WESTFIELD, In. -- It was the first time in all of training camp that Bears head coach Matt Eberflus didn't pull any punches when it came to questions about the development of the Bears' offense.
Eberflus noted that the attention to detail must be better in all three phases of the game. But as it pertains specifically to the issues he sees with his offense, Eberflus was blunt.
"A to Z," Eberflus said after Thursday's practice with the Indianapolis Colts when asked where he sees issues with the offensive operation. "It needs to be tighter. It needs to be more efficient. It needs to have the detail. Precision and details matter. Because then you know what to do and how to do it and you can play with speed. That's how you win a down. That's how you win football games. Until we get that, we're not in the spot we need to be."
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Eberflus' comments came after a practice in which quarterback Justin Fields and the first-team offense struggled to find any rhythm. They completed just three passes in a final team period, including a sack and an interception. They scored only two touchdowns in two red zone periods, both of which came on handoffs.
Eberflus is correct. This Bears offense has a long way to go to be ready for the Green Bay Packers in 23 days. And yet, Eberflus and his staff have decided to sit Fields and "select starters" for Saturday's preseason game against the Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Eberflus and the Bears' staff believe the reps Fields and the offense got during the two joint practices with the Colts were enough to sit him down Saturday.
But does that decision make sense, given how far away the Bears' offense is from its desired target?
There are two sides to that coin.
Fields and the first-team offense clearly need the reps. The rhythm and timing of the passing game has to get better. The protection, for the most part, has been a disaster.
Fields has been better. When given time and a clean pocket, he has delivered precise passes. His connection with DJ Moore has been the talk of camp, and the elite wide receiver has already exceeded expectations. Even on days when the passing attack has struggled, Fields and Moore seem to always link up for a deep connection to end the day on a positive note.
But the consistency isn't there. It doesn't all fall at Fields' feet. He can't block for himself or run more precise routes. He can't make Chase Claypool's hamstring heal or make it so his offensive line is whole. But things are rarely perfect on NFL Sundays, and Fields and the offense need all the reps they can get to find a rhythm before Week 1.
Sitting a starting quarterback in a preseason game is reserved for names like Mahomes, Herbert, Burrow, Jackson, and Rodgers -- quarterbacks with an unassailable track record and an offense that doesn't have a laundry list of kinks to get worked out.
Fields and the Bears' offense can benefit from more work. If we're honest, minimal live reps against the Buffalo Bills in the final preseason game -- should the Bears play their starters -- might not be enough to be firing on all cylinders by Week 1.
As a runner, Fields is the most electric playmaker in the NFL. There's no doubt. But everyone, including Fields himself, knows that he must take it up a level as a passer. He has the talent. That has never been the question. But there are 10 other guys in the huddle that Fields relies on to do their job at an elite level. If they don't, it's hard for him to do his.
“I think he’s right on pace," Eberflus said of Fields' development Thursday. "He was 8-for-8 and had four touchdowns in 7-on-7, that was excellent. Rhythm, timing, he’s getting better there. Sometimes it’s a protection breakdown. It’s always everybody. It’s the other 10 guys that need to operate. Are we running the routes correctly? Are we protecting him the right way, giving him time? And doing those types of things it takes to have an efficient passing game.”
If there's as much work to be done as Eberflus believes, why not give Fields some time against the Colts? Going into the final preseason game and perhaps Week 1 with Fields having thrown only three passes behind the line of scrimmage in live action seems like a recipe for an inefficient offense to start the season.
But in the end, it's the safe decision for the Bears to sit Fields on Saturday. At maximum, he'd play between 15-20 snaps behind an offensive line that likely would be without right guard Nate Davis, center Cody Whitehair, and backup interior offensive lineman Lucas Patrick.
During Thursday's practice, second-year center Doug Kramer took reps with the first team after Whitehair exited, and the results weren't pretty. Kramer was consistently bullied by Colts defensive tackles, and Fields rarely had a clean pocket.
The Bears prefer the controlled environment of joint practices to get Fields reps, especially behind a banged-up offensive line. Fields and the offense can get invaluable live reps in without the quarterback being in any real danger.
Fields and the offense need all the reps they can get before Week 1. But those reps are useless if it ends with Fields getting injured behind a line without two of its five starters and top reserve. That the Bears are also down three receivers in Claypoo, Tyler Scott, and Velus Jones Jr. likely also played a role in the decision.
Live reps are vital. But the Bears can't expect Fields and the offense to operate at maximum efficiency if half the starting unit is dinged up and in sweatpants on the sideline.
The risks of playing Fields on Saturday far outweigh the potential reward.
I can see the logic in the decision, but only if the Bears follow it up by giving Fields and a hopefully healthier offense a chunk of snaps in the preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills. That live work is still needed and can't be replicated.
If the primary goal of the 2023 season is for Fields to take a leap forward as a passer, then the Bears need to treat him like a quarterback in that tier and not the one above. He can't elevate his game if the line isn't executing and the receivers aren't detailed in their route running. You can't ask Fields to be great if the operation around him is lacking. But you also can't expect him to take the necessary steps if the only live game work he gets in the preseason is two screens and a pass to fullback Khari Blasingame.
There's national MVP hype around Fields. It has been building. But Fields doesn't need to be an MVP to be successful in 2023. He just needs to go up one or two levels. He can make the jump to the top of the mountain later. But that leap won't happen if he doesn't take the necessary smaller steps first.
The bottom line is: Fields and the Bears' offense need work to iron out the kinks. If we're being as honest as Eberflus was Thursday, they need a lot of work. That won't happen Saturday in Indianapolis, and it probably shouldn't.
But after 18 days of camp, the Bears' offense is behind schedule. There are a lot of reasons for that. Fields owns a portion of it. That can only get fixed with precise work at Halas Hall and execution under the gun in live action. That has to come in the preseason finale for Fields and the Bears.
Otherwise, the Bears' offense might stumble and trip out of the gates -- something neither Fields nor the 2023 Bears can afford.