Times are tough on Justin Fields Island. Property prices have plummeted. Supplies are running low. The true believers have turned feral. By this time next week, Wilson may have drifted away.
Time doesn’t function normally in the NFL. Three months feels like a generation. The preseason excitement about what the Bears might be and what their quarterback, Fields, could do has already made way for the grim reality.
In a league that houses the Jets, Browns, and Texans, the Bears are laying claim to the top spot among dysfunctional franchises. Here is a team with a defensive-oriented head coach fielding the worst defense in the league, an offensive coordinator at odds with his quarterback, a defensive coordinator who reportedly left the team due to an HR issue, and a general manager who has preached the long game but faltered on short-term decisions.
The culture, scheme, and results on both sides of the ball have been dire. Through three weeks, the Bears are dead stinking last in point differential – behind the Broncos, who lost by 50 points last week.
The team’s offense has bordered on tragicomic through the early goings of the season. Fields has toggled between frenzied and lethargic. The offensive line has been awful. Chase Claypool, who the team dealt what wound up being the 32nd overall pick to acquire last season, looks like he’d rather be anywhere else.
But the bigger picture is simple: the staff do not trust the quarterback – and the quarterback does not trust his staff. On the well-crafted stuff that offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has called, Fields has refused to pull the trigger. On the bad stuff, the quarterback has no chance.
Blame flows in all directions. This isn’t a quarterback or coordinator issue; it’s an everyone issue.
Sometimes you can take the right strategic, long-term approach but whiff on all the decisions in the short term. After ejecting on the Matt Nagy era, Chicago’s plan was solid. They decided to bring in a new GM, head coach and staff, tear down the roster, and rebuild around Fields.
Chicago punted on this year’s crop of rookie quarterbacks in favor of sticking with Fields. Ryan Poles, the team’s chief decision-maker, dealt away the first overall pick in the draft to help hoard assets and surround Fields with adequate talent for this year and beyond, mirroring the approach the Dolphins took with Tua Tagovailoa. Poles wanted to evaluate Fields with better talent around the young quarterback.
Through three games, Fields hasn’t shown signs of growth. He has regressed.
One of the issues is that Fields is a different player today than the one who entered the league. At Ohio State, he was a dropback passer who would create with his feet only when necessary. He ran a sophisticated offense with timing and precision.
In Chicago, that player has vanished. Fields’s mechanics border on the lackadaisical these days. He moves with a jagged, arrhythmic quality that can be hard for teammates to read and clashes with the flow of the offense around him. It’s as if someone sped up the beat to Wonderwall, but kept the pace of the lyrics the same. He is the worst quarterback in the league this seaon, by QBR ranking, below even the Jets’ much maligned Zach Wilson.
The Fields who the Bears drafted, who they built a staff for, who they tailored an offense around, is not the Fields who has found a smattering of success in the league. When the Bears pivoted their offense last year to an all-run, all-the-time setup, Fields took flight. He continued to struggle to find consistency as a passer but was electric as a runner.
Most of his production, though, came when things broke down and he could freelance with his legs. Baking that into an offense without the undergirding of a passing game is nigh-on impossible. Still, it looked as if the Bears had struck gold. Fields was not good but not lethal as a runner in college – he rushed for 1,113 yards, not much more than Trevor Lawrence’s 943 yards. In the NFL, though, he turned out to be the most dynamic ball-carrier in the league, regardless of position. Huzzah! Pair that version of Fields with the guy who threw 41 touchdowns for Ohio State in 2019 and you would be on to something special.
But that hasn’t happened.
Playing with a run-first quarterback is not the Bears’ philosophy; they’ve never coached it. Instead they tried to revert back to their offense of old to kick off this season, limiting Fields’ use of his legs and pushing him to be a from-the-pocket quarterback. It has confused things, with a quarterback looking uncomfortable doing three-quarters of the things he’s asked to do and a play-caller uncomfortable (or incapable) of installing the quarter of things where Fields has proven he can thrive.
The problems extend far beyond Fields, though. For as poor as the offense has been, the defense has, somehow, been worse.
Eberflus has proudly paraded his “HITS” mantra throughout his head coaching stint. A good defense, in Eberflus’s mind, is built on Hustle, Intensity, Takeaways and (playing) Smart. The early returns at least rhyme with HIT. Take a deep breath, Bears fans.
Over the past two seasons combined, the Bears defense ranks:
32nd in EPA/play
32nd in dropback EPA/play
32nd in pressure rate
32nd in pressure rate with a four-man rush
32nd in sacks per game
32nd in yards conceded per coverage snap
You don’t need to know the inner workings of every metric to understand this: the Bears have fielded the worst defense in the NFL since appointing Eberflus as head coach, by some distance. They have generated the worst pass-rush in the league and been sloppy in coverage. They’re the only team to fall below the -0.100 mark in EPA/play, a measure of a team’s down-to-down success. The gulf between the Bears and the 31st-ranked team during that span is the same as the distance between the 31st and the 26th.
Worse: The Bears have allocated plenty of resources trying to build a unit to Eberflus’s vision. They have spent second-round picks on Jaquan Brisker, Kyler Gordon, Tyrique Stevenson, and Gervon Dexter. They spent a third-rounder on Zacch Pickens. They doled out cash in free agency to sign Tremaine Edmunds, TJ Edwards, Justin Jones, DeMarcus Walker, and Yannick Ngakoue.
It’s worth pointing out the Bears dealt away Roquon Smith last season, one of the game’s top linebackers, because they didn’t want to pay a market-setting premium for a non-premium position … before handing huge contracts to linebackers Edmunds and Edwards in free agency. They also constructed a defense built principally on four down linemen generating an overwhelming pass rush … before turning that pass rush over to a crop of rookies and average or over-the-hill vets.
Eberflus has presided over a woeful defense built to his specification, a corrosive quarterback-coordinator partnership, and off-the-field issues on his staff. If he’s not providing a schematic, cultural, or staffing advantage, what exactly does the Chicago head coach bring to the party?
It’s tough to find a path forward. There are no good answers, and that’s because the simplest answer – rebooting and starting again – is a bad one, too. It will cost most of the staff their jobs. The Bears could cut ties with Eberflus now to try to inject some fresh life into the franchise, but with an offensive coordinator already under scrutiny and the defensive coordinator already exiting the building, it’s difficult to figure out who they hand the controls to.
The other option is to strap on the helmets and enter tank mode, hoping to swipe Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, or any of the other top quarterbacks in what is expected to be an exceptional quarterback draft class. Doing so would leave Fields on the outs, working for a franchise actively looking to dump games. Even in that world, there’s a chance Fields is relegated to the sidelines, lest he catch fire at some point during the season (at least as a runner) as he did down the stretch last year.
Either the Bears need to reinvigorate the offense with a new voice or they should look to deal Fields away before the trade deadline, to give him a shot to resurrect his career elsewhere and to recoup some return on their investment. There’s certainly a team (maybe two) in New York who would be happy to hear the phone ring, and plenty of other suitors will feel they can unlock the quarterback’s potential. If it doesn’t happen before the trade deadline, an end-of-season divorce feels inevitable.