Emma’s Tailgater: Justin Fields continues to show leadership
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Last Sunday afternoon, around the same time Zach Wilson was throwing the Jets under the bus, Justin Fields stood up inside the visiting locker room in Atlanta and apologized to the Bears for not leading them to a victory.
“I play for those guys in the locker room,” Fields said Wednesday when asked of that moment. “I see how much work they put in each and every day. Having them as my teammates, having the leaders we have on this team be there for everybody and lead like they do, I think it’s a big example of how our team is, how we’re built and what our culture is.”
Veteran Eddie Jackson was first to tell Fields it wasn’t his fault that the Bears had dropped fourth straight game, falling 27-24 to the Falcons last Sunday. Other teammates went to the 23-year-old Fields with the same sentiments, reminding him that this is a team game.
But the Bears also were reminded of why they voted Fields a captain in his second NFL season – and how they believe in him for their future.
“For such a young guy, that’s such a big responsibility to do,” linebacker Nicholas Morrow said. “I got mad respect for him. But it’s not on him. It’s everybody. We all played the game. It’s not one play. It’s not one person. It’s all of us.
“That’s a good leadership quality to take that type of responsibility and accountability. But at the same time, it’s 11 men on the field at a time. We all got to take responsibility.”
On Wednesday morning, the Jets announced they were benching the 23-year-old Wilson ahead of Sunday’s game with the Bears at MetLife Stadium. It marked a pivotal point for the franchise, with Wilson’s future suddenly in doubt.
Fields’ only chance to miss Sunday’s game will be if his injured left shoulder isn’t deemed ready to play. But the Bears are confident in their quarterback and what his future could represent.
On Thanksgiving weekend, the Bears can be grateful that they have a young quarterback in whom they can invest.
Though the Bears (3-8) are a struggling football team entering Sunday’s game, they have hit on the most important position in the sport. Chicago will have by far the most salary cap space available of every team in the NFL entering the 2023 offseason. Perhaps more importantly, there’s opportunity for general manager Ryan Poles to strike in the draft because of what he has with Fields.
The Bears can use a projected top pick in the draft to create a bidding war for quarterback-needy teams to trade up, creating a ransom for additional draft capital. Chicago has eight selections currently for 2023, this after dealing one of its second-round picks to Pittsburgh for wide receiver Chase Claypool. It marked Poles’ first true investment into Fields’ future.
Though it’s still early in these evaluations, Fields has proven to be the best quarterback in this 2021 class. Trevor Lawrence (Jaguars) has endured highs and lows in his young career. Trey Lance (49ers) has played in just eight games, suffering an ankle fracture in the second game this season. Mac Jones (Patriots) has been shaky enough where New England shifted to seventh-round rookie Bailey Zappe earlier this season.
Wilson appears to be a troubling example of why NFL teams must scout traits like character just as much as arm talent. He seems to have lost the Jets’ faith in him already, and is now forced to earn it back.
In Fields, the Bears have a quarterback and leader ready to stand and take ownership. They know he’s the player that will lead this franchise forward.
1. How the Bears are handling Fields’ injury
Once Justin Fields was medically cleared to practice by the Bears’ team doctors, his status for Sunday’s game became a matter of pain tolerance.
Fields is dealing with a separated left shoulder and torn ligaments, an injury that was reaggravated during last Sunday’s loss in Atlanta. He was officially listed as a limited participant in practice Wednesday, though that status was the estimation for a walk-through. What’s clear is that the Bears do not intend to shut down Fields for an extended period of time.
“I would just say that if he’s ready to play, he’s going to play,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “He feels that way, we feel that way. If he’s ready to go, feels good about it, he’s going to play the game. Really, the reason is because we’re trying to win. We want to win the game. There’s a lot of great things to getting the experience of playing a game, every single game we can. That’s an important part to this season.”
It creates a curious dynamic for the Bears with their young quarterback, who Eberflus admits is at an increased risk by playing through this injury.
Eberflus said he and Ryan Poles discuss these decisions with the Bears’ medical staff. Once clearance to play is granted, there can be debate between Eberflus and Poles as to what’s the right decision.
“We have disagreements like that sometimes,” Eberflus said. “And we would just have to put our heads together and make a common-sense decision on that.
“I would just say that if we ever feel that a player is going to go out there and harm himself, obviously, we’re going to err on the side of caution for sure.”
But in this case with Fields, the Bears believe his development can continue to benefit through opportunity in regular-season games.
Fields has completed 59.6% of his passes for 1,642 yards, 13 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season, adding 122 carries for 834 yards and seven scores on the ground. He has had flashes of greatness and some historic feats this season, but also endured the type of growing pains that come for a second-year quarterback.
Fields has also been in this position before, forced to play through pain for his team. He suffered broken ribs during the college football semifinals in 2021, then fought through it during the national championship and nearly led Ohio State to the title.
In this case, Fields knows there’s no championship to win this season and realizes he must protect himself.
“Of course, I’m not going to sacrifice playing in this game for me risking that I might not be able to play later in games,” Fields said. “I’m not going to have to sacrifice playing in this game and now I get hurt and I have to sit out two or three more weeks after that. Again, just seeing how my body feels, listening to my body and making sure I’m not forcing anything and stuff like that. Just seeing how it goes.”
By Sunday morning, the Bears must make a decision as to whether they’re putting Fields at the type of risk that could jeopardize his development. It’s a collaborative call for the team that must include many factors before Fields can either suit up or rest up.
2. Jets changing flight
After benching quarterback Zach Wilson, the Jets are hoping to send a message. With that comes a change for Sunday’s game, as Mike White steps in as the starting quarterback.
White was a fifth-round pick to the Cowboys in the 2018 NFL Draft who never played a regular-season game for Dallas. His first action in the NFL came last season with the Jets, as he played four games and made three starts. White completed 66.7% of his passes for 953 yards, five touchdowns and eight interceptions.
For the Bears, facing White and not Wilson means some changes defensively.
“[Zach Wilson] really has the ability to escape,” Eberflus said. “Not to say that Mike doesn’t. But he really can’t escape. He can move. He’s an athlete. He can do the keepers, a lot of things on the edge of the defense, where Mike is more really good at passing. He’s more of a pocket guy. That’s really the biggest difference between those two guys.”
Wilson had completed 55.6% of his passes for 1,279 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions over seven games this season. He will be a healthy scratch on Sunday, with veteran Joe Flacco serving as the backup.
The Jets’ decision to sit Wilson comes after he said in a press conference that he didn’t let the team down in New York’s 10-3 loss at New England last Sunday. Wilson was 9-of-22 for 77 yards in the loss.
The Bears turned their focus from Wilson to White and how the Jets will play offensively with their new starter.
“The running game will probably be the same,” Bears linebacker Nicholas Morrow said. “They’re going to run the ball. And then some of the passing game, we’ll see what they do in third-down situations, red zone situations. That’s the biggest thing, is just some of the situational stuff. But base down, it’s going to be the same.”
3. ‘You don’t like losing’
The challenge with losing is to not let it become a culture – to keep it from becoming comfortable.
Since being drafted by the Bears in 2019, running back David Montgomery has endured the struggles of losses. Chicago is 25-36 during his parts of four seasons. But Montgomery and other Bears players are trying to stay the course amid a four-game losing streak and another difficult season.
“Anybody who is a competitor you don’t like losing,” Montgomery said. “So, it sucks. You prepare the best way that you feel like you should, and you just fall short. But you’re a professional. You still got to come here and do your job. You’ve still got to be a professional. You’ve still got to walk around with your head on and do your job.
“No one wants to lose but it’s just what it is. We’ve lost a lot of close games. I can’t go back and change it. All I can really focus on is today, right now, what I can do to make myself better so I can make everybody else around me better so that we all can come together and keep the morale high so that we can be what we are capable of being.
“The only thing that I have promised to me is me right now, exactly where my feet are, exactly where I am.”
4. Out for the season
This past offseason, the Bears targeted veteran center Lucas Patrick in free agency with hopes he could help bring stability to their offensive line. As he has dealt with injuries this season, those beliefs have been dashed.
Patrick was ruled out for the season after undergoing toe surgery earlier this month, repairing an injury he suffered Oct. 24 at New England. The 29-year-old Patrick played in just seven games this season and started five. He was first set back by a hand fracture suffered early in training camp, then forced into a rotation at right guard to open the season.
Patrick was signed to a two-year, $10-million deal this offseason.
“He will not be back with us this year,” Eberflus said. “He’s been in every meeting, been engaged.”
The Bears moved Patrick to center, the position he was signed to play, for that game against the Patriots. He left before halftime with the injury. Sam Mustipher stepped back in as the center, where he has started 10 of the team’s 11 games.
Quote to note
“You just have to keep going and keep working and those (opportunities) are going to come again and when they do you have to make sure you capitalize on them.”
–Justin Fields, on wanting to lead a winning drive in the fourth quarter.
QB Justin Fields (left shoulder) — The Bears want to see how Fields progresses this week before making a determination on his status for Sunday.
RG Teven Jenkins (hip) — Jenkins was listed as a full participant on the Bears’ injury report and said he’s good to go.
CB Kyler Gordon (concussion) — Gordon appeared to suffer this during Marcus Mariota’s touchdown run Sunday.
S Jaquan Brisker (concussion) — It’s not clear when Brisker entered the protocol but the Bears could have a shorthanded secondary.
LB Sterling Weatherford (concussion) — A third Bears player is in the protocol.
Emma’s Prediction (7-4): Jets 24, Bears 20
Whether it’s Justin Fields or Trevor Siemian starting for the Bears, the Jets will come out on top of this matchup.