Advertisement

Dan Wiederer: The end of the Justin Fields era in Chicago sends Bears fans on a quest for closure

CHICAGO — The arguments won’t end here, but they should die down quickly. With Justin Fields’ future as the Bears quarterback shifting from somewhat murky to crystal clear on Saturday, Chicago’s longest-running football shouting match will take on a new form.

Fields is a Steeler now, traded to Pittsburgh in exchange for a sixth-round pick and paving the way for the Bears to start over — again — at the most important position.

Inside the NFL, it’s a move that was expected for some time now. But Saturday’s development will push all Bears fans to chart their own course to closure.

The Fields era in Chicago is over. Just like that.

Another chapter in this franchise’s disheartening quarterback history has ended unceremoniously and with so much unwanted but familiar emptiness.

No matter what side of the fence you’ve been straddling, barraged by the cacophony of never-ending squabble, Fields’ exit is worthy of a deep exhale, a disappointed head shake, a moment to express the exhaustion of it all.

Just, damn!

———

Fields was supposed to be so much more than he ever became in his 35 months and 38 starts with the Bears.

You remember those feelings. The joy on April 29, 2021, when he slipped out of the top 10 in the draft, prompting then-GM Ryan Pace to make an aggressive trade up to take the Ohio State quarterback at No. 11. Just like that, the Bears had united with an athletic dynamo with a big arm who just 16 weeks earlier had led the Buckeyes into the College Football Playoff championship game.

All the times Bears fans had grasped for hope with quarterbacks — Mitch Trubisky, Jay Cutler, Rex Grossman, Cade McNown — the anticipation with Fields felt different. More energized. More justified maybe. More real.

Those initial draft-weekend feelings were validated numerous times — and in exhilarating ways — when Fields produced countless adrenaline rushes over his three seasons with the way he scrambled, the way he threw the deep ball and the way he led.

Perhaps it was that Monday night in Pittsburgh when your heels flipped over your head with euphoria. On that night in 2021, Fields was so calm and clutch on the “Monday Night Football” stage, making big-time throws under intense pressure and capping a 75-yard fourth-quarter drive with a nifty, off-script, go-ahead 16-yard touchdown pass to Darnell Mooney in the final two minutes.

In that moment, even with the Bears ultimately losing by two points, it felt like everything was possible. Then-coach Matt Nagy identified it as “a moment.”

“It was like it was his time,” Nagy said.

A window seemed to be opening.

———

Things felt similar in Week 7 the following season when Fields was in complete control of a dominant 33-14 upset of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass. And that performance — the Bears’ final victory of the 2022 season — became the launching pad for a 21-day flight in which Fields put YouTube addicts on notice with so many breathtaking runs and a record-breaking rushing production.

Understandably, a big chunk of Chicago became convinced the Bears had found their forever quarterback.

Remember those 178 rushing yards against the Miami Dolphins in Week 9? And the 67-yard touchdown run the following week against the Detroit Lions? Remember the veneration memes and social media crowning Fields as “H1M”? And the mobs of delirious adults inside Soldier Field hugging each other with childlike glee?

The hype montages continued to produce themselves, filled with jaw-dropping playmaking flashes that convinced many they were watching a star.

There was the roller-coaster 39-yard scramble against the Philadelphia Eagles in December 2022 and the 44-yard bomb to Velus Jones the following weekend against the Buffalo Bills. This past season, there was Fields’ explosive night in a blowout win at Washington and his escape act 1-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kmet in Cleveland.

In Fields’ final home game as a Bear, inside a snow globe by Lake Michigan, his big-play production — including another David Blaine-like escape — propelled a blowout victory over the Atlanta Falcons on New Years’ Day that also produced heartfelt chants of appreciation.

We want Fields! We want Fields!

Fields called the whole experience special.

“Almost like it was a movie, to be honest with you,” he said during his postgame news conference.

———

Fields and the Bears, though, had one more game to play. And, perhaps fittingly, it was a touchdown-less loss on the road to the rival Green Bay Packers with Fields struggling to 148 passing yards.

The Bears offense managed only nine points, and the lackluster performance further validated a leaguewide belief that Fields’ playmaking potential never quite married with an acceptable level of successful consistency.

When Fields struggled to break through, it was easy for his most passionate backers to distribute blame for his erratic play elsewhere: Nagy’s 2021 development plan or GM Ryan Poles’ 2022 roster teardown or Luke Getsy’s system and play-calling or even that late-game fumble by Ihmir Smith-Marsette in Minnesota in 2022.

Still, even the most wistful and blindly loyal Fields fanatics can’t dodge the 10,000-pound boulder of inconsistency that chased him out of town.

———

In 38 starts for the Bears, Fields averaged only 174 passing yards. He had more than twice as many outings with fewer than 175 passing yards (14) than he had games with at least 250 yards (six).

Fields’ pronounced fourth-quarter struggles were noted inside league circles as particularly concerning. Coaches and front-office executives took note of his 64.4 career passer rating in the final quarter and a 53.4 mark in 2023 that ranked 39th among the 40 quarterbacks who threw at least 50 fourth-quarter passes.

Fields was also 3-12 in NFC North starts and 0-6 against the Packers with a 76.5 passer rating. He was sacked 135 times as a Bear with an alarming 12.1% sack rate while committing 19 of his 51 turnovers in the fourth quarter.

Fields went 3-17 over three seasons against opponents that went on to make the playoffs. He never exhibited the type of pocket poise, processing ability or overall command that typically is a prerequisite for sustained, high-level quarterback success.

It’s the Steelers chore now to address all of those issues as the Bears pivot with eyes on drafting Fields’ successor in six weeks.

(Caleb Williams, your locker stall is being readied at Halas Hall.)

———

When it comes to Fields’ unfulfilled promise with the Bears, plenty of context is needed, starting with the Halas Hall leaders who decided it was prudent to draft him in 2021 with a GM (Pace) and coach (Nagy) who were skating on thin ice and were fired less than nine months later.

Without question, Fields never had an ideal setup during his three seasons here. In 2021, an early season injury to veteran quarterback Andy Dalton thrust Fields into the QB1 role much earlier than the Bears had planned — or hoped.

After his rookie season, the Bears performed a hard reboot of their coaching staff and front office, then allowed Poles to begin a major roster teardown while Fields was trying to learn a new offense with a less-than-stellar offensive line and an ordinary supporting cast.

For years to come, many Bears fans will play the “What could have been” game. But any victories claimed in that fantasyland will register as hollow and insignificant without any prizes to add to the Halas Hall trophy case.

It’s also impossible to assert that Fields regularly rose above his suboptimal situation or elevated the Bears to a higher level with his play. Many of the flaws that inhibited his production in the NFL were documented in his pre-draft scouting report.

That’s unfortunate. But it’s also reality.

Fields’ three seasons in Chicago were truly a roller coaster. On Saturday, the Bears stopped the ride and prepared to launch a new attraction. The return was modest at best — a Day 3 draft pick in 2025 that can become a fourth-rounder if Fields takes more than half of the Steelers’ snaps next season.

And with the move, football fans in Chicago also must pivot. To a new quarterback and a new passion-fueled conversation.

It’s OK to keep that same energy. But the time has arrived for everyone to move on.

At times, Fields was great. Spectacular even. In the end, though, he just wasn’t good enough.