LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If you were to pick a randomg stat the 2022 season, it would confirm what your eyes saw last fall: The Bears' passing attack was an abject disaster.
The Bears ranked 32nd in passing. It wasn't close. They led the league in interception rate and gave up a sack on 13.3 percent of dropbacks. Quarterback Justin Fields, while dynamic on the ground, didn't light it up through the air. He ranked 25th in passer rating, 17th in QBR, 31st in completion percentage, 33rd in sack percentage, 29th in EPA per attempt, 16th in touchdown passes, and 21st in interceptions.
Some of that was his fault, and some was a product of the situation. Either way, the aerial attack was a car crash that demanded eye wash after watching it for 17 games.
Stay in the game with the latest updates on your beloved Chicago sports teams! Sign up here for our All Access Daily newsletter.
The Bears understandably put a big emphasis on improving the passing game during the offseason and offseason program. General manager Ryan Poles bolstered the offensive line with the additions of Nate Davis and Darnell Wright, and added weapons in top wide receiver DJ Moore, rookie speedster Tyler Scott, veteran tight end Robert Tonyan, and running backs D'Onta Foreman and Roschon Johnson.
Those additions are nice, but they won't matter if Fields doesn't make the necessary leap as a passer. The third-year quarterback spent the offseason continuing to fine-tune his footwork and mechanics. The Bears' passing game is tied to the quarterback's feet, so the belief is that with smoother footwork, the rhythm and timing of the passing game will improve.
"This year, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable with it, just timed up with the routes better," Fields said Thursday after mandatory minicamp wrapped. "Our whole offense is tied with my feet. I’m just trying to use my feet as the clock in my head just to move from each route in the progression."
We got our first look at Fields and the Bears' passing attack during three weeks of OTAs and mandatory minicamp. As is usually the case, June practices in shorts and shirts yield a mixed bag. For Fields, that included some bad decisions and overthrows but also several dimes and deep strikes.
There were moments when Fields looked comfortable and decisive and other times when he hesitated to pull the trigger and threw late.
There will be no grand proclamations about Fields' growth from throws made in the spring. The Bears liked what they saw from Fields and the passing game, but there are still miles to go before they get to where they need to be for Week 1.
"I think we're on track," head coach Matt Eberflus said. "I really do. I really feel good where we are. We have spent a lot of time and attention on that as well, and we're going to continue doing that during training camp. To me, that's great to have those 7 on 7s, where you can work on the rhythm, the timing of it, work on your pass coverage as well, and we're going to continue to do that.
"You can see it," Eberflus said of Fields' improvement. "It’s quicker, it’s faster, it’s more precise. Again, that comes down to his experience and his work ethic. He’s worked really hard at it.”
Part of that optimism comes from the Bears' focus on the deep passing game, something they didn't have in their bag in 2022. Last season, the Bears had just 38 passes of 20 or more yards. Only the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Ravens, and New York Giants had fewer. For comparison, the Kansas City Chiefs led the league with 73.
The addition of Moore, Scott, and Tonyan has the Bears working on opening up the downfield passing game. Fields is an excellent deep-ball thrower. Being able to take the top off the defense should force the safeties to play back and open up the intermediate area of the field, which is where Fields did a lot of his best work in 2022. Last season, Fields was tied with Lamar Jackson for the best completion percentage between 10-19 yards.
Fields hit several deep strikes during minicamp and OTAs. Most of his best throws were on passes more than 20 yards downfield. He hit Moore for several chunk gains but also tossed deep dimes to Dante Pettis, Cole Kmet, Robert Tonyan, and Scott.
"It's great. You've gotta back them off you," Eberflus said of the Bears' focus on deep shots. "When teams line up in single-high or they line up in single coverages, we're going to take our shots. I think our guys are doing a really good job with that. That's really been the theme all offseason. Certainly take what they give you, but we're certainly going to take shots with the matchups we like. It's fun to see the quarterbacks do that."
Fields' quick connection with Moore was the biggest positive of the offseason program. The Bears' duo got on the same page quicker than expected, and that's a good sign for the hope that Moore can help Fields make a leap in the same way that A.J. Brown did for Jalen Hurts.
In 2021, Hurts ranked 22nd in passer rating and 26th in completion percentage. Last season, those numbers jumped to fourth and 11th, respectively, with Brown in the fold.
Moore should help, but a lot of the onus falls on Fields to make better, quicker decisions and be more precise when he lets it fly.
"I think he’s made a conscious effort to make himself smoother, make himself more fluid, letting his feet lead him and then everything else mirrors off of that," quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. "To me, that’s where we’ve seen some growth. It’s what he’s put a real focus on. Just quantifying that as we get out there, completing more balls and putting ourselves in those situations in a game, then it goes to training camp. Hopefully we see some carryover there."
As the Bears break for the summer, two questions about the passing game warrant some thought.
The first: How much scar tissue is there from Fields' first two seasons? He was dealt unwinnable hands in 2021 and 2022. He was under constant pressure and had few targets that he trusted to separate and make the catch. Those mental body blows can build up for young quarterbacks. Fields' footwork and mechanics can improve, but will past experiences rear their heads on Sundays, causing hesitation to pull the trigger?
We won't be able to answer the other question until well into the season. We might never have to answer it, depending on how Fields and the passing attack start the season.
The Bears have talked a lot this offseason about dialing back Fields' rushing attempts. Fields' legs were the only thing that got the Bears' offense moving during a three-and-a-half-game hot streak in the middle of the season. It's nice to talk about evolving the offense and letting Fields grow as a passer. But the NFL, at its very core, is a self-preservation league.
If Fields and the passing game stumble out of the gate, what is Eberflus and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy's appetite for staying the course, being patient with their plan, and not reverting to the "run Justin, run" offense?
Fields and the passing game look worlds better than they did at this time last year. That bar is subterranean. Progress was seen during the offseason program, but we won't know much before the live rounds are fired in Week 1.
Justin Fields has all the talent to be an elite quarterback in the NFL. The arm talent is rare, the athleticism in a stratosphere that few have existed.
But there's more to playing quarterback than a Howitzer and Ferrari wheels. This offseason, the Bears' acquisitions and Fields' work have been about improving the critical aspects of playing quarterback that will make his strengths even more lethal.
The Bears believe he's on the right path but know the finish line isn't even in sight.