For a rookie quarterback making his NFL preseason debut, the performance might have exceeded expectations.
“We always evaluate this thing without context,” NFL analyst Mark Schlereth said. “I don’t know what play was called. I don’t know what the progression of the route was, a lot of times. I mean, you can’t see it from TV copy. But here’s what you can see: You can see great poise. You can see a guy who was in control. You can see a guy that — even when they had these half-field reads and they ran a lot of boot-keeps and those things — man, he understood the progression. He understood where he was supposed to go with the football, and then he got from No. 1 to No. 2 and he made accurate throws.
“I looked at that and said, ‘That dude looks the part. I know he’s playing against 2s and 3s, but doggone it, he knew what he was doing, and he looked the part, and he led his football team.”
That was Schlereth, a two-time Pro Bowl guard and three-time Super Bowl champion, echoing the sentiment of many experts on “The Herd” the day after the dazzling debut of . . . Mitch Trubisky in 2017.
In fact, Trubisky was just as much of a revelation in his preseason debut against the Broncos at Soldier Field as Justin Fields was last Saturday against the Dolphins. Trubisky completed his first 10 passes. He ended up completing 18 of 25 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 103.1 passer rating.
Like Fields against the Dolphins, Trubisky made his first splash with a scoring drive on the final possession of the first half — capped by a two-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Victor Cruz. Like Fields, he led the Bears to 17 points — two touchdowns and a field goal. And like Fields, Trubisky energized the home crowd with his mobility. He rushed three times for 38 yards — runs of 10, 12 and 16 yards for first downs.
And, much like Fields, it wasn’t just what Trubisky did but how he did it that had many of us gushing.
“Trubisky didn’t just play well. He lit a spark,” I wrote the following day. “He was focused, poised, decisive and accurate. He scrambled without panicking. And his teammates seemed to follow his lead.”
We now know how that ended. Trubisky struggled in four seasons as a starter with the Bears, though they made the playoffs in 2018 and 2020. The flashes of excellence he showed usually were against poor defenses. Most of his success was with the wind at his back. Any time the degree of difficulty was raised, Trubisky struggled.
The Bears finally tired of that inconsistency and failure to develop, and Trubisky was let go in free agency after last season. Unable to find even a chance to compete for a starting job, he landed with the Bills as a backup to Josh Allen. He’ll start against the Bears on Saturday in a preseason game at Soldier Field — potentially matching up with Fields in an almost poetic battle of No. 2 quarterbacks.
Trubisky’s humbling NFL journey makes his impressive debut a bit of a cautionary tale as Chicago basks in the glory of Fields’ performance against the Dolphins. It’s a little too early to go too crazy.
Obviously, we don’t know where the Fields train is heading after just one preseason game. And we know all too well there are no sure things when it comes to the Bears and their quarterbacks.
But this much also is clear just months into the process: Justin Fields is not Mitch Trubisky. As a quarterback prospect, he’s a different animal — a better athlete with better quarterback instincts who gives coach Matt Nagy, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo a better chance for success.
A lot still has to go right. And maybe it’ll turn out 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan knew what he was doing when he chose North Dakota State’s Trey Lance over Fields in the draft. Maybe it’ll turn out the Broncos were right to pass up the chance to draft Fields at No. 9, take cornerback Patrick Surtain II and settle for a quarterback battle between Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock.
But as a first-round draft pick, Fields is not Trubisky. Far from it. Trubisky might someday become a successful NFL quarterback. He has the physical tools. But from the day he arrived in Chicago, Trubisky was an “assembly required” quarterback who could play at a high level but showed little instinct for it. All the parts have to be in just the right place for him to be at his best.
Fields, on the other hand, is much closer to “plug and play,” with speed, arm strength and an intuition about playing quarterback that likely shortens his learning curve. Trubisky’s speed is an asset. Fields’ speed is a weapon. Trubisky runs. Fields darts. Trubisky has mobility that threatens a defense. Fields has speed that can put fear into a defense.
Nagy compared Trubisky’s running ability to Fields’ — and Trubisky was a much more effective running threat in 2018, when he rushed 68 times for 421 yards (6.2 average) and three touchdowns. But that part of his game diminished in 2019 (48-193, 4.0, two touchdowns) and 2020 (33-195, 5.9, one touchdown).
Fields is at a different level. That was never more obvious than on his eight-yard touchdown run against the Dolphins. On a second-and-goal from the Dolphins’ 8-yard line, Fields couldn’t find a receiver, retreated to the 17 as he escaped pressure, turned to his left and darted into the end zone — untouched until he reached the goal line. From the moment he turned at the 17, it was clear he was going to score. That’s next-level speed.
“He’s such a weapon with his legs,” Nagy said. “[DeFilippo] is talking about it all the time — ‘Take advantage of it. Take off. You’ve got rare speed as a quarterback. There’s not a lot of guys that have that speed that can throw like you.’ “
Fields’ arm also makes a big difference.
“The guy can really throw the ball,” tight end Jimmy Graham said. “That’s been impressive to see his arm strength.”
Trubisky had good but not great arm strength with the Bears, losing significant accuracy on deep balls. Fields still has to prove he’ll be more accurate on deep throws, but his zip on mid-range throws is particularly impressive. When he sees a window closing, he has a knack for ramping up the velocity.
“He’s able to make every throw on the field,” Nagy said. “It’s something we see every day, and it’s fun seeing him learn and getting better every day with the things that we do in our offense — how he’s picking it up and things like that. It’s been fun watching him.”
Fields still has to show he can use his immense skill against NFL competition at regular-season game speed. And his mechanics will have to be refined as he transitions to the NFL. But as a prospect, he has a better foundation — and not just obvious things like speed and arm strength. His footwork already is drawing good reviews from his coaches.
“It’s important that you have great feet in the pocket because all of it is predicated off the timing of the wide receivers and tight ends and running backs within the progression,” Nagy said. “If your feet get sloppy, your timing’s off, and the play can become chaotic.”
Trubisky struggled with that — at least with consistency.
“Early in the game, he’s pretty tight there [with footwork] and looks good,” DeFilippo said when he first started working with Trubisky in the 2020 offseason. “But as the game goes on, it seems to get away from him at times.”
Fields developed footwork via baseball as a star shortstop with college-level potential. He has work to do in that area, but he’s making progress.
“Justin has good rhythm in the pocket — I think you see that,” Nagy said. “He doesn’t have fast feet or happy feet. He understands stretching his drop . . . like a slow-five hitch versus a quick-five hitch. He understands if you’ve got a slide-right/throw-left. He’s got a good feel for that.”
Ultimately, Fields’ ability to learn will tell the tale. The speed of the game didn’t faze him against the Dolphins, but regular-season NFL football is played at another level. Everything had to be in place for Trubisky to grow. But Fields’ has physical abilities that give him a greater margin for error and a better instinct for the position that will give him a greater chance to succeed.
“Justin has shown a lot of advanced traits since he’s been here, and he’s done a good job,” DeFilippo said. “Justin’s very into football. He loves football. And that’s the first thing you get with these guys is, ‘Do they love football?’
“If they do, usually they can steady the boat on some rocky times and some good times. That’s Justin’s No. 1 trait as a quarterback: He loves football.”