It was just a preseason game, but Justin Fields did exactly what he was sent to Chicago to do.
Save the offense.
For far too long in Saturday’s exhibition against the Dolphins, the Bears simply could not move the ball. They didn’t gain a first down until there were only 34 seconds left in the second quarter. Following two three-and-outs from Andy Dalton’s first-team offense and a couple shaky series from Fields, it appeared the Bears were going to head into halftime with nothing but that same old empty offensive feeling fans are dreadfully used to.
That all changed with 40 seconds left in the second quarter. Equipped with two timeouts, Fields quickly managed to gain 42 yards by completing 5-of-6 passes, setting up a 53-yard field goal for Cairo Santos. The drive was highlighted by a third-down roll out in which Fields extended the play and used his eyes to manipulate the Dolphins’ defense before completing a 15-yard pass to Justin Hardy.
“The one thing you felt from Justin that we all took away from down there was he was extremely calm the whole time,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said after the 20-13 win.
Suddenly, the offense had a spark. And remember that whole third quarter problem last year? You know, the one where the Bears didn’t score a single point in the third quarter in 10 games? Well, Fields had a solution for that issue too:
Passing in the third quarter: 7-for-8, 90 yards, one touchdown, 153.1 passer rating.
Rushing in the third quarter: 3 carries, 31 yards, one touchdown.
On Fields’ 8-yard scrambling touchdown, his first read (tight end Jesse James), slipped going into his break. The quarterback quickly got off the read and felt the backside pressure. He took a sidestep to avoid it and then just took off.
“They were playing man coverage. My man Jesse got tripped up. I was looking to go to him,” Fields said. “Of course, I knew my routes were coming my way backside, but I knew they were in man coverage so I knew nobody really had me so I just went to the left.”
With that 4.4 speed, no one could catch Fields. Touchdown.
The throwing touchdown came on a busted coverage, but the “Y-throwback” is designed to create that bust and requires a good play-action fake, a mobile quarterback to boot out to the right, and a well-executed sell by the tight end before leaking out to the left uncovered. Both Fields and James executed their fakes and James was able to backpedal into the end zone untouched on the 30-yard touchdown.
“It was a well-drawn up play,” Fields said.
It seems necessary to point out that Mitch Trubisky also had a very strong preseason debut as a rookie, going 18-of-25 for 166 against the Denver Broncos in 2017.
It also seems necessary to point out that there’s a good chance this is different.
Not only did the head coach rave about Fields’ “calmness,” but, perhaps more importantly, the game didn’t look too fast for Fields. Instead, Fields looked too fast for the game.
“It was actually kind of slow to me to be honest. I think I was expecting it to be a little bit faster,” Fields said.
If that sounds arrogant, try substituting arrogance with confidence. Yes, he was facing backups. He was also playing with backups and it was still a significant step up in speed compared to what he saw in the Big Ten. Fields was simply answering a direct question honestly.
“We have a great defense, so me going against them every day, it definitely slowed the game up a little bit for me, so I felt comfortable out there,” he said. “Of course, I have room to grow so I'm just going to trying to get better each and every day.”
Naturally, Nagy immediately faced questions about the current plan to start Andy Dalton when the regular season begins, but he didn’t exactly shut the door to a conversation that guarantees to persist.
“Everybody here is super excited about the way that (Fields) played today. We all want the same thing. We understand the buzz. We understand the excitement. That's why we drafted him,” Nagy said.
In May, when Fields arrived in Lake Forest for the first time, Nagy talked about the temptation to play his rookie quarterback too soon and said: “As time goes by and we see how things go, we'll know and we'll all see it and feel it and I think it will be very natural how this process goes.”
Saturday was just one measly preseason game, but it also qualified as a day when pretty much anybody watching could “see it and feel it.” Now the challenge to Fields is to keep that momentum going.
“Keep stacking days like he had today and understanding that in this whole process and this plan, as we go, what's the ultimate goal for us as an offense? Scoring touchdowns, right? So keep leading the team down, keep getting first downs, keep getting touchdowns,” Nagy said when asked what Fields needs to do to be named the starter.
It sounds simple, but this is actually a very important thing to keep in mind as the next few weeks unfold. Nagy’s offense has sputtered for the most part over his three seasons in Chicago and much of that is due to poor quarterback play. Fields was brought here to jump start the offense and when the regular season begins, the Bears need to give themselves the best chance to win football games. If, on Sept. 12 in Los Angeles, it is blatantly obvious that Fields gives the Bears the best chance to score touchdowns and beat the Rams, then he’ll probably be the starter.
Some will undoubtedly say it’s already obvious. It sure looked that way in the rookie’s first preseason game.