Near the end of Justin Fields’ triumphant win over the Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears fans serenaded him with a passionate “We want Justin” chant. The chorus reached a fever pitch on a night when Fields threw for north of 260 yards and one touchdown in a blowout win over the Atlanta Falcons. Throughout Sunday’s win, he made game-changing, highlight plays like this, which had Chicago salivating.
Based on the vibes, the consensus over whether Fields’ potential return as the Chicago Bears quarterback in 2024 has shifted over the past month from ‘hell no’ to a toss-up. ESPN insider Jeremy Fowler dared to report that “Fields has absolutely made Chicago’s decision in the draft difficult by his playmaking and how he has done this year.”
A month ago, moving on from Fields was a no-brainer. However, since December began, Fields has won 4 of 5 games, his best stretch as the Bears quarterback up to that point and convinced enough people to eschew common sense and consider trading the first overall pick. Essentially, they’d be building a palatial roster around a pauper quarterback. It would be the most painful mistake inside the top-five since the Washington Commanders thought an edge rusher would propel them into respectability instead of Justin Herbert or Tua Tagovailoa.
During this five-game spell, Fields has generated seven touchdowns, including three on the ground and thrown only a triplet of interceptions. Two of those came in a loss against the Cleveland Browns’ stifling defense. But Bears fans should want better for themselves. I know most of them haven’t seen quality quarterback production in a Bears uniform since the 1980s, but this dead-cat bounce is a continuation of the Justin Fields romanticism that’s distorted how poor his decision-making has been. Chicago doesn’t have to settle for a quarterback whose nadir is Zach Wilson and whose ceiling after three seasons is Jalen Hurts on a bad day. If all things are equal, take the quarterback phenom.
The risk-benefit analysis leans heavily towards keeping the No. 1 overall pick. This isn’t even about Caleb Williams, although you could make a case for a Mahomesian prospect who is infinitely more talented than Fields. Williams isn’t a sure thing. No prospect is, however, recency bias has run amok in Chi-Town.
Here is what we know about Fields: Even after this month of relatively mistake-free football, Fields’ fourth-quarter completion percentage ranked last in the NFL, he finished 25th in yards per attempt, 29th in fourth-quarter interceptions and 30th in QBR this season.
The reality is that a coordinator or scheme change won’t turn Fields into Josh Allen or Cam Newton. To date, Fields’ performances have been more akin to a poor man’s Kyler Murray. He’s somehow both turnover prone and reluctant to throw. According to ESPN’s Stats & Info department, Fields is last among qualified quarterbacks in average time per pass (3.23 seconds) in 2023 and since his rookie season.
The risk-benefit analysis leans heavily towards keeping the first. The meager salary allotted to No. 1 picks would allow the Bears to shovel millions to free agents that would otherwise be reserved for a quarterback. I get it. NFL fans are obsessed with physical gifts and the No.1 pick is an unknown, but what we know about Fields is that he lives on rock bottom and occasionally comes up for air. Every now and then, he’ll wow you with plays like this, but then he’ll stare down a receiver and hit a MLB right in the chest. Too often, he’s a game-changer quarterback for Bears’ opponents. It would be one thing if there was something tangible to build off of.
Chicago just went through this cycle for a decade with Jay Cutler. They waited for him to turn the corner into elite status, only to watch him do a poor Matt Stafford imitation. Most teams don’t get an opportunity to CTRL+ALT+DEL an underwhelming 11th overall pick. They placed a bet on the Panthers faltering this season and hit the jackpot in a quarterback rich draft.
Now is not the time to get cute. Fields is only due to receive approximately $4 million next season, but committing to him over the No.1 pick would essentially mean picking up their $23 million fifth-year option for 2025 by May 2024. Not only would Williams allow them to avoid committing two more years to Fields, but it would reset the franchises’ clock on doling out a crippling franchise quarterback salary to a so-so quarterback. A team without the No. 1 pick would be okay with him developing into a middle of the pack starter, but the Bears have an exit ramp.
Different quarterbacks progress at their own pace, but there aren’t many historical precedents for a quarterback throwing as poorly as Fields has, and then suddenly adjusting his trajectory in year four or five. By year three, Hurts was matching Patrick Mahomes pass-for-pass in a Super Bowl. Drew Brees, Alex Smith, Geno Smith and Steve Young are the rare exceptions of quarterbacks whose breakthroughs came during or after their fourth season.
Young and Brees bounced back from wobbly starts with cheap, dysfunctional organizations and their stories will both end up in the Hall of Fame. However, those glow-ups took years to come to come to fruition. Two decades later, the Niners also got stuck with Alex Smith until he began resembling an above-average starter in year seven. Smith’s redemption story began in his ninth season, on his fourth team.
A year ago, Fields opened eyes by recording the third 1,000-yard rushing season in league history from a QB, but the passing attack was grounded by a number of factors including Fields. For three years, Fields has been mediocre, but satiated Windy City on the few occasions where he meets their low expectations. Williams (or Drake Maye) could stumble out of the gates, but it’s cheaper to watch a rookie learn on the fly than a quarterback who should know better by now.
Fields has one more opportunity to end his season on a high note against the Green Bay Packers. It may be the most scrutinized Bears game of the Fields era. In five career matchups against the Packers, Fields has thrown nearly twice as many picks as touchdowns and lost all five contests. Unless the Bears are gluttons for punishment, they’ll send Fields onto the next stage of his NFL journey. With any luck, Fields will eventually hone his elite tools, but the hourglass is running out in Chicago.
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