The world spins faster for quarterbacks, and the ones who have the almost superhuman ability to slow it down are the ones who conquer and endure.
That’s the challenge Justin Fields faces this season with the Bears: bending time in his favor.
Quarterbacks usually have less than three seconds after the snap to decipher the many moving parts on the field and about three seasons to prove their franchises should bet their future on them. The best ones read defenses so quickly that time becomes irrelevant, and they often unleash so much firepower so early in their careers that it renders moot any conversation about their place in the long-term plan.
For Fields, however, the clock is ticking quicker.
In a literal sense, he absolutely can’t count on getting three seconds to throw. In his rookie season, the Bears gave him an average of 2.4 seconds and allowed him to be pressured more often than all but four quarterbacks.
And in the big picture? The people who brought him in got fired. So if general manager Ryan Poles isn’t convinced by the end of this season, he probably will have a high draft pick with which to choose his own quarterback.
Fields wants to operate above the pressure. He knows his rookie season wasn’t good — ”For sure,” he said — and a variety of factors made evaluating him cloudy, to use Poles’ word. But he’ll go at his own pace, regardless of the Bears’ urgency to make a decision abouthim.
”I’m not worried about their timetable,” he said, gesturing toward the front office upstairs as he sat in a conference room at Halas Hall. ”I’m worried about my timetable.
”Just continually get better. The more you work yourself, the more you’re gonna be good at it and you’re gonna be better. I’m not worried about their timetable. Whatever happens, happens. I know I’ve got God with me, so I’m good with whatever.”
That’s a healthy state of mind, but it doesn’t change the Bears’ reality. They need to know by the end of this season whether Fields can carry them and fulfill Poles’ vow to ”take the [NFC] North and never give it back.”
That trek is long and treacherous, and it inevitably goes through the Packers. And it begins in the Bears’ season opener Sunday against the 49ers.
Chaos and clouds
The worst thing that could happen for the Bears this season would be to get to the end of it and still not have a verdict on Fields. He must stay healthy, the supporting cast must prove viable and the offense must be productive.
None of that happened last season amid the mismatched puzzle pieces of then-GM Ryan Pace’s personnel, then-coach Matt Nagy’s offense and Fields’ skills.
Adding to the dysfunction, the choices Pace and Nagy made to try to save their jobs weren’t always aligned with what was best for Fields and a future they wouldn’t be part of. That’s why the Bears desperately promised Andy Dalton the starting job so he would sign with them, then hatched a plan to keep Fields on the bench all season when they drafted him a month later.
”I wasn’t really fazed by that,” Fields told the Sun-Times. ”I knew that wasn’t gonna [last] the whole year. I just knew if I worked hard, then I would put myself in a good position to be on the field.”
He took over when Dalton hurt his knee in Week 2 and was made the permanent starter two weeks later. His experience was still limited, however. Between injuries and catching the coronavirus, he started 10 games and took only 57% of the snaps.
Fields won’t bash anyone — ”I love coach Nagy,” he said — but hitting the reset button under coach Matt Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko was exactly what he needed. The vibe at Halas Hall feels infinitely better, though Fields declined to get into specifics about what Eberflus fixed after Nagy’s exit.
”It’s just the way that coach Eberflus and the new staff go about everything — energetic, confident,” Fields said. ”When you have a confident head coach, the culture is gonna push you hard.
”Coach Nagy is a great guy and stuff like that, but this staff we have here now has been great so far — their attitude toward things, they have a plan, they know what they want to do. [We have] a confident head coach and a confident staff overall and a staff that wants you to be you.”
Nagy’s motto, of course, is, ”Be you,” but that often felt empty. He seemed more intent on turning Fields — and Mitch Trubisky, for that matter — into Alex Smith than letting him be him.
Fields said he felt ”a little bit robotic” trying to fit into a quarterback room with veterans Dalton and Nick Foles. And while he defended Nagy by saying, ”I don’t feel like his offense held me back,” it obviously did.
Nagy basically admitted that when he surrendered play-calling within days of Fields’ disastrous starting debut against the Browns. Defensive end Myles Garrett said shutting down Nagy’s scheme ”came easily,” and Nagy made no meaningful adjustments as Fields got sacked nine times while completing only 6 of 20 passes. The Bears staggered to 47 yards of net offense, their worst total in 40 years.
That day is a snapshot of why it’s difficult to assess Fields’ rookie season. He took ownership of a campaign that ended with him completing 58.9% of his passes (32nd among the 33 quarterbacks who threw at least 200 times), throwing only seven touchdown passes (32nd) and flinging 10 interceptions (second-worst by percentage) on his way to a 73.2 passer rating (30th). He also had the fourth-most fumbles in the NFL with 12 in 12 games.
Fields, not Nagy, threw every one of those passes and said he spent extensive time examining his errors. But his statistics paint an incomplete picture.
It’s necessary to weigh the effects of Nagy sticking him on second string all offseason, playing behind an offensive line that widely was deemed one of the NFL’s flimsiest and working in an offense that scored the seventh-fewest points in the two seasons before the Bears drafted him.
”It does cloud all of that,” Poles told the Sun-Times shortly after taking the job.
”I want to see what ceiling [Fields] has. . . . It’d be really cool if he ends up being a real dude. We can win some championships that way. We look for flashes of him putting it together. . . . There’s something there. If we can get him to repeat that over and over and put him in a position where he’s comfortable, we might have something.”
The first step was sweeping out everything that was malfunctioning around him. The next is outfitting him with everything he needs. And while Poles thinks he has done that with the coaching staff and revamped personnel, it takes some faith to believe it.
The final one is for Fields to take all that and do something with it. And, again, time is a concern. So even if the circumstances still aren’t perfect, he has to rise above the roster flaws.
The prelude to this season makes a lot more sense for Fields than it did a year ago. The awkwardness of waiting behind Dalton and being thrown into games sporadically is gone, and it has been replaced by a plan tailored to his abilities.
Last season, Fields had to adapt to an offense that Nagy stubbornly promised was finally ready to click in Year 4. This time, it’s a collaboration.
”Luke tries to [institute] some rules, but at the end of the day you have to feel it out; you can’t overthink on the field,” Fields said. ”That’s my biggest mindset change from last year to this year: Just get the job done, no matter how you do it. They really only care about results.
”It’s just a different mindset. [I’m] not worrying about, ‘If I make a mistake, will I get taken out?’ It feels way better, for sure.”
Fields is also far more comfortable and empowered now that he’s the starter and fully established as a team leader. The dynamic created by Pace and Nagy’s commitment to Dalton impeded that.
”They dealt with it the best they could, but when you put yourself in that tough spot — I don’t know,” Fields said. ”You promise a guy something, then something happens. But I guess that’s the business.
”Now I’m the guy, so of course we’re gonna build the offense around me, around our players, around [running back David Montgomery], around the stuff that we do well.”
There’s an element of this process that might make Bears fans queasy, by the way, but they begrudgingly will concede it’s prudent. Getsy and Fields have been stealing as much as they can from Packers star Aaron Rodgers. If you want to ”take the North,” start by taking as much as you can from the king of it.
”I watched a bunch of Green Bay film this offseason,” Fields said.
As of now, Fields is merely another name on the list of 16 starting quarterbacks the Bears have used since Rodgers took over the Packers in 2008. He’s trying to go from footnote to foe.
He is not the same player Rodgers is and doesn’t aim to be, but there are elements he aspires to adopt. Rodgers knows opposing defenses better than the defenders themselves — ”You can definitely tell when he knows what you’re in,” Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said — and plays with unparalleled efficiency by happily taking the easiest play he sees. And he almost never turns the ball over.
”He’s the best quarterback in the NFL,” Fields said. ”I like how he plays. That’s just me being real.”
That’s the standard Fields is eyeing. He sees Rodgers as someone to chase rather than hate.
”I want to beat the Packers this year, but [people] want me to dislike him? For what?” said Fields, who noted that Rodgers gave him meaningful advice after their game in December at Lambeau Field. ”There’s no reason for me. He’s a great quarterback. He plays the game very efficiently, for sure.”
He added: ”That’s all A-Rod does: [He dumps] it off to the back in the flat. Boom, they break tackles and get 10 yards off of a two-yard throw. That helps you out.”
That thinking is essential to Getsy’s offense. He wants to take the yards that are begging to be taken. He has installed an outside zone running scheme, has no reservations about maximizing Fields’ mobility by getting him out of the pocket and has shifted Fields’ perspective from forcing big plays to taking the freebies.
”My mindset last year was [that] even if plays aren’t there, I still have to try to make a play,” Fields said. ”This year it’s more, ‘Let’s set ourselves up.’ If it’s second-and-eight, we don’t have to get the first down. We just have to get five yards to make it third-and-three and make it manageable.
”I have that mindset of just keeping the ball safe and giving ourselves a chance — holding on to the ball, that’s the biggest thing — and just getting little gains. Boom, completion. Boom, completion. Moving on.”
Sounds a lot like Rodgers. And as long as we’re not talking about drinking psychedelics or shaky medical advice, that’s a good thing.
There are no days off for Fields, only nights off.
If there’s no practice for the Bears the next day, he’ll allow himself a relaxing evening of playing video games. But he’s using the supposed day off to prepare for what’s next. He’ll get a massage in the morning, have physical therapy right after lunch and spend much of his day studying film.
When he doesn’t have a night off, Fields gets home from Halas Hall around 7 p.m., watches film from practice and scouting clips of the upcoming defense and studies plays for two-minute drills and other specific situations. That leaves him about 45 minutes to read — recent selections include ”The Four Agreements” and ”The Alchemist” — before falling asleep and getting up at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.
Even the Bears think that’s a little over the top, Fields said, and they’ve been working to help him establish a little more balance going into this season.
”Sometimes when you overwork yourself — you’re so consumed by football, football, football — you can have so much stuff in your mind that you can’t think clearly,” he said. ”If I study a crazy amount, then I’m thinking about every little detail when I’m in the game instead of going out there . . . and playing free and just reacting to everything.
”Once you find that healthy balance . . . your headspace is better. And when your headspace is better, of course, your mental health is way better and . . . really, you can go out there and just play how you play.”
That’s what everyone is waiting for. They want to see Fields doing the things that made him dominant at Ohio State and vaulted him to No. 11 in the draft. Whether he says it publicly or not, there were a lot of obstacles to that last season. He couldn’t truly play how he plays.
Enough of those hindrances have been removed, however, for Fields to show what he can do. The Bears are in a major rebuild and unlikely to pile up victories. But regardless of how the season goes overall, Fields needs to give them irrefutable proof he’s their answer.
Because even though this is only his second season, he’s already short on time.