Quarterback Justin Fields will get another opportunity under the preseason lights to add some sparkle to the Chicago Bears offense. Coach Matt Ebeflus made the announcement on Tuesday The Bears will play the first half Saturday against the Browns in Cleveland. That means Fields and a healthy first-unit offense should see their biggest game in a month at FirstEnergy Stadium.
So how valuable will those reps be to Fields and the offense? What are the risks of allowing rookies and key regulars to play more than two dozen shots in an exhibition game? And what to make of Fields’ performance and performance over the last four weeks of training camp?
Tribune Bears writers Dan Wiederer and Colin Kane break things down in this edition of “Real Talk.”
Dan Wiederer: I may be in the minority here, but I 100% support Fluss’ decision to play the starting lineup for a full half on Saturday.
For one thing, the quirks of this year’s preseason schedule left the Bears with this unfortunate short week between their first and second road games, which in turn limited how much the coaching staff was willing to play their best players in Seattle. That left Fields and the first unit offense just nine snaps against the Seahawks. Add those to the 18 Fields played on Aug. 13 against the Kansas City Chiefs, and that August playing time isn’t enough for a largely inexperienced group learning a new offense with a still-shaky offensive line and a largely unproven set of receivers.
This group needs to gain a lot more momentum and confidence before Week 1. Fields needs to continue to develop his timing and presence in the pocket. The offensive line needs more work to continue to gel. The best way to get those things is to play against an unfamiliar defense – even with the obvious risk of injury.
So, let them loose on Saturday night. For starters, it’s mostly a development period. So why hit the pause button on development?
Colin Kane: In theory, this is a good idea. But if any of the key players are injured in the first half, there will be plenty of second-guessing about Eberfluss’ decision.
The Bears are already short on offensive talent with injuries to wide receivers Byron Pringle and N’Kil Harry, among others. Shouldn’t the coaches keep Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet in bubble wrap on the sidelines? Do Bears coaches need to rewatch film of Myles Garrett and company knocking down the field for nine sacks last season as a reminder to be careful?
To be honest, I just play against the odds. I also think the offense would benefit greatly from playing the entire half together — especially on an offensive line that could have three fairly inexperienced starters. (And that’s probably worth the risk in a season devoted to Fields’ growth.)
But the fact that it’s a preseason game could make fans even more anxious every time Fields gets hit.
Wiederer: Look, I understand the concern. I also understand Halas Hall’s urgency for the offense to find a rhythm that will give the coaching staff a little more slack and maybe allow them to wink and close their eyes a few times before the season opener on Sept. 11 against the San Francisco 49ers .
You saw what I saw during the first 20 practices of the preseason game: a second-year quarterback who is clumsy and out of sync with the Bears’ offense and needs to build some meaningful momentum as soon as possible.
Mind you, this is not Mitch Trubisky in August 2019. I don’t see Fields losing confidence or becoming mentally burdened by the forward’s current struggles. So any anxieties about this should be quelled.
But I also didn’t see enough “Wow!” moments from Fields during training camp or evidence that a big break is imminent. And I’m also realistic about where Fields is at this stage of his development, especially with his presence in the pocket.
Coordinator Luke Gatsey and defensive backs coach Andrew Yanochka are pushing Fields to get his footwork in order and better understand the timing of each play. They encouraged him to understand his ability as a runner, and Gatsey continues to use concepts that will help Fields move.
But they also want their young quarterback to understand how to play high-level winning football from the pocket, which requires patience and a sense of how to move up in the pocket and find clean shooting areas. It also requires the experience that Saturday will help provide.
Kane: Certainly the more experience the better for Fields, and that should include some action against the Browns’ first-team defense. Browns coach Kevin Stefanski announced that the starters will play Thursday, but declined to say how many games he plans to keep them.
Along with all the work Fields can do, wide receiver Equanimeus St. Brown said Wednesday that the extended walk could give the offense a chance to work when fatigued and also get 2-minute work against the other team. This is an opportunity for Fields to continue to develop chemistry with some of the new receivers, including St. Brown.
It could also give Fields a chance to build confidence as he approaches the season opener. I agree, Fields doesn’t seem fazed by the ups and downs of the offense through the first few months of training camp. First, he has a strong personality and the coaches have talked about how they try to set the right tone between acknowledging the development that is happening and demanding high standards.
But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to lead off with a touchdown after the first team’s three-run touchdown against the Chiefs ended with a field goal in their only series against the Seahawks.
Wiederer: Excellent point. I wasn’t a math expert, but averaging 0.75 points per possession — which is what Fields’ offense achieved with limited preseason work — isn’t going to cut it for a starting quarterback at any level. And as we both know, production is the match that lights the wick for confidence. So let’s see this offense be at least modestly productive on Saturday with hopes of maintaining some confidence heading into the regular season.
Still, if the past 20 practices are any indication, Bears fans should also brace themselves for a pull-up-and-run experience with Fields, who sometimes turns embarrassing plays into positive yards and first downs while inducing high-fives on the couch. But at other times, Fields’ difficult decisions will indicate that his pocket poise and trust in those around him aren’t quite where they should be. It’s a tightrope the 23-year-old defender must walk skillfully.
Earlier this month, there was one practice in which Fields ran multiple sequences in which he made shovel passes on the run or option-like throws to safety valve receivers while scrambling. Sometimes those plays get the fans excited and move the chains. At other times, they will endanger football and become examples of questionable decision-making. I asked Eberfluss how he would control that part of Fields’ development, allowing natural creativity while exercising caution.
“We’re certainly talking about it,” Eberfluss admitted.
Ultimately, the Bears coaches want Fields to play with feel and use his instincts to get the game going when he needs to. At times, that will mean Fields will “drive the pocket and deliver the pass,” Eberfluss said. Sometimes he needs to rush forward through the B gap and escape the pressure. At times, he will struggle with the ability to either continue the run or find a target underneath. Everything should be instinctive. In the end. It is worth watching.
Kane: A lot of that, of course, will also depend on the play around Fields this season with an unproven offensive line and patchwork of receivers.
So this Saturday night game will also be about getting more work for left guard Braxton Jones, a fifth-round pick who made the big jump from FCS Southern Utah to the NFL, and Taven Jenkins, whose tenure at right guard is a week and a half. The Bears committed to several young players to protect Fields, so even if it’s not ideal that some of them are still getting their feet wet on Saturday, the team made the decision.
Jones was asked Wednesday if Fields mentioned anything about his last outing in Cleveland, his first career start in which a different Bears offensive line didn’t do Fields much favor as the Browns racked up 15 quarterback hits and those aforementioned nine sacks.
“He didn’t say anything about it, and I’m glad,” Jones said. “I mean, it was last year. We have a different group of guys and obviously we’re looking for a better result.”
Wiederer: “We’re looking for a better outcome.” At least Braxton, who’s only been with the Bears since April, quickly learned the 21st century motto at Halas Hall, right? Now the Bears must turn that search into a find.
Everyone agrees that much of the success of the 2022 season will depend on Fields’ growth. And to that end, the Bears must continue to make a daily effort to make Fields feel comfortable, confident and ultimately productive when it matters.
We all know he needs more help around him — on the line and especially in the receiving corps. But he also needs to continue to gain experience and learn how he can be most successful and what his weaknesses are. This process is still in the very early stages. But it is progressing. And the progress will continue this weekend.