LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Justin Fields entered a critical seven-game stretch Sunday when he returned to lead the Bears against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
The third-year quarterback needs to string two months of high-level play together to prove to general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus that they should continue to build around him as their franchise quarterback and not jump ship to Caleb Williams Island or Drake Maye Key.
The Bears said they need to see Fields consistently improve. They want to see him take care of the ball while making game-changing plays with both his arm and legs. They need to see him operate the offense cleanly in four-minute, two-minute, and end-of-game situations. Can he prove he can play quarterback at a high level and be the reason the Bears win games? Can he make Luke Getsy's sometimes clunky offense look better than it is? Can he elevate those around him as other franchise quarterbacks do?
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Fields played 53 minutes of damn good football Sunday in Detroit. He played free, hung in the pocket, made good and quick decisions, kept his eyes downfield when he was forced to escape, tormented the Lions with his legs, and his 39-yard touchdown strike to DJ Moore was quintessential Fields when he's on.
The quarterback dropped back and was pressured from his left. Fields dodged the rusher, stepped up in the pocket, and ripped a rope to Moore for a score.
For 53 minutes, Fields gave the Lions fits. He finished the day 16-for-23 for 169 yards and a touchdown while adding 104 on the ground.
When Fields bolted out of the pocket and picked up 29 yards on third-and-14 with just under seven minutes to play, it looked like the third-year quarterback would begin the critical seven-game stretch with a signature win -- by beating a measuring-stick opponent with plays that reminded how special he can be.
It was all right there. Then, the Bears' coaching staff -- the same one that needs to see Fields execute in do-or-die situations and prove he can win them games when everything is on the line -- took it out of his hands.
Up nine and facing a first-and-10 at the Lions' 26-yard line, the Bears had the kill shot in their sights. All they had to do was keep the game plan the same as it had been for the first 53 minutes, let Fields continue to make smart decisions and roll out of Detroit with a marquee win.
Instead, the Bears coached not to lose.
The Bears handed the ball off to Khalil Herbert for a gain of 1 on first down. Fields kept it on a zone read for 2 on second down to set up a critical third-and-7.
It should have been another opportunity to evaluate Fields. To put the ball in his hands and see if they are the hands you want controlling your fate for the next 10 years.
Instead, the Bears handed it off to Roschon Johnson for 2 yards and kicked a field goal to go up 12.
Fields' grade on that drive went from an A to an incomplete with three confounding play calls.
“Yeah, we love those plays we had there, even the one on third down," Eberflus said Monday at Halas Hall. "We thought we could pop that for the third down. I think it was third and 7 there potentially, yep. We like that. He could have had a disconnect on that one but decided to hand it off. I think 34 was there waiting for him. We thought we could pop that one, so that’s where it was.”
Not only did the Bears waste an evaluation opportunity with those three calls, but they also cost themselves the win.
The Lions went right down and scored in 1:16 to cut the lead to five.
That meant Fields got one more chance to make the winning plays to put in the pro column on his evaluation ledger. With less than three minutes left, the Bears were going to be conservative. That's fine. But there's a difference between not wanting to turn the ball over and turtling.
The Bears did the latter.
The first-down call was a vanilla shotgun handoff to Herbert. No creativity, no motion, no keeper option. Just run it up the middle for no gain. On second-and-10, the Bears called a read option that the Lions played perfectly, forcing Fields to hand it to Herbert for a gain of 1.
On third-and-9 and needing a first down to almost ice it, the Bears finally put the ball in Fields' hands. DJ Moore was the primary read, but when the safety came down in robber coverage, Fields knew he had Tyler Scott singled up on the outside and took his shot. Fields' ball was perfectly thrown, but Scott "misjudged" it, and it fell incomplete past his outstretched fingers.
The Bears punted and the rest is history as the Lions completed a historic comeback to win 31-26.
Six plays (or more) in the perfect NFL cauldron for the Bears to evaluate Fields -- to get the information they claim they want -- and they completely punted on an opportunity they needed to plot a course forward.
“The last play we talked about with the cross to DJ, and he threw it over top, I mean that would have been a spectacular play if we connected on that," Eberflus said Monday when asked if the Bears could get a full evaluation fo Fields if they don't put the ball in his hands in critical moments. "We were right there. We just got to do a good job of executing in that moment, and that’s what we’re talking about as a group. Taking accountability is offense, defense and kicking, about finishing the right way. We have to do that.”
The lack of execution by Scott, a talented but raw rookie receiver, isn't the issue.
The issue is everything that came before it in the fourth quarter.
With a chance to plunge a dagger into the Lions' heart, the Bears asked little of Fields. Out of the 19 offensive plays the Bears ran in the fourth quarter, only six were passing plays. Four were quarterback runs, one was a sneak, and the other eight were handoffs.
The Bears called passing plays on these downs in the final quarter:
--Third-and-4 (defensive holding)
-- Second-and-6 (scramble)
-- Second-and-6 (sack)
-- First-and-10 (strip-sacked with 29 seconds left, trailing by two)
Perhaps the Bears don't truly want Fields to prove it to them. Maybe the die was cast long ago, and they are ready to move on to a rookie quarterback of their choosing.
But what would serve this rebuild the best is for Fields to go out and prove to be the guy. At the very least, the Bears have to be sure he's not a franchise quarterback before moving on from him if they want to avoid a crippling mistake.
The unknown of a draft pick can be intoxicatingly enticing for front offices. But quarterback evaluation is an inexact science. Even the best prospects bust at a high rate.
Look at the 2021 draft class and where they are today:
-- Trevor Lawrence (starter)
-- Zach Wilson (third string behind Tim Boyle and Trevor Siemian)
-- Trey Lance (third string behind Dak Prescott and Cooper Rush)
-- Justin Fields
-- Mac Jones (TBD based on the week of practice vs. Bailey Zappe)
Having Fields remove doubt is a much better option than rolling the dice on Williams or Maye. It's not a question of talent but rather an acknowledgment that finding a franchise QB in the draft is much easier done on Madden than in real life.
But the Bears coached Sunday like they didn't want to see if Fields could prove them wrong. Maybe their minds are made up, or perhaps it's just an archaic way of coaching that says playing conservatively is the surest way to win.
Either way, what the Bears did Sunday in the fourth quarter didn't move them any closer to clarity on Fields. On the contrary, letting him play free for three quarters only to handcuff him in the fourth makes the picture even murkier with six games left.
Unless they've already made up their mind. If they have, Fields faces an almost insurmountable uphill climb to change their minds.