It was pretty clear to everyone that Justin Fields would have a challenging rookie season.
The Chicago Bears offense wasn’t good. When then-coach Matt Nagy stubbornly refused to even entertain the idea of Fields beating out Andy Dalton to start the season, it was clear the coaching staff might not be an asset either. It was going to be a positive if Fields survived his rookie year with some bright-spot moments (which Fields provided) and then the Bears would fix things around him in the offseason.
Those fixes never happened.
There’s a blueprint for teams with early first-round quarterbacks, and it’s not complicated. Usually those quarterbacks are going to teams that can’t fix all the holes right away, but as soon as possible they go into overdrive to add an offensive lineman or two, and sign or draft a receiver. If they change coaches, it’s usually a move to a quarterback whisperer-type head coach who can guide the young QB’s development.
What the Bears did this offseason isn’t necessarily bad. But they didn’t cater to making things better for Fields.
They fired Nagy and hired Indianapolis Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Eberflus is a respected coach and could be a great hire, but he isn’t an offensive-minded coach. Ryan Poles was hired as general manager after Ryan Pace was fired, and he warned Bears fans that the team would build through the draft and be “selective” in free agency, which generally means avoiding big-money players. He stuck to that gameplan. There weren’t many obvious upgrades to the offensive line or skill-position group, both of which needed an injection of talent. And while the Bears were sitting out the early part of free agency, they watched No. 1 receiver Allen Robinson II sign with the Los Angeles Rams and guard James Daniels sign a three-year, $26.5 million deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then they used their first two draft picks on defense, refusing to stray from their board or trade up when there was a run on receivers.
The Bears have a total team rebuild ahead, and they won’t make what they feel are suboptimal decisions just to help the quarterback.
“It’s not just Justin, it’s really the plan to develop our whole football team,” Eberflus told the team’s website when he was hired.
Again, their approach might not be the wrong one. They obviously preferred Eberflus to all other possible options and it would have made little sense to pass on him just to say they hired an offensive head coach. Eberflus hired interesting offensive assistants, including new coordinator Luke Getsy from the Green Bay Packers. The Bears didn’t want to overspend on players they didn’t think were worth big contracts, even if they could have helped the offense at least a little bit. They stuck to a best-player-available approach in the draft, even if it meant grabbing just one offensive player over the first 167 picks. All of those things make logical sense. But it will look bad if Fields doesn’t take steps forward this season. He’s in a difficult position, with heightened expectations of a QB-starved fan base and being asked to do an inordinate amount of the work himself.
Maybe the Bears will upgrade around Fields by Year 3. Maybe it won’t be too late.
“I believe in Justin. Our staff believes in Justin. And like I’ve said from the beginning, we’re going to set this up for him to succeed,” Poles told ESPN Chicago, via the team’s website. “I’ve gotten a lot of questions: ‘But what about receiver?’ We’re going to do the best we can with the roster. We’re going to improve the roster as well, but we’re also going to [focus on] the scheme, the technique.
“Our coaches are hard at work, and so is Justin. Justin is grinding right now. He’s putting in the time. The leadership is coming out of him, so I’m excited. I’m excited about him and what he’s going to become here.”
The Bears’ rebuild might take a while. The team traded Khalil Mack, which was prudent but a sign that a playoff spot might not be a realistic goal in 2022. The key to the rebuild will be Fields. He needs to come along. Then maybe the resources around him will follow.
The Bears’ attempt at a big free-agent signing turned sour. They signed defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi to a reported three-year, $40.5 million deal, but Ogunjobi failed a physical and the deal was voided. Instead, the Bears’ biggest deal was for defensive tackle Justin Jones at $12 million over two years. The Bears made some low-cost signings like defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, guard Lucas Patrick and receivers Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown. Perhaps there are some gems in there. Gone from the roster are receiver Allen Robinson II, coming off a miserable season, guard James Daniels and defensive end Khalil Mack, who was traded to the Los Angeles Chargers. The Bears didn’t have a first-round pick due to the Justin Fields trade, but got good value on Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon in the second round. The next two picks were safety Jaquan Brisker and wideout Velus Jones Jr., a gadget receiver who Yahoo NFL draft expert Eric Edholm said seemed like a luxury selection “maybe 20-25 picks after where the Bears got him.” The end of the draft was spent taking shots on four offensive linemen, hoping at least one pans out. It wasn’t an exciting offseason and while it follows the Bears’ long-term plan, it’s hard to say the roster is better. It will get worse if defensive end Robert Quinn gets traded, which has been rumored.
Justin Fields wasn’t great as a rookie, throwing seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions, but he wasn’t in a good situation either. The most important thing was to see flashes of brilliance from Fields amid predictable rookie struggles, and that happened. In particular, Fields was excellent in a Week 9 game at the Pittsburgh Steelers, one the Bears should have won if not for several bad calls against them. He had 291 yards and made several big-time throws in a tough road environment. Fields also had a 103-yard rushing game against a very good San Francisco 49ers defense, which showed off that part of his game. Fields was an aggressive thrower, something you like to see from a rookie. A new coaching staff should help him take a step forward (Matt Nagy seemed lost by the end, not even bothering to call more play-action passes after Fields showed that was a strength of his game, to cite one example), though his ordinary supporting cast will be a story all season.
The Bears’ win total at BetMGM is 6.5, and it’s hard to talk yourself into an over. If you can find a prop on the Bears to finish in last place of the NFC North, take that. It will likely be a tough season in Chicago.
Matt Eberflus brought with him a “HITS” philosophy, which stands for hustle, intensity, taking care of the ball and taking the ball away, and being smart situationally. Creating turnovers on defense will be a huge priority. In four seasons as Colts defensive coordinator, they finished tied for 10th, tied for 10th, tied for fifth and second in the NFL in takeaways. There’s a question if the Bears have the playmakers to execute the plan. The secondary is thin on playmakers unless rookies Kyler Gordon or Jaquan Brisker step up right away, or safety Eddie Jackson rebounds from a bad season. But the Bears will aggressively pursue the ball.
Who is around to help Justin Fields?
The strength of the Bears offense will be the running game, Fields included. David Montgomery has had two solid seasons in a row and last season Khalil Herbert showed he is a starting-caliber player too. The offensive line might be better suited for run-blocking, considering it gave up a league-high 58 sacks last season and probably got worse in the offseason. The line lost guard James Daniels in free agency. Left tackle Jason Peters, who turned in another good season at age 39, is still a free agent. Fields won’t have a great line protecting him, and not much to work with at receiver either. Darnell Mooney has been a nice find, but the Bears don’t have much alongside him unless you believe in former Chief Byron Pringle. The run game should be strong, and Fields will have to make do passing it to Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet.
Coaching changes can energize a team. It was clear Matt Nagy’s time was up even before last season kicked off, and the Bears wasted another year on him. Matt Eberflus brings a new energy. That could help, especially on defense. Fields is a high-end prospect and showed it at times last season. Maybe he comes along quickly and lifts everyone on the offense to his level. The Bears would probably be happy with this season simply if Fields plays well, regardless of how many wins it produces.
You worry about a young quarterback being set back when he has to do too much. Justin Fields is working behind an offensive line that led the league in sacks allowed last season — and on paper isn’t any better — along with a receiving corps that is among the worst in the NFL. Maybe coaching helps cover up those deficiencies. It’s also easy to envision a young quarterback pressing in a bad situation and taking a step back in his development. The Bears are unlikely to win many games and a last-place finish in the NFC North could happen, depending on what you think of the Detroit Lions. The season will be measured by how some of the young players come along, particularly the quarterback.
It’s hard to get excited about the Bears. The offense won’t be good unless Justin Fields has a tremendous breakout. Maybe Matt Eberflus boosts the defense, though it seems to lack playmakers outside of perhaps defensive end Robert Quinn (if he’s not traded) and linebacker Roquan Smith. Most likely, it’ll be a long season. But Fields should show enough to get the Bears excited for what could come next, and then they can get to the job of building around him.