Fields' usage, Lance injury shows road to star QB is extremely narrow


There are two types of teams in the NFL. Those who have their franchise quarterback and those who are still looking.

There's a third group that currently lives in a grey area. Those teams have invested high draft capital in a young quarterback, hoping everything can come together to give them the player they have desperately been searching to find.

For those teams – the Bears, San Francisco 49ers, and New England Patriots chief among them – Week 2 was a reminder that a lot has to go right for potential to be met. For prospect to become star.

Even if your scouting evaluation is correct on draft night, so much else has to line up for that player to become the fully actualized version the team has in their minds.

Staff consistency, protection, proper scheme, adequate weapons, and health all play a role. Even then, it might not work out.

Josh Allen probably isn't Josh Allen if the Buffalo Bills didn't give Sean McDermott time to build the team he wanted and let Allen learn, grow, and fail without the worry that he, McDermott, or Brian Daboll would be cut loose.

Patrick Mahomes always had the arm talent, but landing in Kansas City with Andy Reid, Alex Smith, and those weapons was the perfect fit. Justin Herb … you get the point.

Sunday was Exhibit A of how difficult finding and developing a franchise quarterback can be, even when given a lottery ticket to a "loaded" draft class of quarterbacks.

The Bears and their fans rejoiced when Justin Fields slid to No. 11 in the 2021 NFL Draft, where Chicago eagerly traded up to secure the Ohio State star. Fields had all the tools: Big arm, elite athleticism, accuracy, and quick processing.

On paper, the Bears had finally found their way out of the quarterback wilderness.

But Matt Nagy's lame-duck tenure made Fields' rookie season a waste. New head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles entered this offseason adamant that they believed in Fields. They brought in Luke Getsy to run a quarterback-friendly offense tailored to Fields' strengths.

But they did little else to support Fields' growth. The offensive line still has holes, and Fields has only one true weapon in Darnell Mooney.

Still, the Bears entered the 2022 season focused on the development of the guy ticketed to be their future franchise quarterback.

But Sunday night's 27-10 loss to the Green Bay Packers told the story of an organization that didn't fully trust its young quarterback to throw the ball.

Despite the Bears trailing by two scores for 34 minutes at Lambeau Field, Fields only threw the ball 11 times. He went 7-for-11 for 70 yards and an interception. You can point to the insufficient pass protection, the successful running game, and the uninventive play-calling as to why Fields didn't air it out more.

But that number says a lot. In a season where the Bears need to, and supposedly want to, see growth from Fields, 11 pass attempts simply aren't enough.

"My job isn't to call the plays; my job is to execute the play that is given to me the best I can," Fields said Sunday after the loss.

"Of course. I'm a competitor. But again, my job is to run the play that's given to me the best that I can. I don't control any of that," Fields reiterated later.

The frustration was evident Sunday night. On Monday, Eberflus once again was adamant the Bears "trust" Fields to throw the ball more, and they will look to get the passing game going. One thing Eberflus said Monday stood out above everything else.

"Obviously, we’re two games into a new offense, so you can certainly understand that hey, the rhythm and the timing of it is going to improve every single week," Eberflus said. "And we’re going to get that. It’s going to improve, keep improving, and it might be in small increments. It might be in big jumps. And we’ll see how that goes."

It's only been two weeks, and the Bears played one game in a monsoon. They have faced two of the best pass defenses in the NFL. Getsy is a first-time play-caller. Fields is still learning. His development remains the most important thing to the Bears, but that progress might not be linear and there will be speed bumps.

But the Bears need to do a better job of letting Fields play quarterback and be Justin Fields.

Fields has every attribute you could want in a franchise quarterback. On paper, there's no reason the Bears shouldn't be set at the position for the next 10 years.

But Fields landed in the wrong situation. He was drafted by a regime on its way out with a head coach that didn't put him in a position to succeed. Now, he's trying to prove himself to a new coach and general manager without the help of a functioning offensive line or an acceptable arsenal of pass-catchers.

The situation is failing Justin Fields. If you play his career 10 times over, this might be the worst outcome for it. There's still time for Eberflus and the Bears to right the ship, but they have to believe in him and let him play quarterback. Eleven throws in a game is a number for Drew Lock. Not your franchise QB.

While circumstances are failing Fields, bad luck and coaching malpractice hit the 49ers on Sunday.
San Francisco drafted Trey Lance at No. 3 overall in 2021. The 49ers let him sit and learn behind Jimmy Garoppolo. He has a brilliant play-caller at head coach, YAC weapons, and a decent line. Lance is still a project, but it was the ideal situation for him to land in entering the NFL.

But Shanahan showed a reluctance to let Lance be a quarterback who can run, not a running quarterback, early in his career. Lance entered the season running the ball at a 19 percent clip (40 carries, 211 snaps). The only quarterback close to that number during their first two NFL seasons was Lamar Jackson (16.2 percent).

Through his rookie season and five-plus quarters this year, Lance had thrown 102 passes and rushed 54 times. That's a 1:2 ratio. With the bulk of those carries coming up the middle in a crowded area, the 49ers were playing with fire.

They got burned Sunday when Lance suffered a season-ending ankle injury while running an RPO-QB Power up the middle against the Seahawks.

After the game, Shanahan bit back at criticism that he had been running Lance too much. He pointed to Allen as a comp.

"Any type a guy gets hurt, I wish I didn't call that. But that's something we were going to do and something we would've continued to do," Shanahan said. "Do you guys watch other teams in this league? Do you watch Buffalo? You guys should watch other teams play."

In Allen's first two seasons, that ratio was 1:4. On Monday in the first half, Allen threw 23 passes with zero designed runs. When you believe you have the guy, you don't put him in harm's way. Yes, the running ability makes Lance special. But Shanahan is supposed to be an inventive enough play-caller not to use his franchise QB like a battering ram.

That's how you fumble the bag. Add in the mismanagement of the Jimmy Garoppolo situation that now has anonymous 49ers saying they feel better about their chances with Garoppolo than Lance this season, and you see how "the perfect situation" can be anything but that.

Finding and developing a franchise quarterback is a tough, tough business. It takes a lot of luck. You have to have a ton of organizational stability and do everything right. Even then, it's a toss-up.

Mac Jones looked well on his way to being a top-10/12 quarterback in the league last year. After losing Josh McDaniels as his OC and having the brain trust of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge replace him, the Patriots signal-caller has looked like a lost deer through two games.

There are a million ways to wreck a young quarterback beyond repair and only a narrow path to grooming them for success. Each one is unique to the player.

The Bears have to do their best to find the path that gives Fields the best chance to reach his potential. (Throwing the ball 11 times in a game just isn't it.) There's still time to get it right. Context in this situation matters. But with quarterbacks, it can get late early. If the Bears don't start doing right by Fields, they could be wandering through quarterback hell for the next few decades.

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