When it felt like nature itself was conspiring against one of the things he does best, Justin Fields stayed late. A particularly windy minicamp practice in April prompted the frustrated Bears quarterback to throw extra-deep passes long after some teammates had trudged off to the locker room at Halas Hall.
“He was upset because the wind was blowing like 30 miles an hour in,” tight end Cole Kmet said last week. “He’s out there launching balls after practice. It’s definitely something that he works on — and you can see it.”
For all the questions about Fields entering his second season, there’s no doubting his ability to go deep. As a rookie last year, he led the NFL with 7.4 air yards per completion, a measurement of how far the ball flies past the line of scrimmage before it’s caught.
That Fields did so in a broken offensive scheme is a credit to him — and damning of his previous bosses. Last year, the Bears proved that a dangerous deep ball doesn’t always equate to an efficient passing attack. But this year’s Bears believe that’s a good place to start.
Fields’ deep passes are the strongest part of his arsenal, and new coordinator Luke Getsy must build an offense to take advantage of it. If not, Fields risks the same sort of square-peg-meets-round-hole disaster he experienced under former coach Matt Nagy.
New coach Matt Eberflus, who has been reticent to offer much about any of his players as he evaluates them during offseason workouts, last week singled out Fields’ knack for throwing long.
“I would say, ‘Man, he throws a good deep ball,’ ” Eberflus said. “I’m excited about that. And you could see it in the seven-on-seven and 11-on-11s, and we’re gonna take our shots down the field and, man, he does a nice job doing that. And that’s what stands out to me.”
As a defensive-minded coach, Eberflus knows what kind of stress that can put on a defense once players put pads on.
At Ohio State, where almost 70% of his passing yards came before the catch, Fields was graded the most accurate passer since at least 2014 by Pro Football Focus. Combine that with his ability to scramble, and the Bears can dream.
There are plenty of weaknesses to fix, though. Only two quarterbacks who started more than six games in 2021 — fellow rookies Zach Wilson of the Jets and Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars — had a lower percentage of throws hitting their target than Fields’ 72.7%, according to Pro Football Reference. Only one regular starting QB had receivers gaining fewer yards than Fields’ receivers after they caught the ball.
Fields’ receiving corps this year looks to be even worse than last year’s after the Bears lost Allen Robinson, Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin and Jakeem Grant — four of their five regulars — in free agency. They were replaced by a collective shrug. Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown are two of five veterans the Bears signed to one-year deals to team with returning stalwart Darnell Mooney and third-round pick Velus Jones.
Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian said the Bears have plenty of speed on the outside — “Guys can separate,” he said — but admitted it’s hard to judge receivers until cornerbacks can put on pads and play bump coverage.
Until then, the Bears are trying to glean all they can from Fields.
“You can start with just his speed,” quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “He has some athletic tools that can’t be coached, and that’s really cool. And then the next thing is just his intangibles and the way he feels, the way he feels in the pocket and how he’s adapted to the training.
“He’s such a natural athlete that you can say it to him once or you can demonstrate it. . . .He can just take to that training and apply it to a drill and then take it to a team period.”
Getsy brought an outside-zone run scheme with him from Green Bay that he hopes will help Fields.
“It takes all 11 [players], and for a young quarterback implementing that around him, that’s huge,” he said. “So if you can run the ball, that helps you in your play-pass game.
“The hardest part of this game is dropping back to pass. Plain and simple, that’s the hardest thing to do in this league. So if you don’t have to do that as often, you’ve got a chance.”
The deep-ball elements of the passing attack could be inspired as much by Getsy’s former Mississippi State boss Joe Moorhead — now Akron’s head coach — as by another of Getsy’s former bosses, Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
His current boss, Eberflus, understands how Fields can stress defenses. Now it’s up to the Bears to scheme it.
“I think [it’s] twofold — the deep ball and then the ability to run with the ball,” Eberflus said. “I think those things stretch you, so when you get stretched vertically and horizontally like that, it always causes stressors on a defense. It doesn’t matter what kind of style you’re running.”