Justin Fields

Bears' 2023 was all about Justin Fields questions they'll have to answer in 2024

2023 was all about the Justin Fields question that the Bears will answer early in 2024

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The 2023 calendar year started with a thud for the Bears as they were blasted 41-10 by the Detroit Lions on Ford Field on Jan. 1. It was a game in which quarterback Justin Fields went just 7-for-21 for 75 yards, one touchdown, and one interception while also racking up 132 yards on the ground.

It was the worst performance of a second half of the 2022 season that served as Fields' coming out party as a dynamic playmaker. It also highlighted the questions that remained about his ability to win with his arm in the NFL.

One week later, the Houston Texans knocked off the Indianapolis Colts in their season finale to hand the Bears the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 draft and give us the first glimpse into general manager Ryan Poles' feelings about the young quarterback he inherited.

What happened next is well-documented and set in motion a 2023 season that shined a bright light on Fields' growth as a passer and forced the Bears to confront their franchise quarterback question and whether or not Fields is the answer to it.

That's a question that wouldn't require a firm answer this offseason had it not been for the blockbuster trade Poles swung last March, acquiring wide receiver DJ Moore and the Carolina Panthers' first-round pick in the 2024 NFL draft for the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft.

The Panthers' putrid season -- they enter Sunday with the worst record in the NFL at 2-13 -- made the 2023 campaign a make-or-break season for Fields by default. With Caleb Williams and Drake Maye atop the 2024 draft, the Bears will have to answer whether or not Fields is the guy to lead them forward this offseason or if they believe they are better served in the long run with Williams or Maye.

Whatever Poles decides, that will be the first line of his Bears obituary when it is written.

The 2023 season wasn't supposed to be a make-or-break season for Fields in Chicago. He needed to show marked growth as a passer. The Bears needed a complete evaluation of him before deciding on his fifth-year option. But the Panthers cratering forced the Bears to answer their quarterback question sooner than they might have wanted.

"Given what they've seen from Fields lately, you'd probably want one more season to see if he can take an even bigger jump," an NFC scout told NBC Sports Chicago. "The NFL isn't patient with quarterbacks. Three years isn't a lot in terms of development, especially when you look at the situation he's been in. He has been pretty good over the last month, and you can see where things are coming together in the pocket. He's still only [24], and he has something that no other quarterback other than Lamar really has in the explosive way he can beat you in the run game.

"I wouldn't want to have to make the choice to move on from him this offseason. Not after what he has shown."

That improvement has been evident to those inside Halas Hall who have watched Fields attack it with an unmatched work ethic.

"There’s been tremendous amount of growth," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. "Where he’s … just in this season alone, how far along he’s come — taking care of the football, being in control of the game. I think that’s been the coolest part since he’s come back. I just feel like he’s in control when he’s out there. That’s been a lot of fun to see. 

Since returning from a dislocated right thumb in Week 11, Fields has thrown for 945 yards, four touchdowns, and three interceptions while completing 60.0 percent of his passes. He has also rushed for 348 yards and two touchdowns.

Fields' completion percentage took a hit in Cleveland, where he went just 19-for-40 and was outplayed by Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter.

The fourth-quarter passing numbers are where Fields still has work to do. The marked improvement as a passer that he has shown during the second half of the season still isn't translating to winning time.

Fields ranks last in passer rating (22.1) while trailing with less than four minutes to go. Trevor Siemian (43.5) and Zach Wilson (45.7) are the next two on the list. If you stretch those stats out to the entire fourth quarter, Fields ranks 51st in quarterback rating out of 58 quarterbacks who have thrown at least 20 passes in the fourth quarter this season.

In the fourth quarter this season, Fields is 41-for-80 for 463 yards, three touchdowns, and six interceptions. He has been sacked eight times. That 51.3 completion percentage ranks 52nd, while the six interceptions are tied for the most by any quarterback.

Fields' improvement as a passer is evident. He has been scrambling with a passer's mentality, something the Bears' coaching staff has worked with him on since they arrived. Quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said he shows Fields clips of all the big explosives in the league, and the majority are either on slants, go routes, or broken plays. That latter was used to sell Fields on the need to evade the pressure and extend plays while looking downfield to find receivers in open space. That's something Fields took to heart and has worked to improve on. The results have shown up over the last month.

All of that has led to a complicated decision for Poles and the Bears.

They won't exit the 2023 season knowing with 100 percent certainty if Fields is or isn't a franchise quarterback. They know he has rare traits, is a hard worker, is taking to coaching, and is improving. He is beloved in the Bears' locker room and has a number of believers at the upper levels of Halas Hall.

"I think he has definitely made it a difficult decision. I mean, it's a keep you up at night decision now," a league source told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think a month ago, it seemed like a cut and decision. But he is getting better as a passer, and he already has the running ability that separates him. If he keeps getting better as a passer, you're looking at something special. Even now, I'd argue he gives your team a really high floor that you can build a winner around. He's a b---h to play. You know he's going to keep working to get better. Talent isn't an issue. You can build something good around him."

League opinions, however, are split on what the Bears will do with Fields.

As tantalizing as his talent is, there have been several games where his deficiencies as a passer have been glaring. There was the 99-yard effort against the Kansas City Chiefs, a game in which the Bears trailed by three scores throughout. Fields threw for 70 yards in a Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers last season and clocked in at 75 yards in the New Year's Day blowout loss to the Lions.

There's enough bad to make you think the grass is greener. There are also enough flashes to think that moving on from Fields would become a career-defining mistake.

"It's always easy to see new and think of what it might become," an AFC team personnel member told NBC Sports Chicago. "You watch the college kids, and you see what might be the next [Mahomes] or Herbert. But if you might already have special with [Fields], and I think you do, it's risky to move for an upgrade that isn't a sure thing."

"I just don't see it with him as far as being a guy who can win you big games with his arm," an NFC scout told NBC Sports Chicago. "The playmaking is special, but the question is always: Can you beat a team with your arm in the fourth quarter in January? I'm not sure he can. Look at what Mahomes did to the Niners [in Super Bowl LIV], where he took over with his arm and willed them to win. Can he do that? I haven't seen it. I just don't think he's got it as a passer. If the answer is now, now is the time to move."

Sunday's game could very well be Fields' final start at Soldier Field as the Bears' starting quarterback. The 24-year-old is focusing on the present. He's aware that his NFL future might not be in Chicago, but he's not letting it devour what could be his final months as a Bear.

"I've got too much to focus on today to worry about tomorrow," Fields said Wednesday at Halas Hall. "I've got to worry about this new game plan I've got, the play calls, and like I always say, we don't know if we're going to get it tomorrow. So there's no point in stressing about tomorrow if we don't know it's going to be here yet."

Head coach Matt Eberflus has spent most of his second season with his job security being questioned. He knew that came with the job and that heavy criticism is why he felt it important to develop such a strong relationship with Fields when he arrived in Chicago.

"It’s really important for the quarterback of the franchise, a quarterback of any franchise, to be close to the head coach because those are the two guys who really, let’s face it, get a lot of criticism, and that’s all part of the biz." Eberflus said Friday at Halas Hall.

"Just about being yourself," Eberflus said about what he has learned from Fields. "I think that’s growing, and getting better. That’s what I try to be about, and I think that’s what Justin tries to be about. And then if we just keep getting better and have our eyes focused on one day at a time and one moment at a time, we’re gonna get better."

Eberflus and Fields have gotten better each day since this regime took over, and their growth -- along with increased talent -- is a big reason the Bears have doubled their win total and are a couple inexplicable fourth-quarter collapses from being firmly in the playoff picture. Eberflus and Fields both own those collapses. Both made mistakes that fueled them, but both have also learned from them and have the Bears on the escalator back to relevancy.

Despite a wave of adversity, some key injuries, and an up-and-down start from Fields, the Bears are finishing 2023 exactly where they were meant to be. The next question is: Where will they go in 2024?

"I think [Eberflus and Fields] will both be back," a league source said. "They are on the right path. I wouldn't change it."

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