LAKE FOREST – Justin Fields wasn’t happy with how practice went Thursday.
So he did it again.
“He had me take him out (to the field) and go through the whole practice script again,” Bears quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo said. “Just little things like that, I don't want to say wow you, because I know the player, I've gotten to know him over time, and that doesn't shock me that he wants to do that, but at the same time, how great he wants to be -- it's really impressive.”
An interesting dynamic has developed at Halas Hall, where the Bears continue to stand by Andy Dalton as their starting quarterback, but continue to hype up Fields as a future star. No one – teammates, coaches or even Fields – seems worried about setting expectations too high. And perhaps that’s because Fields keeps blowing everyone away with what does on and off the practice field.
Just this week, safety Eddie Jackson said: “He brings a lot to the team already, probably doesn’t even know it. He fires guys up.”
After the first preseason game, wide receiver Rodney Adams said: “He’s a natural. He’s a leader. He commanded the huddle like he was supposed to.”
Many at Halas Hall have pointed out that Fields brings a different energy to the huddle that his teammates feed off of. And if that energy leads to more first downs and touchdowns, it’s only a matter of time before the rookie becomes the starter.
But before that happens, the coaching staff must be comfortable with Fields’ development, which is on-going. Thursday, both DeFilippo and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor went into detail about where Fields is at in his development and what still needs to be done.
Here are 7 things we learned:
Fields is truly obsessed
Some of the greatest quarterback busts of all time failed because they weren’t committed to the game. That won’t be an issue for Fields, who is proving to be as obsessed as anyone inside Halas Hall.
“I think it's a sign of a quarterback that has bought in and believes in not only the coaches, but the scheme and his teammates. There's a lot of positive signs there for sure for a young guy,” DeFilippo said. “It's really refreshing to see a young guy as willing as he is, that's had the amount of success he's had in his past. He wants to be great. He really does. He wants to be great.”
Lazor referenced the texts he gets from Fields at night, while also pointing out that they don’t come in too late – “he’s respectful.”
“I have evidence of how hard he’s working at night on his own preparing for the next day, whether it be a text message from him or knowing what he and Coach Flip are doing. And just the extra time he’s spending watching,” Lazor said.
Granted, these are things you expect from a franchise quarterback, but Fields’ drive to be great is still an important box that needs to be checked off and the coaching staff is thrilled with what they’ve seen.
Confident, but not cocky
When Fields was asked about the speed of the game after his preseason debut, he answered honestly.
“It was actually kind of slow to me to be honest. I think I was expecting it to be a little bit faster,” he said.
Out of context, that quote might have seemed arrogant. But in the room, you could tell that Fields was just answering the question with confidence, not cockiness. There’s a fine line between the two and sometimes that line is the difference between teammates gravitating towards a quarterback or being turned off.
“Justin is not a cocky guy at all. He's a very confident guy,” DeFilippo said. “I think he has had success and tasted success at every level he's been at, so I don't want to put words in his mouth, but from my observation, it didn't come as a shock to him that he had some successful plays (in his first NFL game). And that's a good thing. That's what you want. You want your quarterback internally confident, no matter what the situation is.”
Fields wants to be coached
Coachability is also an important trait in young players and Fields has yet to push back on anything the staff has attempted to teach him.
“From the beginning, he has wanted to be coached — from the beginning. I haven’t seen him in a position where that’s changed,” Lazor said. “Maybe it happens Saturday, maybe it’s the next week when he hits those rough spots. That’ll be part of, No. 1, the evaluation of him and, No. 2, his continued growth.”
There are bound to be struggles and how Fields responds will be telling. In fact, this week has been a minor speed bump, as the rookie has had two sub-par practices (and missed one) while dealing with groin soreness. It will be interesting to see how Fields performs Saturday against the Bills after a less-than-ideal week of practice.
Why a checkdown got the coaches excited
Earlier this week, Bears head coach Matt Nagy pointed out that a checkdown before halftime, with the clock running down, got DeFilippo especially excited. The QB coach explained why on Thursday:
“It was just really impressive for a young guy to really understand the situation. If the throw to be made wasn't down the field, we had to get out of bounds. To be able to reset your feet subtly, to set your target line so we could hit Khalil (Herbert) on the front pads so he could get out of bounds, I know it sounds small, but it's not.”
It was also a correction from a previous series, when Fields hit a checkdown late after needlessly scrambling.
But DeFilippo also understands that the scrambling is part of what makes Fields special and that’s why understanding situations is so important. There are times when taking a quick checkdown to get out of bounds is the best play. And then there are times when letting Fields use his raw ability is the best play.
“It's really exciting. I think when you watch a lot of tape, a lot of plays that are explosive pass gains, sometimes they are off-schedule plays, especially in the red zone. And very rarely can you get the play perfectly like it's drawn up in the book or how you envision it in your brain. Very rarely,” DeFilippo said. “So I think anytime you have a quarterback like Justin with his gifts that can play off-schedule like he can, it's a positive for our team.”
Fields is still adjusting to NFL nuances
While much has been made about Fields’ adjustment to huddling and taking snaps under center – both of which he didn’t have to do at Ohio State – there are some other game day nuances he’s getting used to at the NFL level.
“From what I know, unless someone was cheating, it was the first time on the sideline he got to look at the pictures the NFL gets on the sideline,” Lazor said. “It just sounds like a little thing, but that’s the first time in a live game where he’s got to come to the sideline and sit down with the quarterback coach and talk to the other players, the other quarterbacks, and go through: ‘Here’s what it looked like pre-snap, that’s when they rotated the safeties, you can tell.’ That’s a lot. It’s a big change.”
At the college level, quarterbacks typically come to the sideline and talk to their quarterbacks coach and get on the phone with the offensive coordinator upstairs, but they can’t look at the pictures. They also don’t have a headset in their helmet to hear the playcaller like they do in the NFL.
“We've been doing it in practice, but hearing the coach talk to him in the headset, right? Other than practice, that's the first time on a game field,” Lazor said. “I guess what I'm saying is don't underestimate all those things that may seem like little things. That's all part of a big, long process in what's going to be a long, fun journey.”
Complicated play calls have become ‘second nature’
The good news is that the long play calls that come in on the headset – usually from Lazor in practice and Nagy in the games – are being relayed flawlessly in the huddle.
“We have some difficult play calls, and when he walks in the huddle at 9 o’clock in the morning, I know how hard they are. Some of those are long calls. I know how hard he’s worked at it,” Lazor said. “When he walks in the huddle in front of his teammates, he can call that thing like it’s second nature to him. I just have evidence that he’s worked at it.”
That goes back to the work Fields is doing on his own at night before the early morning practices. When he shows up the next day, he’s ready to roll with the practice script. And when he struggles with it, evidently he takes DeFilippo back out to the field to do it again.
In the short term, Fields has another game to play Saturday. The preseason games allow Fields to be tested with less scripted, and Lazor can’t wait to see how the rookie responds when something unpredictable happens.
“That’ll be fun to watch. How does he handle something that, I guess if I could have an example, I’d prep for it,” Lazor said.
But you can’t prep for everything and instincts must kick in. In scouting, instincts are often the toughest thing to evaluate. Everyone can see Fields’ natural playmaking ability, but how will the instincts translate to the NFL level? It was encouraging to hear Fields say the game seemed slow to him, but they’ll undoubtedly get faster as he faces tougher competition.
So in the long term – whether Fields is starting or not – DeFilippo has this advice for the rookie:
“Routine. Get in a routine. And then be ready to be uncomfortable on a Thursday night game. Be ready to make sure you don't overanalyze things on a Monday night game when you have extra time. Those are learning experiences. I can help a player so much, but he has to go through those things. (He) needs to learn, ‘Hey, I'm going to be confident on Thursday night when maybe I haven't had as much tape study as I'm used to on an opponent. I'm confident enough in myself and the plan and my teammates that I can go out and execute and I feel confident in executing.’ So those are the things that you just have to go through.”
Confidence seems to be the key word around Halas Hall. Fields has it, and apparently his coaches do too. If you thought Nagy and Co. were going to try to downplay expectations, you were wrong.
They’ve done the opposite. Because Fields can handle it.