When he felt like nature itself was conspiring against one of the things he did best, Justin Fields stayed late. A particularly windy minicamp practice in April prompted the frustrated Bears quarterback to throw extra-deep passes long after some teammates trudged to the Halas Hall locker room.
“He was upset because the wind was blowing about 30 miles an hour,” tight end Cole Kmet said last week. “He’s over there throwing balls after practice. It’s definitely something he’s been working on – and you can see it.
For any questions about Fields entering his second season, there’s no questioning his ability to go deep. As a rookie last year, he led the NFL with 7.4 passing yards per completion, a measure of how far the ball traveled beyond the line of scrimmage before it was caught.
That Fields did it in a broken offensive plan is creditable to him – and damning to his former bosses. Last year, the Bears proved that a dangerous deep ball doesn’t always equal an effective pass. But this year’s Bears think it’s a good start.
Fields’ deep passes are the strongest part of his arsenal, and new coordinator Luke Getsy needs to build an attack to take advantage of them. Otherwise, Fields risks the same kind of square-peg, round-hole disaster he experienced under former coach Matt Nagy.
New coach Matt Eberflus, who has been reluctant to say much about his players as he evaluates them during off-season practices, last week highlighted Fields’ talent for long throwing.
“I would say, ‘Dude, he throws a good deep ball,'” Eberflus said. “I’m excited about it. And you can see that in the seven-on-seven and the 11-on-11, and we’re going to shoot the field and, man, he does a good job of doing that. And that’s what struck me. »
As a defensive-minded coach, Eberflus knows what kind of stress can put on a defense once players put on protection.
At Ohio State, where nearly 70% of his passing yards came before the catch, Fields was rated the most accurate passer since at least 2014 by Pro Football Focus. Combine that with his ability to cover his tracks and the Bears can dream.
However, there are many weaknesses to be corrected. Only two quarterbacks who started more than six games in 2021 — fellow rookies Zach Wilson of the Jets and Trevor Lawrence of the Jaguars — had a shooting percentage on target below 72.7% for Fields, according to Pro Football Reference. Only one regular starting QB had receivers gaining fewer yards than Fields’ receivers after catching the ball.
Fields’ receiving corps this year looks to be even worse than last year after the Bears lost Allen Robinson, Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin and Jakeem Grant – four of their five regulars – in free agency. They were replaced by a collective shrug. Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown are two of five veterans the Bears have signed for a year to team up with returning stalwart Darnell Mooney and third-round pick Velus Jones.
Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian said the Bears have a lot of speed on the outside — ‘Guys can split up,’ he said — but admitted it’s hard to judge receivers up that cornerbacks can put on pads and play bump coverage.
Until then, the Bears are trying to glean everything they can from Fields.
“You can start with his speed,” quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said. “He’s got athletic tools that can’t be trained, and that’s really cool. And then the next thing is just his intangibles and the way he feels, the way he feels in the pocket and how he s is suitable for training.
“He’s such a natural athlete that you can tell him once or show it. . . He can just take that training and apply it to a drill and then bring it to a team period.
Getsy brought with him an out-of-zone running program from Green Bay that he hopes will help Fields.
“It takes all 11 [players], and for a young quarterback implementing that around him, that’s huge,” he said. “So if you can run the ball, it helps your passing game.
“The hardest part of this game is backing up to pass. It’s plain and simple, it’s the hardest thing to do in this league. So if you don’t have to do it that often, you have a chance.
The deep ball elements of the passing offense could be inspired as much by former Getsy boss at Mississippi State, Joe Moorhead – now the head coach of Akron – as by another of the former bosses of Getsy, Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
His current boss, Eberflus, understands how Fields can stress defences. Now it’s up to the Bears to engineer it.
“I think [it’s] double – the deep ball and then the ability to run with the ball,” Eberflus said. “I think those things stretch you, so when you stretch vertically and horizontally like that, it always causes stressors on a defense. It doesn’t matter what style you use.