NFC North Reporter
The Chicago Bears’ upcoming quarterback decision was always going to be a complex one. Whether to bring back Justin Fields and pick up his fifth-year option this offseason was the main question the organization wanted to answer in 2023.
Staring down their last game of the season, they still don’t have that answer. That could be seen as an indictment of Fields’ future.
But Fields has responded with some of the best performances of his career. In the Bears’ Week 17 home win over the Atlanta Falcons, Fields went 20-of-32 for 268 yards and a touchdown. He added 11 carries for 45 yards on the ground with his fourth rushing touchdown of the year. It was Chicago’s most convincing win of the season, too, winning by a score of 37-17.
Wins aren’t a correlative QB stat, but the Bears have won four of their last five games. Fields led a game-winning field goal drive to start off the run against Minnesota. He almost completed a hail-mary attempt against Cleveland that would have led a comeback effort in their only loss in that span.
However, the Bears needed that hail-mary attempt in part due to a poor performance by Fields and his receivers. Fields finished the game 19-of-40 for 166 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions (one of which was that final heave). While there have been highlight-worthy plays, there have been plenty of lows, too. Above all, we haven’t seen consistency.
Chicago is left in the same position they were in last season: bet on Fields’ potential or figure out his replacement. Only now, they have less time to evaluate. A decision on Fields’ fifth-year option looms, and should the Bears pick it up, they would owe the QB $25 million in 2025. That’s still a bargain for a starting quarterback.
With the cap flexibility Chicago already has, it’s very doable. They could get a draft haul for trading out of the No. 1 spot for the second consecutive year — many think for even more than the first go-around. There are limited holes on the roster, anyway. Between the draft capital the Bears could acquire for 2024 and beyond, they’d be set up nicely for years to come and could fill those holes through the draft.
“You got to let it play out, and sometimes take a step back (in order to) make sound decisions,” Ryan Poles said to ESPN1000 in Chicago last week.
From everything we’ve heard publicly, Fields has the support of the locker room.
“He’s Him,” said wide receiver D.J. Moore after the win over Atlanta. “I want [Fields] to be the quarterback. I said what I said; now it’s on the higher-ups. It’s up to them.”
“He’s a magician,” said veteran safety Eddie Jackson, referring to multiple plays against Atlanta in which Fields escaped an almost certain sack.
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And then the new guy to the Bears’ locker room:
“I’ve always kind of been a fan on the outside looking in,” said Montez Sweat last week. “Even when we was mapped up to play them, Justin was a guy that I don’t want to go against. I really like the way he handles his business. He comes in here, he’s a person out on the field, sometimes the last one to leave out of the building. I mean, he’s a hard worker, puts his head down, doesn’t really listen to the outside noise. And yeah, he’s pretty f—ing talented too. Yeah, man, I love playing with him.”
Keeping Fields also provides a little bit of insulation for the coaching staff. Reports surfaced last week that head coach Matt Eberflus is expected to return in 2024, but there’s no guarantee on his long-term future with the team. The Bears aren’t sold on Fields yet — but they also aren’t completely sold on their coach.
That adds another element to this decision. What happens if they deal Fields but then fire Eberflus and his staff after next season? The Bears would be perpetuating a maddening cycle of setting their quarterbacks up to fail. It’s what happened to Fields after his rookie season. It happened to Mitchell Trubisky, too. Chicago has a bad habit of expecting too much, too soon from their quarterbacks — and it hasn’t aligned with their coaching timelines, either.
But if the Bears keep Fields, maybe even decline to pick up his fifth-year option, then they have an out if Eberflus fails to deliver on expectations for his third year. They could get rid of both Fields and Eberflus after 2024, and after accounting for the capital acquired for trading out of the top pick, hopefully have enough to be in a position to draft another quarterback while bringing in another head coach.
That seems like a good plan until we look a level deeper. First off, the quarterback class of 2025 isn’t likely to be as good as the 2024 group. Caleb Williams and Drake Maye headline a class that is generally regarded as the best in years. It’s why the first overall pick would be worth more this year than it was last.
Then there’s also the question of what to do at offensive coordinator. There has been friction between Fields and Luke Getsy at points throughout the season. Fields’ comments after his ‘robotic’ performance in Chicago’s loss to the Buccaneers in Tampa revealed that. It doesn’t seem as though the system Getsy wants to run fits Fields’ skillset like it should.
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There has been a great deal of inconsistency on Getsy’s part. The scripted part goes well; The Bears have scored within their first 15 plays in three of the last four games. But that all tapers off by the fourth quarter, especially in Fields’ stats. According to an article by Courtney Cronin of ESPN, Fields ranked last among qualified passers in fourth-quarter completion percentage with 51.8%. That’s a continuation of what we’ve seen since Fields took over in Chicago in 2021. He’s last among 38 qualified quarterbacks in fourth-quarter interceptions with 16 and 36th in completion rate (56.2%), according to the same article.
Would the Bears keep Fields in a system in which those stats have gone down? And if they part ways with Getsy, that leads to Fields’ third system in four years and throws Fields into another evaluation year. It’s rolling the dice on that pairing to work when the stakes (read: Fields’ contract) are that much higher.
How much longer can the Bears realistically hold out hope that Fields turns into their franchise quarterback? Especially when it wasn’t Poles and Eberflus who drafted him?
The organizational instability is fascinating in its domino effect on the roster. The defense has been built in Eberflus’ image, prioritizing off-ball linebackers and a secondary that’s built from ball hawks. With the addition of edge rusher Montez Sweat, things have finally clicked on that side of the ball. The Bears’ defense has 16 interceptions in their last six games. They can be relied upon for a stop and to give the offense extra possessions. Chicago has run 1,051 offensive plays, compared to 975 by their opponents. That can be directly attributed to Eberflus’ defense.
Yet, the Bears’ offense is 16th in points per game. They are 17th in first downs. The offense ranks 24th in yards per play at 5.05. They have the second-best rushing offense in the league and the 27th-ranked passing offense. Fields has just 2,414 passing yards through 12 games. That’s an average of 201 yards per game. He has 16 passing touchdowns in that span and another four on the ground, totaling 20. Is that enough production on which to leverage the future of the franchise?
That’s the decision Poles is facing. The Bears’ recent success makes gambling on Fields’ potential that much more intriguing, to be sure. But it also presumably raises Fields’ trade value. The Bears could have it all in a situation where they deal Fields for a second or third-round pick — most likely a third, according to sources who spoke to FOX Sports — and build up the team around the quarterback they draft.
They’d have significant cap space to work with for four more years if they draft a rookie now and compete right away because of it. Look at how the 49ers built. The roster is in great shape largely because they’re spending very little at QB. Having a great defense, which Chicago is on the verge of, only helps a young quarterback. And if they don’t have to pay him much, they can fortify that unit with proven and experienced talent, rather than taking gambles on later draft picks working out or growing alongside the new quarterback.
If Chicago keeps Fields, the Bears need to commit to a system that fits Fields, and therefore the personnel that fits that surrounding system.
That’s assuming Chicago thinks Fields is clearly better than Williams or Maye. There’s a reason that the No. 1 pick is so valuable, after all. That’s also assuming Poles is sold on Fields and willing to stake his job on him.
What it’s not assuming is that Eberflus is there for the long term.
So the question isn’t simply whether the Bears believe in Fields. It’s whether the Bears believe in themselves in their current iteration.
And that’s what makes this so tricky.
Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.
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