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‘He thrives on that stuff’: Bearing hopes of becoming franchise quarterback, Justin Fields could find breakthrough in 2023

12 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — On the spring day two years ago when Justin Fields first touched down in a city clinging to unbridled hope, he made a vow for what’s to come. 

“I expect myself to be a franchise quarterback,” Fields said as he was introduced at Halas Hall for the first time. 

In Fields, the Chicago Bears were making their next great leap at solving their longstanding struggles at quarterback – the most important position in all of sports. This is a franchise that has never seen a star at quarterback, one led in all-time passing accolades by the likes of Sid Luckman and Jay Cutler. While the rival Packers enjoyed three decades of greatness at quarterback with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, the Bears have dealt with years of mediocrity at that position. 

It’s why former general manager Ryan Pace and the Bears made the bold move on the night of April 29, 2021, trading up to the No. 11 overall pick and selecting Fields. It marked the franchise’s latest and perhaps most promising bet on drafting and developing a franchise quarterback. 

As Fields enters his third and most pivotal year in the NFL, his teammates, coaches and those closest to him believe he will enjoy a breakthrough campaign that marks his place as a bona fide star at quarterback.  

“I think the sky’s the limit,” said Matt Dickmann, Fields’ head coach at Harrison High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. 

“His goal right now is to become the best NFL quarterback that he can become.” 

‘Generational talent’: A football upbringing 

Should the 24-year-old Fields enjoy the type of memorable career that is hoped – if not, expected – of him in Chicago, it will have been a long time coming.  

Fields has been preparing for this moment all along, dating back to his time in Kennesaw.  

As a junior at Harrison High School, Fields began to emerge into a star quarterback prospect and garnering attention across the nation. With each game, Dickmann noticed the sidelines were becoming more and more full with college coaches scouting this dynamic talent at quarterback. Nearly 40 scholarship offers flooded Fields with opportunity for the future. 

“I don’t think even Justin at the time knew it,” Dickmann said. “He was just at the time going to go to an academic school like Duke or Northwestern, and wasn’t even entertaining thinking about SEC or Big Ten at the time at the high level. I’m just like, this is going to take off.” 

When Fields became a senior, he received an invitation to take part in a Netflix documentary called “QB1: Beyond The Lights.” It offered a detailed look at a 17-year-old Fields – a bright spotlight that could perhaps serve as an invasive problem, but not for Fields. 

The Netflix series revealed a young Fields becoming a more polished player, a confident leader and a beloved figure within his Harrison High School team. It proved to be a showcase of the foundation he would build from moving forward. 

“He wants to win and he’s going to do everything he can do to win, and he’s going to do whatever he can do to get better,” Dickmann said. “He’s not going to point the finger at other people. 

“That’s just his character and who he is.” 

In October of 2017, Fields committed to stay home in Georgia and play for the Bulldogs’ football program. He found challenges a year later in Athens as Jake Fromm was trusted as the team’s starting quarterback, leaving Fields without certainty. 

Fields bet on himself by transferring out of Georgia to Ohio State, where he recognized the opportunity to lead the Buckeyes as the starting quarterback. It was a defining decision in Fields’ football career and one that would lead him to stardom in college.  

Fields was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2019, a two-time Big Ten Player of the Year honoree, leading the Buckeyes to a 20-2 record and the national championship game his final season as a junior. 

“I recognized that early on, that Justin Fields has that type of talent,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said in 2021.  

“Generational talent.” 

Tone setter: Years 1 & 2 

Standing before his teammates with his separated left shoulder in great discomfort, Fields apologized for how the Bears lost a game in Atlanta late last November. It brought their record at the time to 3-8, the fourth straight loss amid a 10-game skid to close his second NFL season. 

Veteran safety Eddie Jackson quickly stepped in as Fields shared his feelings with the Bears, who rallied around their quarterback. At Harrison High School, Fields similarly took the blame for a loss in which his defense was the true culprit of that outcome. 

“I just see leadership,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “He’s always the hardest worker. He’s always the first guy out, last to leave. He’s always done that.” 

Said Bears quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko: “His drive, his want-to, his professionalism sets the tone for everything.” 

Fields’ first two seasons with the Bears have been underscored by constant change and inconsistency around him. As a rookie in 2021, he was at the center of mismanagement by Pace and then-coach Matt Nagy as they attempted to save their jobs at Halas Hall. He stepped in for his second season in 2022 and faced the task of guiding a rebuilding roster that didn’t offer him the best opportunity at success. 

Fields has started 25 games through two NFL seasons and walked off to the tunnel victorious in just five of those games. He has displayed flashes of greatness and shattered quarterback rushing records but also struggled to ascend as the type of prolific passer he envisions in this league.

Fields has completed just 59.7% of his passes for 4,112 yards, 24 touchdowns and 21 interceptions, with an average of only 152.3 passing yards per game. The Bears as a franchise have never once had a 4,000-yard passer, a feat Rodgers achieved 10 times during his 18 years with the Packers. The Jets are the lone other franchise that has never had a 4,000-yard passer, which is why they traded for Rodgers this offseason. 

Fields seems to have privately taken notice of being labeled as a running quarterback. After coming up shy of Lamar Jackson’s single-season rushing record for a quarterback last season, he shot back: That’s a rushing record. I’m a quarterback. 

“As quarterbacks, we like to sit in the pocket and throw the ball,” said former Pro Bowl quarterback Michael Vick, whom Fields grew up idolizing in Georgia. “We like it. It’s cool. It’s the way the game is supposed to be played.  

“We want those passing touchdowns. You ask any quarterback, dual-threat, pocket passer, what he wants to thrive in, it’s that touchdown-to-interception ratio. That column. 

“I just think the ceiling is high.” 

Throughout his first two years in the NFL, Fields has endured a harsh toll on his body. He suffered cracked ribs for the second time in 2021 during a late November game at Soldier Field, then came the shoulder separation in Atlanta last season and he missed the season finale due to a hip strain. Those are only the injuries that have been made public. 

Fields has played through plenty during his first two seasons, and his teammates admire the fight that he has put forth on their behalf. 

“You love playing with a guy like that who’s going to put his all out there and put his body on the line to get the job done and do whatever it takes,” said Bears running back Khalil Herbert, who was part of Fields’ draft class in 2021. “Guys gravitate towards that, guys want to be around that guy, want to help him out, do what they got to do to help him succeed.” 

A defining decision: 2023 offseason 

When general manager Ryan Poles pulled into his driveway late on Sunday, Jan. 8, one of his neighbors offered him congratulations. The Bears had secured the No. 1 overall pick by finishing 3-14 in his first season – and Poles had led a difficult but successful transitional year for the franchise. 

“You don’t want to be in this position,” Poles said at the end of last season. 

But it was one that Poles certainly anticipated when he was hired by the Bears in January of 2022. He said then that the goal was to “Take the (NFC) North and never give it back.” What he didn’t mention publicly was the arduous rebuilding process necessary to achieve that goal. 

Poles’ most pivotal decision to date – and perhaps the defining call of his tenure as Bears general manager – was made in early March of this year when he elected to trade the first overall pick to the Panthers and pass on the opportunity to select his own quarterback. Faced with the chance to part ways with Fields, Poles instead stood by his belief in the young man he inherited. 

Just as his predecessor Pace could never outrun his 2017 decision to draft quarterback Mitchell Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes, Poles’ time leading the Bears will be judged by how Fields performs compared to Bryce Young (Panthers), C.J. Stroud (Texans) and Anthony Richardson (Colts), who were selected at the top of this year’s draft. 

Poles instead elected to invest around Fields. He started by pushing that trade for the Panthers to land star wide receiver DJ Moore instead of a 2025 first-round pick. In doing so, the Bears landed a proven No. 1 target who could lead Fields to thrive as a passer this season. 

“He’s on par to be great this season,” Moore said of Fields. 

The Bears also reshaped their offensive line, which will have just one starter (left tackle Braxton Jones) returning to his previous position from last season. Chicago selected prized tackle prospect Darnell Wright with the No. 10 overall pick in this draft, bringing Fields the massive upgrade needed for the offensive line. 

The Bears are preparing to lean on their running identity again, this after leading the NFL with a franchise-record 3,014 yards on the ground last season. Herbert, veteran D’Onta Foreman and rookie Roschon Johnson represent a versatile backfield that should complement Fields. 

The Bears became a more attractive destination for free agents in March because of the potential in place with Fields. Veteran defensive lineman DeMarcus Walker pointed to Fields as a key piece in why he found the Bears as the ideal fit, while former Packers tight end Robert Tonyan Jr. saw a great opportunity in Chicago because of his new quarterback. 

Following two challenging seasons of losing and struggles, the Bears could be on the cusp of contention in 2023. Ultimately, though, they can only go as far as Fields will take them.  

“We got an elite quarterback,” said Bears veteran offensive lineman Lucas Patrick. “At the end of the day, that’s a big indicator of your team’s success.” 

Prove it: Year 3 

When Fields steps up to the line of scrimmage on the afternoon of Sept. 10 at Soldier Field and looks towards the Packers’ defense, there are no more excuses. It has to be different.  

Year 3 for Fields will set course on the rest of his career and either make or break Chicago’s hopes of having a star at quarterback. 

After this third season for Fields, the Bears should have a clear picture of whether Fields is their answer at quarterback – or the latest prized arm to fail for this franchise. Poles will know whether he made the right decision to stand by Fields or if he should look towards the 2024 NFL Draft for the Bears’ next quarterback prospect. Chicago will have a pair of first-round picks and the opportunity to make a major move. 

If Fields goes on to a season of great triumph, he will be positioned personally to land a lucrative long-term contract extension. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts similarly struggled his first two seasons, completing 59% of his passes for 4,205 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Philadelphia’s front office elected to stand by him and make key investments like top wide receiver A.J. Brown, and Hurts produced a Pro Bowl season and led the Eagles to the brink of a Super Bowl victory. 

Hurts signed a five-year deal worth $255 million with the Eagles this offseason after a remarkable turnaround in his third NFL season. Fields is eligible for a contract extension next offseason. 

“I’m not worried about contracts,” Fields said. “I’m worried about wins.” 

Over the course of these two years in Chicago, Fields has felt the weight of expectations on his shoulders, overcome the inconsistencies around him and emerged as a young quarterback potentially on the precipice of greatness.  

What’s ahead this season will truly reveal whether Fields can become the franchise quarterback that Chicago has longed to see. He has been ready for this chance long before ever arriving to this city.  

“He thrives on that stuff,” Dickmann said. “He has ice water in his veins.” 

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