Rookie quarterback Justin Fields (1) has a 72.1 passer rating (four touchdowns, seven interceptions) in his seven starts in place of Andy Dalton. | Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
With Justin Fields in place as the starting QB, the Bears’ arrow should be pointing up heading into 2022. But they need more than hope, they need performance. Here’s what they need to show:
The most significant play of the Bears’ first half was tinged with irony. Andy Dalton was injured making a Justin Fields play.
On first-and-20 early in the second quarter against the Bengals in Week 2 at Soldier Field, Dalton dropped back, escaped pressure, found a swath of running room to his right and scooted toward the sideline for a 14-yard gain. But Dalton hopped awkwardly as he stepped out of bounds and suffered a knee injury.
Dalton went to the medical tent for observation as Fields finished out the drive. Dalton gamely returned for the next series. But he came up limping after being sacked for an eight-yard loss by Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader on his third play back. And after a Bears punt, he did not return.
Dalton had suffered a bone bruise that put him out indefinitely. Coach Matt Nagy said Dalton would be the starter when he returned, but the winds of change already were kicking up. When Fields followed up a disastrous nine-sack game against the Browns with a more promising performance against the Lions on Oct. 3, Nagy awkwardly relented.
On the following Monday, Nagy stuck to the original script and insisted Dalton was the starter whenever he became healthy. Two days later, Nagy had a change of heart that Bears fans seemed to will out of him. Fields was the Bears’ full-time starting quarterback.
With Fields playing like a talented rookie — failing, succeeding and learning — the Bears are 3-6 at their bye week, ostensibly the mid-way point of their 17-game season. But Fields’ promotion to the starting job puts the Bears in better shape than they were at the midway point last season, when they were 5-3 with Nick Foles playing ahead of Mitch Trubisky. The Bears had no direction at that point. They at least have hope now.
But, especially with Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace presumably on the hot seat, that low bar gets raised after the bye. The Bears need more than just having Fields in place — and healthy — at the end of the 2021 season. They need to more than hope. They need performance.
With that in mind, here are five things the Bears need to show in the “second half,” which begins Sunday against Lamar Jackson and the Ravens at Soldier Field:
1. The offense score 30 points against a quality team.
The Bears need more than a quarterback. They need an offense. In back-to-back games that were considered a breakthrough of sorts for Fields — 103 rushing yards and an exhilarating 22-yard touchdown run against the 49ers; 291 passing yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown rally against the Steelers — the Bears’ offense still produced just 22 and 20 points.
In four seasons under Nagy, in fact, the Bears’ offense has scored 30 or more points against a team that finished with a winning record once — in a 38-31 loss to the Patriots at Soldier Field in 2018. (And even that was a bit of a fluke. The Patriots were 24th in the league in scoring defense at that point of the 2018 season. In the final 10 weeks, they were first. The Bears just caught the Patriots at the right time.)
The Bears are 9-18 vs. teams with winning records (including this season), but their offense has scored more than 20 points in just one of them — a 24-10 victory over the 8-7-1 Vikings in the 2018 season finale.
2. A signature game for Justin Fields.
The celebration of Fields’ accomplishments to this point have been the equivalent of having a Grant Park celebration for winning the NFC North — a dazzling touchdown run; a pinpoint downfield pass; a spin move to avoid a tackler; a fourth-quarter drive to take the lead.
At some point — preferably this season — Fields needs to do more than flash. In seven starts, his passer rating is 72.1 (four touchdowns, seven interceptions). That’s 29th in the NFL among quarterbacks with four or more starts in that seven-week span, including three rookies — the Patriots’ Mac Jones (87.7), the Texans’ Davis Mills (82.3) and the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence (80.1). Fields’ career-best passer rating of 91.1 against the Raiders is below the league average of 93.3.
With Fields gaining comfort with the offense and the coaching staff gaining comfort with him, Fields is trending toward that signature game. His four plays of 25 yards or more against the Steelers went to four different receivers — Marquise Goodwin (50), Allen Robinson (39), Jimmy Graham (28) and Cole Kmet (25). Next up on his checklist — a big pass play to a running back. His longest so far is 20 yards to Khalil Herbert in garbage time against the Buccaneers, trailing 35-3.
Fields has more experience and confidence. The league has more on tape. It’ll be interesting to see if Nagy & Co. can win that battle and push the rookie to another level.
3. Khalil Mack and Eddie Jackson finish strong
With Fields’ improvement, the Bears’ defense has suffered (currently 13th in yards, 20th in yards per play and 22nd in points allowed), lending credence to the fear that once the offense arrives, the defense will be over the hill.
Mack’s availability and effectiveness bears watching as wear-and-tear at 30 becomes a bigger factor. He had six sacks in the first six games as he played through a sprained foot. But he was ineffective against the Buccaneers and did not play against the 49ers or Steelers.
Mack could return after the bye, but it remains to be seen how effective he’ll be coming off the injury and how well he holds up. Mack at 80% is still a good player. But the Bears aren’t paying for good. They need him to be great.
The same goes for Jackson, who has missed all but two snaps of the last two games with a hamstring injury. No matter how well he’s technically playing — a difficult thing to quantify for a safety — Jackson still has not found the play-making groove of his first two NFL seasons in 2017-18. It’s hard to see this defense regaining its bite in 2022 without Mack and Jackson being consistent playmakers.
4. Teven Jenkins start at left tackle when he’s healthy.
The notion of Jenkins playing this season seemed far-fetched when he underwent back surgery in August. But he’s been making strides in recent weeks and worked out on the field prior to the Bears-Steelers game last week.
It’s could be a bit of a quandary for Nagy and offensive line coach Juan Castillo. While rookie right tackle Larry Borom was an easy plug-in when he returned from a high ankle sprain against the 49ers, Jenkins has future Hall of Fame Jason Peters in front of him.
It would be difficult for the Bears to bench Peters to get Jenkins experience that might pay dividends in 2022 — especially if the Bears have any chance at a playoff spot in the final weeks of the regular season. Then again, if Borom and Jenkins are actually effective, having two young bookend tackles and a franchise quarterback in place heading into next season could — right or wrong — end up being a selling point for Nagy to stick around.
5. The Bears play with discipline.
The Bears need to get their act together. They were called for 16 penalties against the Steelers (four were declined), including an illegal formation out of a time out. Even on Fields’ 22-yard scramble for a touchdown on fourth-and-one against the 49ers, the Bears lined up wrong.
In 2018, the Bears had the fourth-fewest penalties called against them. This year they are tied for the third-most. The bad calls on James Daniels (a low block) and Cassius Marsh (taunting) against the Steelers likely cost the Bears seven points. But that overshadowed a lot of guilty-as-charged penalties that also were costly.
Nagy made his mark in that glorious 2018 rookie season as a coach who impressively engendered a healthy respect from his players on both sides of the ball. With his job on the line, they have to get back to that 2018 mode. It’s not enough to like him, they have to play for him.