A hard decision will await the Chicago Bears and general manager Ryan Poles this offseason. The type of franchise-altering decision that, right or wrong, will eventually be the lede to the decision-maker's Chicago obituary.
With each passing week, the Bears’ chances of obtaining the No. 1 overall pick via the Carolina Panthers have ticked up. As the percentage has ticked up, the pressure to find the correct answer to the franchise’s most pressing question has ratcheted up.
Is Justin Fields a franchise quarterback, or is a change needed this offseason?
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A month ago, all the breadcrumbs pointed to the Bears heading in a different direction under center.
Fields had been inconsistent as a passer and missed four games due to a dislocated right thumb. The flashes were still there. The rare athleticism still evident. The potential tantalizing.
But all that does is get people fired.
Fields returned from his thumb injury in Week 12, needing to string together an impressive final stretch that showed growth and high-level quarterbacking that Poles can build around.
Anything less, and the Bears’ choice would be obvious, with two blue-chip prospects in Caleb Williams and Drake Maye set to enter the 2024 NFL Draft.
Fields is aware of his uncertain future in Chicago. He’s not letting it weigh him down. If anything, it might be elevating his game.
The third-year quarterback was good in his return to action against the Detroit Lions in Week 11. He showed increased pocket presence and escaped the pocket with a passer’s mentality, keeping his eyes downfield to find an open man in space. These are checkpoints head coach Matt Eberflus, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko have been wanting to see.
Fields followed that up with a game-winning drive in Minnesota, during which he fumbled twice in critical moments. Fields erased those mistakes with a third-down strike to DJ Moore to set up a game-winning field goal. It was progress, but warts remained.
Entering the bye week, the feeling in league circles was that the Bears would still move on from Fields. Could five games really negate everything that has come before? It’s also important to remember that decisions are often made with the decision-maker’s own self-interest in mind.
“Do you really want to be the GM that passes on Caleb Williams?” a league source told NBC Sports Chicago. “If you don’t know for sure that Fields is your guy at this point, he’s probably not your guy. Betting on flashes and potential is a good way to get fired. If you pick Williams and he busts, it’s probably not going to cost you your job.
“I understand why it’s still a question. He’s got talent and the tools you want for the today’s game. But is he going to win you a Super Bowl?”
But that opinion isn’t unanimous.
The Bears entered Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions with a 94 percent chance of earning a top-two pick, per ESPN analytics. Following Sunday’s action in which the Panthers lost again, the Bears now have a 95 percent chance to earn the No. 1 overall pick.
With the New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Commanders, and New York Giants all slotting behind them in the Williams-Maye sweepstakes, Fields has the opportunity to open the Bears up to a world of opportunity should he remove all doubt over the final month.
“Quarterback evaluation is incredibly difficult,” an AFC scout told NBC Sports Chicago. “Teams miss all the time for all sorts of reasons. Caleb and Drake are already getting dinged. Who knows if they’ll pan out? One guy is undersized and holds the ball too long. The other was inconsistent. You have a guy with special ability. If you can get him to play at a high-level week-in and week-out, then you’ll have teams who don’t have a Justin Fields calling you with the world to move up.”
If Fields makes the questions about his future evaporate with a near-perfect final month, Poles and the Bears will have a lot of different avenues to travel without having to focus on a quarterback.
They can trade down once or twice, pick up more draft capital, and still draft two blue-chip players to give Fields more support. Adding Ohio State wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and potentially Notre Dame left tackle Joe Alt or Georgia tight end Brock Bowers would complete the Bears’ transformation from offensive outhouse to dynamic attack.
That’s the dream scenario. As much as teams, scouts, and pundits have drooled over Williams for three years, the Bears’ preference should be for Fields to put it all together, delivering them quarterback certainty and a draft gift that can be rocket fuel for a rebuild that’s on the right track.
Don’t look now, but Fields is starting to do just that.
After going 19-for-33 for 223 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s win over the Lions, Fields has now completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 609 yards and two touchdowns since returning from injury. It is the first time in his career that he has gone three straight games without throwing an interception.
Fields has rushed 42 times for 221 yards and one touchdown in those three games. He has been sacked eight times and fumbled three times.
Per CBS Sports, Fields now has a higher passer rating than Trevor Lawrence (91.8), a higher touchdown-to-interception ratio than Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen (2.2), and is averaging more rushing yards per game than Jalen Hurts and Lamar Jackson (50.9).
Fields got off to a rough start Sunday. At halftime, he had just 52 net passing yards and had completed just four passes. But something clicked in the second half, and Fields showed high-level quarterback play when he got the Lions to jump offsides on a fourth-and-13 and used the free play to hit DJ Moore for a 38-yard touchdown that gave the Bears a lead they would not relinquish.
“To me, the poise has looked a lot better of late, especially when things break down. He’s not panicking. He seems to be putting it all together,” an NFC scout told NBC Sports Chicago.
There are still things for Fields to clean up. A hot streak doesn’t make him infallible. He was the first to admit Sunday that he still is holding onto the ball too long and inviting pressure. That also invites disaster for a quarterback who is still working on cleaning up his ball security. He also missed a few open throws, including what would have been a walk-in touchdown in the flat during the second half.
All that is true.
But Fields also threw with anticipation and trusted Moore and tight end Cole Kmet to make plays in tight coverage.
Early on this season, Fields wasn’t pulling the trigger on “NFL open” throws. He was waiting for receivers to be wide open and missed several big-play opportunities in the process.
The talent has never been an issue with Fields. He has a big arm and rare athleticism. The potential of blending those two together is what had him as the No. 2 quarterback in his class for three years until a weird draft slide that was brought on by dings not rooted in reality.
Young quarterbacks often need time and patience. Fields entered into the worst situation imaginable and has, to his credit, survived and started to thrive in spite of it.
It hasn’t been perfect. Quarterback development isn’t linear. Too often, teams give up on young quarterbacks early in the process when all that’s required is time and a plan to get them to harness their potential.
A month ago, it looked like Fields’ NFL career was destined to blossom outside of Chicago. But with the Bears about to lock up the No. 1 pick, Fields has started to become the quarterback who was promised.
He can open up a world of possibilities for Poles if that continues through the end of the season. There's a sense the tide could be turning in Fields' favor with the season winding down.
“When it’s right, it’s very right,” another league source told NBC Sports Chicago. “He’s starting to look like the guy many people had on equal footing with [Trevor Lawrence] in the draft. If that’s who he is going to be consistently, then you don’t really have a decision to make. You don’t trade proven for potential. But he has to prove it to pass up [Williams or Maye]. The question is: As good as he’s looked lately, is it too late to remove all doubt? He still has to do a lot to look past the ability to go younger, cheaper, and healthier with an elite talent at the position. But he’s got the talent to make it a more difficult decision than it looked like it was going to be month ago.”
With four games left, the wind has started blowing in a different direction as it pertains to Fields’ future.
It’s a breeze that could deliver Poles and the Bears everything they need heading into a transformational offseason.