Emma’s Tailgater: Time for Bears to give Justin Fields a chance to prove what he can do
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Ever since being hired as the Bears’ general manager back in January, Ryan Poles has been careful with his words about second-year quarterback Justin Fields and what his future holds.
“I’m excited to see him grow,” Poles said of Fields on Jan. 31 as he was introduced at Halas Hall.
It wasn’t exactly a proclamation from Poles that he was inheriting a future star quarterback in Chicago, and his words since have maintained the same tone. Privately at Halas Hall, Poles and the Bears have carried a belief in what the 23-year-old Fields can become. But they want to see it — and need to see it.
Ultimately, the most important aspect of this 2022 season for the Bears is identifying whether Fields can become a franchise quarterback.
What Poles does not want to admit publicly — the reason for those delicate words he has shared — is that he must be objective with Fields. If he doesn’t thrive this season, the next-best outcome is that his struggles bring clarity to the Bears’ quarterback future. Either Fields emerges with the promise or he falls short of that potential and Poles brings in his own quarterback, perhaps as soon as 2023.
The Bears now must give Fields a chance to truly prove what he can do. He finished just 7-of-11 for 70 yards and an interception last Sunday night in Green Bay, and has thrown only 28 pass attempts this season. Trailing by two scores for much of that game at Lambeau Field, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy leaned on the running game instead of Fields.
Getsy pointed towards the Bears having just 41 plays in total against the Packers plus what was being presented defensively as why the gameplan shifted to the rushing attack. But in the NFL, offenses dictate what defenses do — and great quarterbacks shine the brightest. When the Packers need a comeback, they turn to Aaron Rodgers. If the Chiefs fall behind, they trust in Patrick Mahomes.
The Bears need to put Fields in a position where he can try to take over a game, using that run-pass balance to create chances for explosive plays with their quarterback. Getsy has to showcase some trust in Fields with his game plan.
Poles believes that Getsy’s scheme will create chances for Fields to have success. He stands confident in the personnel around Fields on offense, even if they don’t possess strong credentials. Poles feels that the pieces are in place for Fields to make a significant jump in his second NFL season.
It’s time for the Bears to take the training wheels off for Fields and see where he can go. So much of this team’s future depends on finding those answers.
Once it all becomes clear, Poles can speak with certainty on whether Fields can be a franchise quarterback for these Bears.
1. Appreciation for Lovie
On Sunday, the two head coaches on opposing sidelines of Soldier Field will share a lot in common.
Bears coach Matt Eberflus and Texans coach Lovie Smith each share mutual friends like Tony Dungy and Rod Marinelli, have come up in coaching operating a Cover-2 base defense and now have connections in leading Chicago.
Eberflus has a strong appreciation for Smith and what he represents.
“Just an appreciation for what he’s done for the game of football,” Eberflus said. “He’s had his units playing the right way, has respected the game that way and the accomplishments he’s had. He’s been a head coach for a long time and he’s been steady that way and really good. I just appreciate that of him and what kind of man he is, too.”
Smith came up in coaching working alongside the Hall of Fame coach Dungy and Marinelli. In 2013, Marinelli was hired to a Cowboys defensive staff that included Eberflus as linebackers coach. Marinelli leaned on Eberflus when he was promoted as Dallas’ defensive coordinator a year later.
Part of Eberflus’ appreciation for Smith’s career stems from how they have shared success leading the same defensive principles. Smith was 81-63 leading the Bears from 2004-12, finishing with the third-most victories in franchise history. When Eberflus was hired in Chicago back in January, the connections to Smith were notable.
Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams has similarly never worked with Smith but shares the same feelings as Eberflus.
“I have admiration for him,” Williams said. “I have respect for him. Love that he is a head coach again.”
2. Open the mailbox
During the third quarter of Sunday night’s game in Green Bay, Bears wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown sprinted open down the field. Fields didn’t see him and it represented a missed opportunity for the offense.
It’s the type of play that Fields and the Bears need for some explosiveness in their offense. St. Brown said that is called a “mailbox,” when a wide receiver recognizes that he has beaten a defender and elects live to break free for a go route.
Given how Fields’ mobility can manipulate defenders, the Bears have considerable opportunities with a mailbox play.
“We’re always working on eye discipline,” Bears quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “It’s difficult when you have two routes on either side of the field to see both.
“You can miss a big one because you’re working one side and by the time you get back to the other side it might be too late. That’s a give or take thing.”
Ultimately, it’s on Fields to read and react to what’s presented as he looks to make a play with the football. While there are many factors involved, the reality for these Bears is that they have thrown for just 191 yards in two games. Top receiver Darnell Mooney has two catches for four yards while tight end Cole Kmet does not have a reception.
The Bears believe opportunities will soon come in the passing game.
“I think we have a lot of good playmakers in our receiver room,” St. Brown said. “We have a great quarterback. It’s only our second game with this new system, and I think as we go into the season, we’ll heat up more.”
3. Stay patient
Bears passing game coordinator Tyke Tolbert served as the Broncos’ wide receivers coach in 2011 when quarterback Tim Tebow finished 2-of-8 for 69 yards and a touchdown in Denver’s 17-10 win over Kansas City.
The Broncos had stars at wide receiver like Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker who were non-factors for much of that season as Tebow struggled to throw the football. Decker led the team with 44 catches in a full 16-game season while Thomas had just 32 receptions over 11 games.
Tolbert has reminded his Bears receivers of lessons from that season as they wait for opportunities in the passing game. He sees a “selfless” group ready to contribute and is reminding them that chances will present themselves.
“Just keep getting open,” Tolbert said. “When your time is called, and you never know when it’s going to be called, but when it is called just make a play on the ball.
4. Shadow Games
Jaylon Johnson believes he is a true No. 1 cornerback and a presence in the Bears’ defense that quarterbacks must note on each play. Thus far, they have.
Johnson has not officially been targeted against once this season. It has the Bears reconsidering their strategy to play their cornerbacks on the same side of the field rather than forming matchups against particular receivers.
“We like to play right and left (sides of the field),” Williams said. “Down the line, we may [change things].
“That’s always a possibility.”
While a shift in strategy isn’t imminent — especially with the Texans lacking a game-changing player at receiver — the Bears could put Johnson up against top targets soon. In two games, Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson will represent a notable matchup.
Quote to note
“The emotional investment that you put in every day, it just sucks losing. I’ve never liked losing. Even as a little kid, my dad used to play me in basketball in the backyard; I used to cry when I lost. I don’t like losing at all. It doesn’t sit right with me.”
Roquan Smith (Hip) — It’s always concerning to see a player like Smith pop up on the injury report. But he wasn’t limping around Halas Hall and this doesn’t appear to be serious. At the very least, this will be one to follow heading into Sunday’s game.
Jaylon Johnson (Quad) — It’s never a good sign when a key player lands on the injury report during the course of the week. Johnson’s status is worth noting heading into this game as the Bears have a lack of depth at cornerback.
Velus Jones Jr. (Hamstring) — The Bears have said that Jones was progressing well, but that does not seem to be the case. His status is very much in question for making an NFL debut Sunday.
Ryan Griffin (Achilles) — The Bears’ depth at tight end is thin, and it’s not clear if Griffin will miss time.
Dane Cruikshank (Hamstring) — The Bears will likely be without a valuable special-teams player for multiple weeks.
Emma’s Pick (2-0): Bears 21, Texans 13
It’s a bounceback game for the Bears on both sides of the football, with Fields finding success (and opportunities) in the passing game and the defense responding against these Texans. Eberflus gets the better of Smith and Chicago goes to 2-1 on the young season.