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Column: It’s easy to criticize Chicago Bears GM Ryan Poles for the meager return in the Justin Fields trade. But his hands were tied.

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/TNS

It’s easy to criticize the return the Chicago Bears received in the long-expected deal Saturday evening that sent quarterback Justin Fields to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Bears will get a sixth-round pick in 2025, and it can become a fourth-rounder if Fields is on the field for 51% of the Steelers’ offensive snaps. So the folks at Halas Hall will be rooting for Fields to unseat Russell Wilson before midseason.

It’s pennies on the dollar for what the Bears paid to acquire Fields in 2021, when they traded up to select him at No. 11. In comparison, the Bears flipped a sixth-round pick to the Miami Dolphins in August for interior offensive lineman Dan Feeney, the Sandburg High School product. Feeney played 91 snaps in 2023.

There was some thought the Bears were going to have to wait to get medical information on USC quarterback Caleb Williams until moving on from Fields. That was false. The Bears hold the No. 1 pick in the draft, and if Williams — who made the unique decision not to be checked out by doctors at the scouting combine — is not their guy, the team will pivot to another QB prospect. The Bears will travel en masse to Williams’ pro day Wednesday in Los Angeles, and he is expected to visit to Halas Hall sometime after that. Whether it is before or after the owners meetings in Orlando, Fla., at the end of the month is unknown.

Could general manager Ryan Poles have done better? Perhaps. But as quarterback jobs were filled around the league, other teams told the Bears how they felt about Fields. The New York Giants signed Drew Lock, who reportedly is going to compete for the starting job. The Las Vegas Raiders scooped up Gardner Minshew. The Philadelphia Eagles, who have an athletic starter in Jalen Hurts in an offense that would seemingly fit Fields, traded with the Steelers for Kenny Pickett, opening a spot for Fields in Pittsburgh.

The Washington Commanders signed Marcus Mariota. The Minnesota Vikings grabbed Sam Darnold. The Buffalo Bills brought back Mitch Trubisky. The Jacksonville Jaguars traded for Mac Jones. The Tennessee Titans signed Mason Rudolph. The Arizona Cardinals traded with the Atlanta Falcons for Desmond Ridder, and one source said there was more chatter in league circles about Ridder than Fields.

The idea Fields would land in his home state of Georgia with the Atlanta Falcons was only talk. The Falcons were seeking a ball distributor and paid big for Kirk Cousins. They weren’t seeking an athletic quarterback whose greatest skill is running and off-schedule plays. An established play history of inconsistent performance in the pocket made Fields a tough sell.

While it’s easy to question why Poles didn’t get a better return — Darnold once brought the Jets three picks from the Carolina Panthers, including a second-rounder — Fields wasn’t nearly the commodity some had hoped, and that really speaks to what transpired over the last three seasons for two coaching staffs as the potential surrounding the former Ohio State star was never fully realized. Multiple sources with other teams said Poles worked the phones hard in recent days to make something happen.

“We have engaged in multiple trade conversations in recent weeks and believe trading Justin at this time to Pittsburgh is what is best for both Justin and the Bears,” Poles said in a statement released by the club. “Saturday) we spoke to Justin to inform him of the trade and the rationale behind it for us as a club. We want to thank him for his tireless dedication, leadership and all he poured into our franchise and community the last three years and wish him the best toward a long and successful NFL career.”

Poles telegraphed a deal was coming last month at the combine when he said his goal was to “do right” by Fields. The Steelers are a good destination for Fields as they have barely anything invested in Wilson, who is due $39 million from the Broncos. It’s a run-first offense, and Fields has as good of a chance of getting on the field in Pittsburgh as he would have anywhere.

It was easy to forecast things were headed in this direction dating to the end of September, when the offense was off to a familiar lousy start — and yes, blame can be cast in many directions. Keep in mind ousted offensive coordinator Luke Getsy was in demand after being fired, quickly getting interviews with three teams before the Raiders hired him. Boogeyman wide receiver Darnell Mooney signed a three-year, $39 million contract with the Falcons, who didn’t fault him for an underproductive 40-catch season.

At the Senior Bowl, five GMs for opposing teams said they fully expected the Bears to draft a quarterback at No. 1. One joked the team should use its draft capital — the Bears also own the No. 9 pick — to build around Fields before admitting it was only wishful thinking.

The Bears could not have entertained the idea of drafting Williams — or another quarterback — and keeping Fields in the event they didn’t get a suitable trade offer. That would have created a circus before training camp, and there’s no comparison to what the Green Bay Packers did when they had Aaron Rodgers and drafted Jordan Love or what the Kansas City Chiefs did when they had Alex Smith, near the end of his contract, and selected Patrick Mahomes.

Rodgers and Smith were established, winning NFL starters. If the Bears draft Williams (or another quarterback), they would have a No. 1 pick trying to get settled as a professional with Fields in survival mode battling for his future. Talk about a dynamic that would be a distraction inside and outside the locker room.

Those who suggested the locker room would be fractured by a move because of full-throated support teammates offered Fields were wide of the mark. If anything, that consistent backing of Fields has been a sign the team has the right kind of guys in the locker room — mature individuals who will treat the newcomer the same way. Supporting the starter quarterback, whomever it is, comes with the job when cameras and recorders are turned on.

Shortly after news of the deal broke, wide receiver DJ Moore, who repeatedly backed Fields, wrote “Business is business,” on social media. One interpretation is that Moore simply was doing business when he answered never-ending questions about the quarterback.

Fields passed for 6,674 yards and rushed for 2,200 in 38 starts, posting a 10-28 record, and was thrust into a bad situation when the former regime of GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy acquired him before what was a must-win season.

The Bears had a stripped-down roster in 2022 under Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, and it would have been difficult for any quarterback to shine. There’s valid criticism for how the Bears went about attempting to win with Fields. Reality is highly drafted quarterbacks are often dropped into challenging situations. Many fail. Few, such as C.J. Stroud of the Houston Texans, thrive from the start, and Stroud’s ascent last season to become offensive rookie of the year was a consistent reminder of what the Bears passed on when they traded the No. 1 pick a year ago to the Panthers.

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Fields had plenty of highlight-reel moments — many on electric runs and second-reaction plays — but too often there were open targets who didn’t get opportunities. The nail in the coffin might have been the 19-13 loss to the Vikings in Week 6 on Oct. 15 at Soldier Field. Fields was coming off consecutive four-touchdown pass games against the Broncos and Commanders and was blindsided on the first snap of the game when the ball should have come out. He couldn’t decipher the Vikings’ pressure-heavy front and wound up being knocked out of the game with a thumb injury that sidelined him for the next four games. There was no late-season surge for the passing game. Fields had five touchdown passes in his final eight starts.

He rushed for 1,143 yards in 2022, the second-most by a quarterback in NFL history, but the Bears would have traded half of that production for more consistent play in the passing game. Fields was particularly rough in the fourth quarter when he committed 19 of his 51 turnovers.

Defensive coordinators had enough film on Fields to be concerned only about his ability to run and teams not to be interested when they knew the Bears were going to be shopping him. The NFL knew Poles had to move on from Fields, which drove down the price on a return, all the way to the level of what it takes to acquire a backup lineman with starting experience, such as Feeney.

Fields handled himself with class at every turn, which is one of the reasons he remained popular inside and out of the building. The Bears can’t be worried about Fields’ career arc from here — it would be nice to get a fourth-round pick down the road for him. As a man, they would love to see him thrive.

The conversation some took part in — Fields or Williams or another quarterback — was never one the Bears had to spend time on.

What really matters is how Poles does with his hand-selected quarterback — likely Williams.