CHICAGO — The iconic play of the Justin Fields era made all the highlight shows. It was slowed down, replayed from alternate angles, with specific frames frozen on social media platforms to be admired by NFL fans the world over.
With four seconds on the clock and the Chicago Bears trailing the Cleveland Browns 20-17, Fields took the snap from his own 46-yard line, bounced around the pocket, rolled to his left and waited until the last possible instant to launch the ball toward the end zone. Amid a scrum of players, Browns safety Ronnie Hickman jumped and unleashed his best volleyball spike, sending the football tumbling toward the turf.
But instead of finding the Kentucky Bluegrass-irrigated field of Cleveland Browns Stadium as Hickman intended, the ball hit the gloved hands, then the chest, of Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney as he fell to the ground. A touchdown for the ages to lift Chicago to its third consecutive win and keep Fields & Co. in the NFC playoff chase.
Except Mooney never really controlled the ball. He bobbled it, then kicked it into the air as he fell backward, whereupon Browns safety D’Anthony Bell corralled it to end the game. Fields and the Bears had been so close. It said everything.
“I know the guys up front wish they would have had a few plays back, receivers wish they would have had a few plays back,” Fields said afterward. “We’ve just got to be better. I’ve got to be better.”
Three seasons and 37 starts into his NFL career, Fields’ version of the Bears has at times appeared tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. The No. 11 pick in the 2021 draft has displayed physical gifts, command of an offense and clear leadership qualities — but on a sporadic basis. He has endured head coach and coordinator changes amid a roster teardown and an attempted rebuild, while working alongside an offensive supporting cast that has done him few favors.
The Bears have made strides with Fields at quarterback, but as the 2023 season draws to a close Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, Chicago’s brain trust must determine whether the 24-year-old still represents the future, and the decision is complicated.
Two of the men positioned to make the call on Fields, second-year general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, are not guaranteed to be back in 2024. Poles, who has worked well with his boss, first-year team president Kevin Warren, per sources, appears poised to return. Eberflus’ future is a little more uncertain after a second straight losing season, though the Bears’ 7-5 record over the past 12 games bolsters his case. The presence of the No. 1 pick in the 2024 draft, acquired by the Bears in a March trade with the Carolina Panthers, looms over all the key figures.
While Fields has good relationships with Poles, Eberflus and all of Chicago’s decision-makers, the top pick offers the possibility that USC quarterback Caleb Williams, North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye or someone else could be a better long-term answer for a franchise that has not known true quarterback stability since Sid Luckman helped revolutionize the passing game in the 1940s. But Chicago’s embattled leaders, should Poles and Eberflus return, also need to win in 2024. Are they prepared to hitch their wagon to a rookie, even a supremely talented one?
The choice between Fields and the unknown could shape the organization for the next decade or more.
IN THE VICTORIOUS visitors locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 27, Eberflus wrapped his quarterback in an embrace. Moments later, Poles followed suit, with the general manager and former Boston College offensive lineman lifting the 230-pound Fields off the ground in celebration.
Fields had made the critical play in the final minute against the Vikings, a 36-yard completion to wide receiver DJ Moore on third-and-10 to set up a game-winning field goal in a 12-10 victory on “Monday Night Football.”
The quarterback’s play up until that point had not been sensational — Chicago did not score a touchdown in the game and Fields lost two fumbles in the fourth quarter. But it was the winning-time moment that provided a sense of vindication for Eberflus and Poles, who have not publicly wavered in their support of Fields despite his 8-19 record as a starter over the past two seasons. The Bears’ locker room has appeared unified behind Fields, too.
Said Moore, the closest thing to a No. 1 receiver Fields has had during his three seasons in Chicago: “He came back like a true leader does — somebody on the rise as a young quarterback. They just block that out and make that throw.”
Since returning Nov. 19 from a four-game absence with a thumb injury, Fields’ interception and sack numbers are down. Coaches have lauded his improved pocket presence, including his movement, footwork and willingness to throw the ball downfield instead of taking off and running when the pocket breaks down. Perhaps what has stood out most in that stretch has been Fields’ ability to close out wins. Fields played well in divisional victories over Minnesota and Detroit, and was also consistent in wins over Arizona and Atlanta that continued the Bears’ late-season momentum.
Before Fields came back from his thumb injury, Eberflus gave him a simple directive.
“He gave me a thing that said, ‘200,’ which is two touchdowns, no sacks, no turnovers,” Fields said. “That’s pretty much my goal every game. Sacks, they put us behind the sticks of course, and you never want to turn the ball over to give the other team a short field. So definitely trying to avoid the turnovers and sacks.”
Though the progress is undeniable, it’s when you zoom out and take in the totality of Fields’ three-year career that the picture becomes fuzzier and complicates the organization’s long-term evaluation.
Through Sunday’s games, Fields ranks last in the NFL this season among 31 qualified quarterbacks in fourth-quarter completion percentage (51.8%), is 25th in yards per attempt (5.9), tied for 29th in fourth-quarter interceptions (6) and 30th in QBR (20.4), per ESPN Stats & Information research.
Since joining the league in 2021, Fields is last among 38 qualified quarterbacks in fourth-quarter interceptions (16), 36th in completion percentage (56.2%) and 33rd in QBR (41.4). Conversely, his touchdown-to-interception ratio of 4.3 in the first three quarters this season is the NFL’s fourth best among 31 qualified quarterbacks.
When evaluators around the league watch Fields, they can’t help but notice what holds him back — mainly, a tendency to hold on to the ball too long from the pocket, failing to see routes develop. He’s last in the league among 31 qualified quarterbacks in average time per pass (3.23 seconds) in 2023, and last among 38 qualified quarterbacks in that metric since entering the league (3.10 seconds). In 37 career starts, Fields has surpassed 225 passing yards six times. Eighteen NFL starters average at least 230 yards per game this season.
“I just think we know what [Fields] is at this point — a great athlete and playmaker who misses some throws he shouldn’t or doesn’t always take the throws available to him,” one NFC executive told ESPN. “You can win some games with him, and he’s got some elements to his game that are really impressive, but it’s not sustainable long-term from a pocket-passing standpoint, in my opinion.”
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While some evaluators might hold that belief, Fields’ teammates do not.
“No one in here thinks Justin’s not a top quarterback,” one veteran player said. “No one would tell you that. Everyone believes he’s a top-10 quarterback in the league.”
Fields’ teammates uniformly speak about him with respect. They laud his toughness, his work ethic and his example. He takes copious notes in meetings. It’s not just the on-field product that matters to those who have been part of Fields’ daily development.
As cornerback Jaylon Johnson puts it, Fields “has had the city on his shoulders since he came in,” which is a burden in Bears-crazed Chicago, but he has been a “true professional” through it all. “I can’t see another quarterback coming in here and taking anything over,” Johnson said.
If Poles is retained as expected, the GM will spend significant time assessing the complete picture around Fields in Chicago and how it might shape the future. A front office source said Fields’ “special” playmaking has “absolutely” made the Bears’ quarterback decision for April’s draft more difficult. Issues of team chemistry will play a role, and the Bears will evaluate the totality of Fields’ performance in Chicago, including the impact of a supporting cast that has not always been a complement during his three seasons.
The scars of a recent teardown that saw the team jettison its best and most popular players remain apparent.
“It’s like, if you get rid of him, what are we doing?” a Bears veteran said. “It’s like last year when they got rid of [linebacker] Roquan [Smith] and Rob [pass-rusher Robert Quinn]. That was our captain. We knew we were going down.”
KEEP OR TRADE the No. 1 pick? Stick with Fields or move on? These are not new questions for the Bears, who were in this exact position one year ago. Holding the No. 1 selection, Chicago had to decide whether drafting Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson or someone else would place the franchise in a better spot than the return that would come from dealing the pick. The Bears dealt the pick, receiving two first-round selections, two second-round picks and Moore from the Panthers, who chose Young No. 1.
Carolina’s league-worst performance in 2023 means the second of those two-first round picks gives Chicago another crack at the top choice. Arizona, New England and Washington — teams that face uncertainty at quarterback entering this offseason — are all 4-12 entering Week 18 and at the front of the pack for the No. 2 pick.
The early assessment from people around the league is that USC’s Williams and North Carolina’s Maye comprise Tier 1 of the 2024 quarterback class. LSU’s Jayden Daniels, the 2023 Heisman Trophy winner, is a possible third entrant.
The belief is this draft class is stronger at quarterback than those of the previous two years. At this early stage, Williams and Maye are viewed as high-level, long-term NFL starters, with Williams’ elite traits — improvisation and off-schedule playmaking — fueling his case to become the No. 1 pick. One NFL personnel man called Williams “one of the best I’ve seen in a long time” in terms of his passing abilities and playmaking. A number of teams, including those that lose out on this week’s No. 2 derby, could have interest in trading for Chicago’s top selection.
A top pick also comes with at least four years of contractual control on a rookie pay scale, which would help Chicago strengthen the roster around the newcomer. Fields has one year remaining on his rookie deal, plus a fifth-year option in 2025 that the Bears would have to exercise or decline if they don’t award him a new contract.
If the Bears traded the first pick, the return could be immense. Several executives agree Chicago could net more than it did in the Panthers trade, and from a prospective trade partner already picking in the top five. Those execs believe the price to get to No. 1 could be two future first-rounders on top of this year’s pick, along with a variation of a Day 2 pick and/or a premium veteran player on a manageable contract.
While assessing the market for the No. 1 pick, the Bears must also determine what they could get back in a trade involving Fields.
The consensus in an informal poll of league evaluators is that Fields would be worth a second- or third-round pick in a pre-draft trade. When compared to former top-10 picks recently traded, that’s better than Trey Lance, whom Dallas acquired from San Francisco for a fourth-round pick, but slightly worse than Sam Darnold, who, along with a sixth-round pick, went from the Jets to Carolina in exchange for second- and fourth-rounders.
“If you want to build an offense in a certain way around [Fields], then it can work behind a good offensive line and a dual-threat running game,” an AFC executive said. “And he can make plays with his arm strength, for sure.”
One AFC executive sees Atlanta as a good fit for Fields, who he believes would thrive in a system with designed quarterback runs, or one inspired by the Gary Kubiak coaching tree that creates off play-action. Falcons coach Arthur Smith was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator during Ryan Tannehill‘s best stretch as an NFL quarterback. While Fields has superior physical tools to Tannehill, both can be schemed in similar ways as mobile players with plus arm strength.
“If you have to throw the ball 35 times a game with Fields, then you might run into challenges,” the exec said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can’t have success with him and that he can’t win throwing the ball. He just needs the right offense and support system.”
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Though Fields has generally been well-supported in Chicago, his relationship with the team has not been without its challenges.
Fields described his play in a 27-17 loss to Tampa Bay in Week 2 as “robotic,” and said he did not feel he was “playing like myself.” When asked what he felt was the culprit for his struggles, the 24-year-old quarterback nonchalantly cited “coaching” in comments that quickly went viral.
Fields was made aware of the traction those sentiments had gained as he walked off the practice field that afternoon. In a matter of two hours, the quarterback’s tone shifted from candid to remorseful. Before calling an impromptu news conference with media members in the locker room to clarify his comments, Fields apologized to offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko.
Inside the building, the Bears used the moment as a learning experience for the quarterback. On the outside, Fields’ comments sparked a discourse that has lasted throughout the season.
“We knew this wasn’t going to be easy or quick,” a team source said. “It was always going to be a process and going to be hard. So these things will happen along the way. It was an issue in the building for about 10 minutes and then it was gone.”
That ability to adjust has endeared Fields to people inside the building. As one coaching source said, Fields works hard to correct missed opportunities pointed out on film, such as failing to anticipate a zone-coverage window or a developing deep-ball route.
The film work culminated in one of his best performances as a pro Sunday against Atlanta, with 313 total yards, two touchdowns and a 99.5 passer rating to defeat the Falcons by 20 points.
“This is a high-ceiling player — there’s much more he can tap into,” the coaching source said.
JIM MCMAHON NEVER threw more than 15 touchdown passes in a season. One of the great NFL characters of the 1980s, McMahon was brash and boastful and had an alluring distaste for authority. But hold his résumé up to the light and you’ll find a journeyman who started 97 games over 15 years with six teams and mostly handed off to Walter Payton during that fabled Super Bowl run in 1985. He’s widely remembered as the Bears’ best quarterback since the merger.
There have been other glimmers of QB competence. Rex Grossman started the Bears’ only Super Bowl since Wham! was popular, but his name generally comes up along with those of Trent Dilfer, David Woodley and others in the “worst quarterback to start a Super Bowl” conversation. Jay Cutler threw for more than 20,000 yards and got the Bears to the NFC Championship Game once but was never fully embraced locally and seemed sort of indifferent about all of it. Erik Kramer and Jim Miller had big years but didn’t win anything of note. Mike Tomczak and Steve Walsh won playoff games but couldn’t stick.
The highly touted draft picks have fared mostly worse. First-rounders Mitch Trubisky (2017), Cade McNown (1999) and Jim Harbaugh (1987) combined for 67 wins in Chicago, and the Trubisky scars remain fresh. Trubisky reached a Pro Bowl and got the Bears to the playoffs once, but not only did they needlessly trade up to the No. 2 spot to get him, but they also picked him over Patrick Mahomes. All of the above historical context is why this is not just any team making this decision, and why Poles and this regime have such an enormous burden in making it. It’s a career-defining choice, and beyond significant for a team still searching for a modern identity.
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“They have an ’85 Bears opinion of themselves,” said an assistant coach from a previous Bears staff about the mentality of the franchise and why it’s a hard place for a quarterback to flourish. “They’ve never quite modernized. Other franchises know you have to throw the ball successfully to win, but the Bears still think it’s about linebackers and the running game.”
Tom Thayer, the team’s radio analyst who also played right guard for the 1985 Bears and protected many of the aforementioned quarterbacks during eight seasons with Chicago (1985-92), understands these sentiments — and has lived them. As he watched Fields unsuccessfully avoid a sack by Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter in the third quarter of an Oct. 15 loss, the Bears radio analyst yelled “Throw it!” over play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak’s call, channeling much of the same energy as those inside Soldier Field.
“If you look at the history of all the great middle linebackers in Chicago, it still takes a backseat to the role of quarterback, whether it’s McMahon or Justin,” Thayer said. “That’s what you have to get right in order to be successful.”
Thayer has been well-positioned to hear all the local sentiments about Fields via his media role, sentiments that remain mixed. There’s a polarizing divide between the section of Bears fans who believe the team must provide Fields with more weapons and better coaching, and those who hope the team drafts a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. It’s as close to a 50-50 split concerning QB play as Thayer can remember.
“It’s been more of a 70-30 split [on the best of the previous Bears quarterbacks]: 70% dislike and 30% like,” Thayer said.
Even amid losing seasons and shaky play, Fields has continued to win over fans with not only dazzling moments but leadership traits and accountability that play well in a blue-collar city like Chicago. As the quarterback has fielded questions of his own viability as the long-term answer for a city starved for a franchise quarterback, the value of having thick skin cannot be overstated.
“I’m in awe of it every day,” Janocko, the quarterbacks coach, said.
“To me, that’s why he wears the ‘C’ on his jersey,” he added. “That comes with the territory, that comes with being the quarterback in this city for this franchise.”
Along with the “draft a QB” and “keep Fields” options is a third possibility: draft a QB and keep Fields, an unusual setup that could challenge Fields’ ability to remain stoic and could create friction in a locker room that supports him. Historically, it’s the type of decision the Bears have not gotten right.
“It’s the biggest sports solution in Chicagoland sports marketing history. [Chicago] kind of stumbled upon Michael Jordan and he became what he became,” Thayer said. “But in Chicago sports history, there’s no bigger decision than the Bears quarterback. He’s not going to do it alone. You’re not going to bring the best of the best in here and all of a sudden make everybody and everything else because he’s a great quarterback. He needs a running game, he needs protection.”
AS THE FINAL seconds ticked off the Bears’ 37-17 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, Fields could hear the chants.
“We want Fields!” was the cry as he entered the home tunnel at Soldier Field for what could be the final time. In the locker room, players smoked cigars in a space that didn’t seem like it was inhabited by a 7-9 team. Kevin Warren offered a message while making his way through the bowels of the stadium, declaring that, “2024 is going to be special.”
Everything about the day felt like “a movie” for Fields, from beating his hometown Falcons in the snow to the crowd chanting in support of the quarterback on an afternoon where he put together one of his best performances of the season (20-of-32 passing, 268 yards, 1 TD, 45 rushing yards and another score with zero turnovers).
“Definitely going to remember this game for the rest of my life,” Fields said.
The quarterback wasn’t the only one to hear the crowd’s plea to Poles and his staff, which wafted toward the luxury suites.
“I did hear those chants and I know their boxes [the front office] are right there so I know they heard that stuff, too,” Moore said.
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The hard work is now expected to arrive for Poles, in particular. The Bears need to win in 2024, making the margin for error on personnel decisions necessarily thin.
As he did at this time last year, Poles will pore over every top quarterback prospect’s throws over the next two months, with his evaluations of Williams and Maye helping to inform the team’s decisions around its draft board and, potentially, the Fields decision.
Poles and his staff are crafting a preliminary draft board based on value, trying not to prioritize any one position. Poles’ philosophy is mistakes can be made when that happens, even though quarterbacks naturally receive the most scrutiny. The Bears have not begun the process of determining or simulating trade value at the quarterback position in earnest, according to a front office source.
After the NFL combine in March, the Bears should have a clear idea on the direction of their quarterback room. Within this context, it’s notable that the Panthers deal was made on March 10.
The direction of one of the NFL’s storied franchises could hang in the balance. Stick with what’s been working of late, or make yet another trip into the quarterback unknown? Bears supporters will continue to debate the question. And Chicago’s current roster will hope the answer is Fields, not a rookie.
“If we do that next year, it’s like where are we going?” a Bears starter said of drafting a QB at No. 1. “So we’ve got to go through this for another year until he [a rookie quarterback] is able to compete for a Super Bowl?”
For Fields, the wait could be agonizing, though the quarterback has expressed a mature “control what you can control” mentality that belies his 24 years.
“I just worry about what’s going on today,” Fields said last week. “Shoot, I don’t process what’s going to go on in the future. I don’t think anybody does, to be honest. … You all don’t know. Nobody knows. Whatever happens, happens.”