails at QB, blame the entire Bears organization

With Fields’ first season an injury-riddled failure, the Bears fired Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace. But that’s part of the problem, too. It belongs on the same list as Nagy’s development plan for him.

After allowing Nagy and Pace to trade up from No. 20 to No. 11 for Fields, the organization would start Fields’ second season with a new general manager, head coach, offensive coordinator and position coach. The Bears’ next GM would start without a first-round pick because of it.

Chairman George McCaskey and then-president Ted Phillips turned to Bill Polian, the Hall of Fame executive, to run the Bears’ GM/coach search.

“Justin will not be an active part of the search process,” chairman George McCaskey said then, “but we will be very interested to hear from both general manager and head-coach candidates what their plan is to get the most out of the quarterback position for us.”

On Nov. 1, 2022, general manager Ryan Poles acquired wide receiver Chase Claypool from the Steelers for a second-round pick in the 2023 draft. It was a risky move made by Poles but one made in the middle of Fields’ breakout run in his second season.

Fields needed help.

“I am excited about this player,” Poles said of Claypool at the time. “I’ve really liked the way that our offense is starting to come together and move. I thought it was important to add another impact player for our offense to go along with the guys that we currently have in the receivers room right now.”

Claypool’s acquisition remains the worst miss of Poles’ tenure. But he was motivated by a thin group of receivers in free agency in 2023. It also signaled that Fields was starting to win over Poles, Eberflus, Getsy and others. The Bears were willing to invest around him. Fields’ own growth and improvement was worth parting with a second-round selection.

Before Claypool arrived, the 2021 season had been a teardown of what Pace and Nagy had built. Pass rusher Khalil Mack was traded in the offseason before it, while linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive end Robert Quinn were traded during it.

Under Poles and Eberflus, the organization’s top objectives started to shift toward evaluating Fields more thoroughly. In order to do that, though, Fields needed better help than Dante Pettis, Equanimeous St. Brown and N’Keal Harry to go with Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet.

A better evaluation of Fields was essential to what was next. Here was Dane Brugler’s scouting report on Fields from The Beast before the 2021 draft.

STRENGTHS: Well-strapped together athlete who takes care of his body…moves with the fluid, composed feet of a former shortstop…shows a natural feel for timing, touch and accuracy on throws within structure…strong arm and shows the ability to drive the football, especially when he steps and torques through his hips…sturdy in the pocket…recognizes defensive back assignments and places the ball away from trouble on his throws…above-average stride speed and flashes a burst when he tucks and runs…noteworthy toughness to finish through contact and play through pain (see the 2021 Sugar Bowl vs. Clemson)…even-keeled play personality and shows the same steady focus on each play…voted a 2020 team captain…self-assured competitor who inspires confidence in his teammates (Ohio State head coach Ryan Day: “The mindset of a young man of that age is so impressive”)…outstanding production at Ohio State with a career 67-to-9 touchdown-to-interception ratio with 19 rushing touchdowns…finished with a 20-2 record as the Buckeyes’ starter (only two losses came in the College Football Playoffs).

WEAKNESSES: Undeveloped field vision…locks onto his preferred read and doesn’t consistently find his second and third options (sometimes by design)…needs to be quicker eliminating things post-snap…stares down reads and doesn’t play with a consistent sense of urgency…needs to be better taking what the defense gives him instead of forcing throws…his passes lose life when attempting to throw off-balance…ball security needs work: holds the ball loose in the pocket and as a runner (12 fumbles over the last two seasons)…needs to do a better job of avoiding hits…benefited from an all-star cast around him (both players and play-calling).

SUMMARY: A two-year starter at Ohio State, Fields was one of college football’s best players the last two seasons in Day’s multiple spread offense. With Jake Fromm blocking him at Georgia, he transferred to Columbus in 2019 and needed only 21 games to reach No. 2 in Ohio State history in career passing touchdowns (67). He twice earned Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors. Fields has had the spotlight on him for a long time and he hasn’t wilted while displaying the confidence and competitive toughness that teammates rally behind. He shows excellent tempo when the play is on schedule, but he must speed up his target-to-target progression reads and improve his urgency when the initial target is taken away. Overall, Fields’ decision-making is more methodical than spontaneous, but he has high-ceiling traits with his athleticism, accuracy and intangibles. He projects as a high-end NFL starter if he can quicken his reads and process.

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In his three years in Chicago, Justin Fields failed to overcome some passing deficiencies that were clear to scouts when he was coming out of Ohio State. (Jason Miller / Getty Images)

On March 10, 2023, Poles made a blockbuster move that could turn into its own Netflix documentary one day. The Bears traded the first pick of the NFL Draft to the Carolina Panthers for the ninth pick, the 61st pick, a first-rounder in 2024, a second-rounder in 2025 and receiver DJ Moore.

The trade provided Fields with a true No. 1 receiver and the proverbial vote of confidence. It said that the Bears were going to pass on quarterbacks Bryce Young and C.J. Stroud in favor of giving Fields an opportunity to take that next step of his career.

“We need multiple players,” Poles said then about the trade. “Obviously, draft picks are opportunity. (We’re) well aware that we still got to do a good job of getting the right players, and so it gives you a chance.”

Poles would later sign right guard Nate Davis in free agency and draft right tackle Darnell Wright with the 10th pick after trading back from No. 9. Running back Roschon Johnson and receiver Tyler Scott were drafted in the fourth round.

But within the same trade with the Panthers, Poles built in an exit point — a potential pivot should Fields not take the next steps toward securing his spot with the Bears.

“I liked the compensation a lot,” Poles said then. “I started getting excited about what we can do for the organization — not only having DJ enhance and help Justin develop but also down the road. And at this time next year, we’re having two 1s. I don’t know where they’ll be, but I know they will help us get better.”



With Keenan Allen, the fast-improving Bears roster is set up for any QB

On Sept. 20, 2023, Fields needed to clarify what he said about the Bears’ coaching, but the damage was done. In today’s social-media-crazed world, it doesn’t take long for words to go viral.

And Fields had a full practice to get through before he could correct himself.

“I need to play better,” he said that day. “That’s it, point blank. That’s what I should’ve said in the first place.”

But he didn’t. Earlier, Fields said that he was thinking too much on the field and was playing “robotic.” When asked why, Fields opened Pandora’s box with his answer.

“You know, could be coaching, I think,” he said. “At the end of the day, they are doing their job when they are giving me what to look at, but at the end of the day, I can’t be thinking about that when the game comes. I prepare myself throughout the week and then when the game comes, it’s time to play free at that point. Thinking less and playing more.”

In retrospect, it was an early sign of the tumult ahead for the Bears and Fields. Four days later, the Bears were blown out by the Kansas City Chiefs. Fields would have his best two games of the season after that against the Denver Broncos and Washington Commanders.

But as the season played out and the Bears defense started to improve under Eberflus, particularly after the acquisition of defensive end Montez Sweat, the offense remained unreliable. Fingers were pointed at Fields’ coaching, starting with Getsy.

And fingers were pointed at Fields.

When the season ended, Getsy, Janocko and passing game coordinator/receivers coach Tyke Tolbert were fired. Fields’ numbers improved individually and he did things physically that most quarterbacks can’t do, but his passing numbers have always lagged behind his peers. He didn’t break out in his third season like Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts did for the Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles, respectively.

Among qualified QBs, Fields ranked 23rd in QBR, passing yards per game and interception rate, 22nd in passer rating, 31st in sack rate, 29th in completion percentage and 26th in adjusted net yards/attempt. His numbers on third downs, in fourth quarters and in two-minute situations didn’t inspire much confidence, either. The Bears won only 10 of the 38 games that Fields started over three seasons.

But Moore and other teammates were still behind Fields. They defended him at every turn, including in private meetings with Poles and Eberflus.

A social media storm was just starting to form over Chicago.

“I have to separate it a little bit, but I absolutely love it,” Poles said after the season. “I mean when you talk about building a team, I want that type of support in the locker room. I want those guys, when they go take the field, I want them to believe in the player that they have at that quarterback position. I want them to believe in the person to the right and to the left, so I absolutely love that. With any decision, I got to take the emotion out of it and look at the whole deal there.”



What the Keenan Allen trade means for the Bears offense and the No. 9 pick

On March 16, 2024, the Bears traded Fields to the Steelers. A career that began with so much hope and promise ended with draft capital.

The Bears’ return for him can be considered a reflection of the NFL’s true view of him as a quarterback. But it fails to encapsulate the hope and promise he once represented.

He could go down as the greatest of the Bears’ former QBs.

Will the Bears regret their decision? Maybe.

But Poles still has his pivot move from the Panthers’ deal: the first pick in the 2024 NFL Draft. The hope and promise that comes with a rookie quarterback will soon return again.

(Top photo: Patrick McDermott / Getty Images)

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