If everything had gone exactly as designed, Justin Fields would have taken the shotgun snap on third-and-8, eased through his five-step drop, then waited without anxiety for Equanimeous St. Brown to pop open on a dig route.
Fifteen yards downfield, breaking across the middle, right to left.
See it. Sling it. Complete it.
That’s the way it’s drawn up. And that’s the way a quarterback is supposed to envision the sequence when he previews it mentally.
This, however, is the NFL. And every coach’s desire for a playbook concept to unfold with perfect precision is often Pollyannaish.
It’s convenient to believe 11 men will function in unison without error, allowing whiteboard strategy to come alive like a choreographed Cirque du Soleil act. But the most successful teams typically need starting quarterbacks with an expertise in making chicken salad.
Thus on Aug. 27 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Fields had to improvise on the third-down play his offensive coordinator, Luke Getsy, sent in. As Fields hit the top of his drop, he spotted a flash of white in the pocket, the No. 96 Browns jersey of infiltrating defensive tackle Jordan Elliott.
Now it was up to the Bears quarterback to react. Scratch that dig route. Insert, instead, a clockwise tornado spin by Fields, 5 yards backward and out the back door of the pocket.
That’s how you keep a disrupted play from becoming a disaster. Now Fields had space again, determined to use the controlled tempo of his rollout and the movement of his eyes to make a play.
As taught, he began outside, eyeing wide receiver Dante Pettis beyond the sticks. But Browns cornerback Greedy Williams was sitting on that route, so Fields peeked back toward tight end Cole Kmet, enough so that his eyes puppeteered the Browns defense inside.
Now Pettis had space near the left sideline and Fields had a throwing lane. With no hesitation, he ripped a Chris Paul-esque, no-look dime to Pettis for an 11-yard gain. First down.
“My favorite play of the game,” Getsy said two days later.
That’s saying something considering the Bears offense scored three touchdowns and rolled up 198 yards on its first 29 snaps before halftime of that 21-20 preseason victory. Getsy stands by that assertion, impressed by the entirety of the sequence.
There was something about Fields’ combination of calm and focus that night, an indicator that the 23-year-old quarterback is ready to attack with the proper mentality.
Therein lies the key for the 2022 Bears. In the quest to establish Fields as their no-doubt franchise quarterback, they have to set him up for success and keep him in the proper mindset.
There’s more to that than it sounds. For Fields to stay properly calibrated, he must remain in tune daily with his preparation responsibilities — for himself and the team. He also must have a strong feel for what his new offensive system asks while trusting what each play is designed to accomplish.
Fields must continue developing serenity and proficiency within the pocket while tempering his greedy impulses and approaching each snap with an understanding of what qualifies as success and failure.
On that off-script, third-down conversion to Pettis, so much went right when a lot could have gone wrong. Start with Fields’ feel in the pocket, his wherewithal to feel pressure at the right moment and to react instinctively.
Why reverse spin there rather than roll right? Rushers coming from his blind side, Fields has learned, tend to take a flatter angle in pursuit. That reverse spin allows him to gain depth and retain his speed advantage against defensive linemen.
“Gets me on the edge pretty fast,” he says.
Once there, Fields’ composure on the move and ability to use his vision as a joystick paid off.
“We’ve been talking a lot about how we’re going to finish those plays,” Getsy says. “Whether it’s a movement play or an extended play, the process of his eyes was really fun to see. That’s the kind of stuff you’re trying to work on every single day, and he was able to apply that. … You can see the defenders following his eyes and then him finishing with the completion.”
Playmaking Artistry 101.
Sure, this was a small moment within a meaningless August preseason game. But it was also evidence of Fields’ progress and increasing comfort. And to Getsy, most important of all, it came on a night when the quarterback’s self-assurance energized the entire group.
“Anytime you can feel and have success, that’s always a positive,” Getsy says.
Make no mistake, that Saturday night in Cleveland last month wasn’t a landmark. No preseason game is. But it was a well-timed springboard for Fields and the offense as the Bears launch into the season.
“For sure,” Fields says. “It just shows everyone that if we do our jobs how we’re supposed to, our offense can be (successful). It gave us a lot of confidence going into the season.”
Little will mean more to this season — and the Bears’ future — than Fields’ ability to increase his command. That catchphrase bounces around the quarterbacks rooms of all 32 NFL franchises, but there are nuances in how each coaching staff defines “command.”
At Halas Hall, Getsy simplifies the concept as much as he can.
“Really,” he says, “you’re looking for a guy who is in complete control of himself first. And then (it’s about) being able to manipulate what’s going on around him also. When there’s awareness of what’s going on around you after you’ve mastered your own craft, that’s when you can play ball at a higher level.
“We’re working on that every day. And we’re trying to get Justin to that point where he feels like he’s in complete control.”
Before a quarterback can attain such control, though, he first must develop contagious confidence. And to do that, a level of comfort must be established.
To create such comfort, a coordinator has to establish a connection with the wheelman whom he is asking to drive the offense. That’s why, when Getsy arrived in January, he set out first to understand Fields’ wiring while also recognizing his strengths and diagnosing his current limitations.
“We put a lot of time into designing the process and not necessarily designing the offense,” Getsy says.
Critical to that process is an honest back-and-forth that requires a genuine connection. To that end, Fields and Getsy have developed a mutual admiration that should aid their development efforts.
Fields describes Getsy as “real,” appreciating his blunt honesty and level-headed perspective.
“He’s going to tell you straight up how it is,” Fields says. “He’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He has a standard for us. And we’re going to have to meet the standard.”
That standard applies to every fundamental, every drill, every detail of every play. Fields remains a work in progress as he tries to clean up his footwork, sharpen his timing and become more efficient and compact with his throwing motion.
Getsy, who spent seven seasons with the Green Bay Packers, the last three as Aaron Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach, earned instant credibility with his new student. Fields respects why the constant emphasis on footwork and timing has been so intense.
“He knows what it’s supposed to look like,” Fields says.
‘The guy wants to win’
In the earliest stages of their relationship, Getsy noticed leadership qualities in Fields he was immediately drawn to. First, there was a drive that could be used as fuel for the growth process.
“He is as competitive as I’ve ever been around,” Getsy says. “The guy wants to win.”
That’s high praise from a guy who spent seven seasons developing a tight bond with Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams in Green Bay.
Fields’ competitiveness offers a good starting point, a quality that triggers a self-starter’s instinct. Along with that, Getsy recognized, Fields has sincere care for his teammates and determination to make their improvement as important to him as his own.
“It’s going to take all of us,” Fields says.
But perhaps the greatest gift Fields has given his new coordinator is his urge to be coached hard. He brings a fully invested, thick-skinned approach to the grind that allows them, in tandem, to have candid discussions, persevere through bumpy patches and unlock new stages of the development process quicker.
“I want to be pushed hard,” Fields says. “I don’t like it when coaches try to be easy on me.”
Two years ago, Fields was a star at Ohio State, a 2019 Heisman Trophy finalist and the undisputed leader of a national championship front-runner. He had thrown 41 touchdown passes in 14 starts as a sophomore and propelled the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff.
But that, Fields emphasizes, shouldn’t have bought him a free pass from being corrected. And there were times in 2020, he says, when he wished Ohio State quarterbacks coach Corey Dennis had come down on him with greater force.
“I felt like he was being kind of easy on me (at times) with the mistakes I was making,” Fields says.
Thus the green light Fields aimed to give Getsy, the indirect request to push him hard, is the same one he has tried to give all of his coaches since he was a kid in Georgia.
When a mistake is made, “I want you to get on my ass,” Fields says. “Let me know. And then that won’t happen again. Just coach me hard. I’m not going to take anything personally in that aspect. Because we’re reaching toward the same goals.”
In the name of winning, Fields is all-in on the dirtiest and most demanding parts of the process. Constructive criticism when handled properly, he has come to learn, not only fuels the growth process but can solidify the player-coach bond in a way that provides steadiness when times get rough.
And make no mistake, rough moments are inevitably ahead.
“There’s going to be a time when it feels like the walls are caving in,” Getsy says. “That’s this league. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best of the best or the worst of the worst. There are going to be those days. And hopefully we’re building the foundation the right way so we can survive those and come out even better because of it.”
Ups and downs
In Week 5 last season, Fields contributed to an encouraging 20-9 road upset of the Las Vegas Raiders, throwing a pretty 2-yard touchdown pass to Jesper Horsted in the second quarter, then adding a clutch third-and-12 conversion to Darnell Mooney on a fourth-quarter field-goal drive that helped seal the victory.
It was the kind of validation every young quarterback needs to soothe the growing pains and alleviate the intense pressure of the grind.
But that was also Fields’ second and final victory as a starter his rookie year — 91 days before the season ended.
The three months that followed were turbulent and full of disruption, ending with the Bears’ entire coaching staff and much of the front office being shown the door. Even after 10 starts, it felt like a lost season for Fields, a redshirt year of sorts in which the plans for his development were discombobulated and led to a total reboot as Fields crossed the bridge into Year 2.
Sure, there were unforgettable flashes of potential stardom during his rookie year.
Remember that exhilarating 22-yard touchdown run in Week 8 against the San Francisco 49ers, a fourth-and-1 thrill ride that could have earned Fields consideration for his own roller coaster at Great America?
Or his longest completion of the year, a 64-yard bomb to Mooney in a win over the Detroit Lions?
Or, most notably, the assured 75-yard, go-ahead touchdown march in the fourth quarter of a Monday night game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, punctuated with an off-script and athletic 16-yard pass to Mooney?
Even in a galling two-point, final-minute loss, former Bears coach Matt Nagy was convinced that was “a moment,” a sign that Fields’ DNA is loaded with big-moment poise and moxie.
“You can be the guy who always gets put in that position and doesn’t show up,” Fields said afterward. “Or you can be that guy who shows up in the big moments. That’s what my mindset was. I was just calm. And I was focused on showing up.”
Such stirring successes, however, didn’t come frequently enough. Fields had ball-security issues throughout the year and finished his rookie season with more turnovers (12) than touchdown passes (10).
He posted a 73.2 passer rating that ranked 28th among qualifying quarterbacks and fourth among drafted rookies.
He injured his ribs early in a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in late November and missed the next two games. After returning for two starts, Fields missed two more games with an ankle injury, then was scratched from the season finale in Minneapolis after testing positive for COVID-19.
Physically, the season’s second half was a battle.
There were also all those losses. Eleven overall, eight with Fields as the starting quarterback, including seven in a row to end his year after that triumph in Las Vegas.
In three college seasons, Fields’ teams had a collective winning percentage of .861. So, yes, last year’s experience was decidedly different. And psychologically taxing.
“That’s the most I’ve ever lost in my life,” Fields says. “I don’t like losing. I’m not used to losing. I never want to get used to losing.”
One can almost hear the New York Knights team psychologist from “The Natural.”
The mind is a strange thing. And you must begin by asking it, “What is losing?” Losing is a disease. As contagious as bubonic plague, attacking one but infecting all.
Fields has learned, however, to build resolve in the face of struggle, blessed with the mental toughness to convert losses and setbacks into motivation. If he took away anything positive from his rocky first season, it was learning that his confidence is elastic and that he has a deep reserve of patience that can help him embrace his lessons.
“Failure,” Fields says, “pushes me to go even harder.”
To that point, Getsy remains encouraged. He has seen since April that Fields has the fortitude and resolve to move beyond a bad practice or a rough week.
Inside the quarterbacks room and within offensive meetings, Getsy feels Fields radiating a combination of passion and intent.
“He’s a competitive dude, man,” Getsy says. “You get in that film room and you can see the hunger, you can see the fight. And it’s part of our job to make sure he has clarity through all that.”
‘He wants to take over the league’
Predictably, praise for Fields has poured out of Halas Hall the past five months like water from an open fire hydrant. The endorsements since the team’s first practice in April have been glowing and voluminous, enough to convince even the most skeptical Bears observer that a new dawn is coming.
Need a ready-made viral proclamation from Fields’ favorite receiver?
“He wants to take over the league,” Mooney said in June. “He’s already Justin Fields. He wants to be the best quarterback in the league.”
Want in-house confirmation of Fields’ urgency to proactively correct the little mistakes of his offensive teammates? Receiver Byron Pringle sees that constantly.
“That’s what quarterbacks do,” Pringle says. “That’s leadership.”
And what about that ultra-serious expression that seems permafixed to Fields’ face?
“He is the most focused individual I have ever been around,” says tight end Ryan Griffin, in his 10th season and a former teammate of Drew Brees in New Orleans and Tom Brady in Tampa. “Determined. Hard-working. I don’t see him smiling ever, really.
“And it’s not because he’s not having fun out there. But this guy wants to win. It just oozes through every movement he makes.”
Balance is required, of course. Fields must accept that he remains rough around the edges himself while still having the aura and authority to oversee others.
“He’s learning,” Griffin says. “But while he’s learning, he’s upset with mistakes. He’s not OK with guys being in the wrong place. He’ll tell you that. And that’s what you need in the leader of this offense.”
As an example, after Fields threw an exclamation-point 24-yard touchdown pass to Kmet on his final throw in Cleveland last month, his gut told him he needed to correct Kmet, result be damned.
That touchdown throw could have come easier had the third-year tight end taken his rail route farther outside and down the right sideline.
“I just wanted him to be a bit wider,” Fields says.
Searching for signs
As the season begins, Chicago’s yearning to attach a stack of “That’s it!” moments to Fields’ rise will only increase. Every touchdown pass, every breathtaking scramble, every Bears victory will tickle the urges of fans and analysts to verify that Fields’ hoped-for breakthrough is coming.
Heck, even the flashes of promise within preseason games last month foreshadowed the giddiness and anticipation that surfaces when Fields showcases his playmaking ability.
- A blitz-beating, hit-while-throwing, 19-yard third-down conversion to Tajae Sharpe against the Kansas City Chiefs.
- A pretty 19-yard play-action dart to Kmet in Seattle.
- Those three first-half touchdown passes in Cleveland.
It’s enough to make the thirstiest of Bears fans rush to the Kool-Aid jug with supersized cups.
But it takes far more than a few sprinkles of preseason production and a strong offseason work ethic for NFL quarterbacks to ascend toward greatness. And a real possibility remains that Fields, like so many Bears quarterbacks before him, never will live up to the high expectations.
In league circles, there is profound curiosity about whether Fields can become more decisive and certain with what he’s seeing, evolving into a consistently reliable pocket passer.
After Fields was sacked 36 times in his rookie season, outsiders also want to see that he can speed up his reaction time, finding proper ways to attack defenses with shrewd pre-snap judgments and alert in-play decisions.
Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko continue to push Fields to improve his pocket presence, hoping he can develop a feel for how to surf inside the pocket — sometimes climbing, sometimes sliding laterally, sometimes bailing altogether and using his athletic gifts to become a playmaking scrambler.
That requires internal comfort and external trust, both in teammates and in the timing of plays.
“Pocket presence is not an easy thing to teach,” Getsy says. “But he has the toughness and the guts to do it. When you’re evaluating quarterbacks, that’s one of the first things I’m looking for. (It’s) somebody who has that willingness to stand in there, make your throw with your feet in the ground and get smacked in the jaw. He definitely has that.”
But that’s just a prerequisite for success, not a guarantee of it.
Plenty of ultratalented, hyperdriven, mentally tough quarterbacks like Fields have come to the NFL and flamed out. Some hit their ceilings as ordinary, middle-tier starters.
Fields’ fate at this early stage of his career is far from clear. When Getsy was asked late last month if his quarterback is ready to make everyone around him better, the coordinator offered a measured response.
“I don’t think I’m in any position to make predictions like that,” Getsy said. “But what I can tell you is the guy works his tail off. He exudes confidence in himself, which then helps others feel confident. So I think that part of it is a special quality he has.”
Just how special remains to be seen. For many league observers, a clear-cut answer isn’t likely this season. More probable: The Bears will reach the end of 2022 still in a major gray area, sifting through Fields’ game-changing contributions and head-scratching blunders and interpreting what it all means.
Those deliberations for general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus might not always be comfortable.
At 10:53 p.m. on Aug. 27, about 40 minutes after the Bears finished their undefeated preseason with that encouraging win over the Browns, Fields was given a multiple-choice question on how best to sum up the first-team offense’s productive night.
- a) a turning point
- b) just another preseason game on a random Saturday in August
With the alley-oop lob hanging near the rim, Fields eagerly rose and dunked it.
“Definitely a turning point,” he said. “I think we can build on this.”
For the grounded and process-driven Getsy, that description felt like a prisoner-of-the-moment proclamation. A bit too “dramatic,” by Getsy’s estimation. So much of this season for the Bears offense, after all, will be about remaining tethered to reality and resisting any temptation to draw grand conclusions from small moments.
“The way my mind works is literally to have a vision of this process,” Getsy said. “We’re in this phase of getting better and … developing who we want to become. Are we on track? I don’t know. But I feel good about where we’re at.
“I think the guys believe in what we’re doing and what we’re communicating with the type of philosophy we have and the type of ball we want to play.”
A few days later, Fields clarified what he meant and stamped over the “turning point” label by reclassifying the performance as “another step in the right direction.”
“That half gave us a lot of confidence,” he said. “When everybody does their job, when we execute and we play hard and we play on their side of the ball, (it shows) what we can do as an offense.”
Without question, Fields’ 14-for-16, 156-yard, three-touchdown performance over five first-half possessions was encouraging and perfectly timed. But only so long as the Bears use the resulting surge of positive energy to continue catalyzing their improvement rather than processing it as an arrival.
For Getsy, some of the simpler plays in that win were the ones most worth highlighting. For example, Fields’ first completion, a basic rollout dump-off to fullback Khari Blasingame in the flat.
That 8-yard completion came on the identical play that later produced the touchdown pass to Kmet. But in that first instance, with Blasingame wide open after Fields’ play fake, Fields began his low-to-high read and was instantly satisfied his No. 1 option was there.
“Again,” Getsy says, “it’s not even necessarily the decision. Because KB was open. But it was how quickly he made the decision. It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s move on.’ It was, ‘We’ve got it. Let’s take it. And let’s move on to the next down with a positive play.’”
Those aren’t the kind of completions that will make YouTube highlight montages. But they are the kind that create momentum and rhythm for an offense. And Fields has said one of the bigger tasks in his Year 2 journey will be dialing down his greedy knob a few notches, resisting the urge to search for a big play when a positive gain is ready-made.
“We never want to put the ball in danger,” Fields says. “That’s the No. 1 thing they harp on here.”
But it’s more than that.
“Rather than taking a shot down the field that’s 50-50 on first-and-10, I’d rather take the completion,” Fields adds. “Boom. Move to the next (play). … Last year I was always trying to hit the home runs and not really worried about the checkdowns.”
‘I like it like that’
At the end of minicamp in mid-June, Fields acknowledged he was “not ready for the season to start.”
“I’m just being honest,” he said. “We’re not ready to play a game right now.”
At that point, there was a mountain of preparation to be done with everyone on the Bears offense still familiarizing themselves with the concepts of the new system and working to understand the little details that needed to be mastered.
Here in September, Fields and the Bears have no choice but to be ready. Week 1 has arrived. The 49ers are coming to Soldier Field on Sunday for the season opener. And the Bears’ progress is about to be tested in a major way.
From this point forward, Fields’ performances will be on center stage, under a bright spotlight with the football world waiting to hyperanalyze his progress.
Getsy, though, wants his quarterback to remain immersed in the process the way he has been the past five months.
In the preseason opener against the Chiefs, Getsy was thrilled with how smooth the Bears’ operation was, with clean play calls in the huddle, proper motions and no pre-snap malfunctions. Additional steps were taken the next two games.
Process. Process. Process.
Fields has been pushed to understand the emphasis of each day. If the focus needs to be on protection adjustments, then work to improve protection adjustments. If hot routes are being stressed, dial in on hot routes. In the situational periods this coaching staff emphasizes — third down, two-minute, red zone — work to be situationally sound.
“When we got here in April, we had this well-thought-out plan of how we wanted this process to look and we’re going to stay committed to that process,” Getsy says. “This isn’t like an elevation to a moment. This is part of the process. This is the steppingstone.”
So what is Fields most eager for at the beginning of his second season?
“Just to see,” he says. “Let’s see what happens.”
He slides back in his chair with a confident stare but offers a low-volume observation.
“A lot of people are doubting us,” he says. “I like it like that.”
Deep down, Fields has conviction that the outside conversation about his future and the direction of the Bears offense will be much different come January. His gut tells him the Bears have a chance to surprise a lot of people.
“I know we do,” he says. “For sure. I’m glad teams are sleeping on us. Hopefully they stay asleep.”
Fields will remain awake and locked in, leaving little to chance and eager to prove he can become the Bears’ long-term answer. Sunday is just the next step.