Call us doubters, call us skeptics, call us heathens. We’re the people who aren’t sure about Justin Fields as a passer. We want to know if the Bears have a quarterback who has the ability to get yards not only with his legs but with his right arm.
It’s why those of us who aren’t all in on Fields’ passing just yet were impressed for the vast majority of the Bears-Packers game Sunday. It wasn’t just that the kid was hitting receivers left and right, at one point completing 11 straight passes. And it wasn’t just that he was showing off his arm on completions of 56 and 49 yards. It was that he looked like a veteran QB, calmly going through his progressions in the pocket like a couch potato perusing Netflix titles.
He was excellent, which is why late in Sunday’s game, we doubters were believing, we skeptics were climbing aboard and we heathens were asking to be baptized.
And then the last three minutes happened, with Fields throwing two interceptions and the Bears losing 28-19 at Soldier Field. Chalking that up to inexperience would be fair if everyone, me included, hadn’t been ready to write that we had just witnessed a passing of the torch from the 39-year-old Aaron Rodgers to the 23-year-old Fields. Trust me on this one. Odes were being prepared. What’s the opposite of an ode? This: The Bears can talk all they want about Fields’ leadership and talent, but there comes a time when proof is not just needed, it’s demanded. Sunday was one of those times.
Again, Fields was excellent. But he wasn’t excellent enough for long enough. It’s something of a trend.
In the first three quarters of games this season, he’s thrown a combined 10 touchdowns and four interceptions.
In the fourth quarter, he’s thrown a combined three touchdowns and six interceptions.
Sports teams have conditioned us to be mindful that everything is a “process.” We get it. Fields is learning on the job. But a process implies a payoff, with the currency being late-game heroics. Or am I missing something here?
With the Bears trailing 20-19, Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander stepped in front of Equanimeous St. Brown and picked off Fields’ pass. Fox analyst Mark Schlereth blamed Brown’s route running for the interception. You can buy that, you can ask what a former offensive lineman would know about routes, you can say St. Brown should have batted the ball down or you can blame the quarterback, which is what most Americans do in this situation. But you can’t ignore the play’s import. With the game on the line, it was a big mistake.
And then another mistake when the Bears, down 28-19, needed a miracle. Instead, Fields threw a pass meant for Dante Pettis that was too easily hauled in by the Packers’ Keisean Nixon.
Fields finished 20-of-25 for 254 yards.
“One of my best games passing-wise,” he said. “I mean, of course the stats aren’t going to show that, but I felt really comfortable out there in the passing game.”
He looked it. He threw some achingly beautiful passes, including a highlight connection with N’Keal Harry early in the fourth quarter. The injury to his non-throwing shoulder two weeks ago had offered hope that, when he returned, the Bears would have to pass more and we’d learn more about him as a passer. We did. It felt like a corner was being turned Sunday.
As usual, Fields was spectacularly entertaining. He made a cut in the first quarter that was so devastating, it made Nixon look like he was dealing with his own 7.1 magnitude earthquake. The ensuing 55-yard touchdown run was Fields’ third of more than 55 yards this season.
The next step in the “process” is quarterback-led victories. The inability to close out games isn’t just him, of course. The entire team seems to view the fourth quarter as an opportunity to knock off early.
Rodgers doesn’t have a good cast around him, either. Yet he managed to pull a game out of the emptiness of an empty season for the 5-8 Packers. For the 3-10 Bears, the postgame chatter was about a young quarterback making strides.
The next step is a big one, maybe the most important one: Fields has to start finishing what he started.
In the closing seconds of Sunday’s game, there was Fields being talked to/consoled by offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, and there was Rodgers saluting Bears fans, the same group he had mocked inside the same stadium last season. That torch hasn’t been passed just yet.