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Justin Fields has star potential and already has changed the mood in Chicago. Can he alter the Bears’ wayward QB history?
AP

Justin Fields has star potential and already has changed the mood in Chicago. Can he alter the Bears’ wayward QB history?

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In this photo from January 11, 2021, Justin Fields of the Ohio State Buckeyes leaves the field following the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.

In this photo from January 11, 2021, Justin Fields (1) of the Ohio State Buckeyes leaves the field following the College Football Playoff National Championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. Chicago Bears picked Fields in the 2021 NFL draft. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images/TNS)

They told themselves they were done. Emotionally spent. Over it all.

They were fed up and mystified, rightfully skeptical that the football team they loved would ever get things right, particularly in the never-ending search to find a quality quarterback.

By the dozens, then the hundreds and the thousands, Chicago Bears fans vowed for months never to put their undying loyalty and belief back out there, into that exposed space where it could again get trampled.

First, there was that peculiar “Everything is fine” news conference in mid-January, the one where the Bears seemed totally unruffled by their stuck-in-the-mud status; the one where the team’s togetherness during a six-game losing streak in 2020 was celebrated; the one where team President and CEO Ted Phillips so cavalierly minimized the significance of wins and quality quarterback play.

Then came the failed bid in March to trade for Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson, a Powerball ticket that never had much chance of cashing. Yet the consolation prize — middle-of-the-road veteran Andy Dalton — triggered another wave of resentment from those who could no longer bear to settle for mediocrity.

Really? Andy freaking Dalton? That was your solution as QB1?

That was supposed to be it. The last straw. The cue to keep fall Sundays open for other hobbies.

Perhaps the Bears’ inability to land a star quarterback was simply predestined.

But then Thursday night happened. Somehow. In surprising yet serendipitous fashion.

With the No. 11 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, the Chicago Bears select Justin Fields, quarterback, Ohio State.

An unexpected opening presented itself in the first round of the draft. Fields fell out of the top five, then out of the top 10. The Bears climbed the draft board to stop his slide. General manager Ryan Pace traded up nine spots, worked a deal with the New York Giants and united with a 22-year-old quarterback with legitimate star potential.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of excitement in our building,” Pace said.

Suddenly, in that moment at 8:41 p.m. Thursday, it was as if four month’s worth of storm clouds parted with glitter and rainbow-colored dust raining down. Disenchantment turned into hope. Lines for the Bears bandwagon began forming again.

“I love the energy already,” Fields said. “I’m glad to be a Bear.”

Fields has chosen to wear No. 1 on his jersey and his arrival has, at the very least, changed the mood in a football-crazed city that so badly wants its starvation for a difference-making quarterback to go away.

“I expect myself to be a franchise quarterback,” Fields said. “And one day hopefully I’ll become a top-five quarterback in this league.”

‘Big, fast, strong. Makes all the throws.’

Away we go.

There’s no telling how many boxes Fields will be able to check on his NFL goal list, an inventory that includes becoming league MVP, winning a Super Bowl and, in the grandest of scenarios, earning his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Those, of course, are all pie-in-the-sky aspirations that produce hope-filled chatter on draft weekend but mean so very little in the short term.

For now, Fields will have to temporarily accept a backup role, with Bears coach Matt Nagy assuring Dalton he is still the team’s preferred starter to begin 2021. The Bears want to remain careful and meticulous with Fields’ development, even as they celebrate his incredible upside.

Fields’ highlight montage from two seasons at Ohio State is filled with picture-perfect deep balls and dizzying runs and a playmaking penchant that produced 78 touchdowns and 20 victories in his 22 starts.

His arm strength is undeniable. His speed is elite.

Talent evaluators all around the NFL see a player whose dual-threat abilities mesh perfectly with the sport’s rapid evolution. He’s also 6-foot-3 and 227 pounds.

“If you were making the prototype for a quarterback in 2021, it would be just like Justin,” said Quincy Avery, a private quarterbacks coach who has worked closely with Fields. “Big, strong, fast, makes all the throws and then can also create with his legs.”

Tack on Fields’ natural feel for the game and any optimism about his NFL future is justified.

“If you want him to be a weapon in your running game, if you want him to excel in play-action, he can do all those things,” Avery said. “He can truly add another dimension to an offense. That’s what makes him really special.”

Avery has gone on record proclaiming Fields as the most athletically gifted quarterback he has worked with. For what it’s worth, Avery’s client list has included Dwayne Haskins, Jalen Hurts and Deshaun Watson. Yes, that Deshaun Watson, the player who — before the unsettling legal turmoil of this offseason — had turned himself into one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the NFL, earning Pro Bowl honors in three consecutive seasons and in 2020 leading the NFL in passing yardage while flummoxing defenses with his arms, legs and playmaking artistry.

“Justin is just a more explosive athlete than Deshaun. He just is,” Avery said. “You see him do things with his twitchiness where it’s all there at a truly elite level.”

Look at the 40-yard dash Fields ran at his Ohio State pro day, stumbling shortly after he started but still posting a time of 4.44 seconds. “People who aren’t in the top tier of athletic giftedness don’t do things like that,” Avery said.

Go through his college tape to find all his physical gifts on display. Check out last season’s opener. First quarter against Nebraska. Post route to Garrett Wilson off play-action. From the red “O” at midfield, Fields threw a fastball for a strike, 49 yards in the air. Touchdown.

“It wasn’t a high-trajectory ball. He damn near threw it on a line,” Avery said.

But what about this next challenge? In Chicago. With a Bears organization that has rarely brought the best out of its quarterbacks. On a brightly lit stage with immense pressure ever-present.

Does Fields truly have any grasp of the Bears’ tortured history or the scars of this fan base or the way this weekend’s hope will soon transform into grand expectations?

Does he realize the black hole this organization has been for quarterbacks, that the Bears are the only franchise in the NFL that never has had a quarterback throw for 4,000 yards or 30 touchdowns in a season?

Will Fields have enough stamina and mental toughness to survive and flourish?

‘A generational talent’

For seven plays on a November Saturday in 2019, Fields was stuck on the Ohio State sideline at Michigan Stadium, working through a ligament strain in his left knee he aggravated while taking a hit.

Whatever pain Fields was feeling was superseded by his competitive toughness. There was no way his first true taste of the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry was going to end with him injured.

So Fields pushed the medical staff to put a new knee brace on him as quickly as possible. He had a series to finish.

His first snap after returning? Thirty-yard touchdown pass to Wilson, an improvised magic trick that required Fields to escape the pocket, scramble left, then set and fire. All of it on a tender knee.

Pace was in attendance in Ann Arbor, Mich., that afternoon.

“This guy’s toughness, on a scale of 1-10, is an 11,” Pace said.

In a season in which the Buckeyes went undefeated in the regular season, beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten championship and advanced to the College Football Playoff, Fields remains ultra-proud of that afternoon at the Big House. He was pleased with his four touchdown passes, sure. But the ability to battle through discomfort punctuated a signature win.

The Buckeyes’ 56-27 thrashing of the Wolverines matched their second-largest margin of victory in the rivalry since 1968. Fields threw for 302 yards and ran for 25 more.

“It’s just how big that game is to Ohio State and to our fans and to our community,” Fields said.

Fields believes his hunger for high stakes, pressure-filled challenges can become a catalyst for his NFL ascension.

“When big moments present themselves, I feel like there’s just another thing that kicks in inside of me,” he said. “Capitalizing in big moments and playing well on big stages is definitely one of my strengths.”

That was evident in last season’s national semifinal against Clemson, when he fought through a painful ribs injury to turn in the most memorable performance of his career. The Buckeyes, 7-point underdogs coming into that New Year’s night showdown, rolled over the Tigers 49-28. Fields went 22-for-28 for 385 yards with six touchdown passes and one interception.

Over two seasons, Ohio State coach Ryan Day felt Fields’ quiet-yet-infectious confidence. Day, who has had a strong relationship with Nagy dating to their college days playing against one another, has called Fields “a generational talent.” Without hesitation.

Day lauds the quarterback’s decision-making and dedication and doesn’t think it will take long for Fields’ new teammates and Bears fans to feel his competitive edge.

“He burns hot on the inside,” Day said. “But you can’t always see it. … You can see he gets motivated quickly and his competitive fire gets lit quickly. I know he’s really anxious to get going.”

The gift

On Thursday night, as the first round of the draft unfolded in Cleveland, Fox college football analyst Joel Klatt had difficulty understanding how Fields even became available to the Bears. Klatt called 10 Buckeyes games over the last two seasons, becoming enamored with Fields’ intelligence, competitiveness, accuracy and toughness.

What exactly were NFL teams worried about?

Fellow quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance came off the board right away. Bing-bang-boom. For each of those quarterbacks, their high-level talents became alluring. But Fields had to wait more than an hour before Nagy called to inform him of his NFL future.

Klatt ranked Fields as the No. 2 quarterback in the class. So by the time Thursday night ended, he was convinced the Bears had gotten a gift. “It’s a great landing spot,” Klatt said.

The chatter that mushroomed in early April that Fields’ commitment to excellence was questionable created a stir, particularly given that it did not mesh with anything Fields’ coaches through the years had experienced.

Matt Dickmann, Fields’ coach at Harrison High School in Georgia, recalled so many mornings during baseball season when the young quarterback asked to be let into the Hoyas’ stadium as the sun was rising for throwing sessions with quarterbacks coach Ron Veal.

“There were many mornings where it was still dark and pretty cold out,” Dickmann said. “But that’s just the kind of focus Justin has.”

Asked Thursday night how he dealt with the hyper-analysis of his skill set and character during the pre-draft process, Fields emphasized he’s always open to criticism and guidance. Just as long as it’s warranted and rooted in reality. The unfounded knocks? Those were admittedly bothersome but also easy to swat away.

“At the end of the day I feel like I know myself,” Fields said. “I know how much work I’ve put in. I know how much I love the game. I know how much I want to be great.”

Fields’ self-confidence, his belief that he can become a high-level playmaker for the Bears, is rooted in that time investment he puts in and the passion he exudes.

Klatt first started assessing Fields during spring practices in 2019, shortly after the quarterback transferred to Ohio State from Georgia. Immediately, Klatt could tell Fields wasn’t content with relying solely on his elite athleticism.

“It was very apparent that he was absolutely set on perfecting his craft from the pocket,” Klatt said. “He thought of himself as a pocket passer. It’s what he worked on constantly. And everything they did was about developing that aspect of his game.

“It’s that old adage that the way to improve most significantly is to work on your weaknesses and not on your strengths. He was doing that.”

From those first spring drills to his Ohio State debut against Florida Atlantic through the remainder of the 2019 season, Klatt saw Fields evolve.

“He got so much better,” Klatt said. “He was a work in progress early, to be honest. But then to see him really owning the schematics of the game, controlling the game from the pocket and desiring to be a threat as a passer first was impressive.

“That sometimes gets lost. Of course he’s a great athlete. But people don’t realize that in his mind, his biggest weapon is the ability to hurt a defense through the air. That’s why even when he does break contain and move around, his eyes almost always stay up so he can make plays down the field.”

Back to the future

The inquest into Fields’ flaws, of course, was a natural part of the draft process. Such detailed scrutiny is inevitable. For every prospect every year. It’s even more pronounced for face-of-the-franchise candidates.

Quarterback flaws sink ships, often costing general managers and head coaches their jobs. So it’s understandable that those with skin in the game look long and hard for concerning weaknesses that might be exposed by shrewd defensive coordinators and freakish athletes at the next level.

To that end, Fields has areas of his game that need refinement. For one, his habit of holding the ball too long contributed to the 52 sacks he took at Ohio State. Over time, his admirable desire to make the big play will have to be complemented with the savvy to accept much smaller gains.

“When he holds the ball, it’s not because he’s not processing information, it’s because he’s looking for that dagger,” Klatt said. “But quarterbacks at the next level have to take the easy throws. Whatever the defense is giving, understand how to take that. Take your layups. Make your layups. And then when big-play opportunities arise, know how to take advantage of those.”

Fields also will have to improve his ability to react to heavy pressure and prove he can become a surgeon against zone coverages in the NFL. His footwork needs to become more polished.

The idea that Fields is a can’t-miss quarterback prospect who is ordained to save the Bears from more than a century of frustration at the position is tempting to latch onto but still overzealous, ignoring the warning signs of history. From 2002-2016, for example, 41 quarterbacks were drafted in the first round. Only 12 (29%) won multiple playoff games for the franchise that drafted them. Just 13 made it beyond a fifth season with their original team.

That’s not just a fine-print caution. It’s a billboard-sized reminder that far more often than not, promising young quarterbacks get chewed up and spit out by an unforgiving league that requires so much of them to attain even moderate success. As one league executive said, expecting to emerge from the NFL draft with a surefire long-term starter at quarterback is like planning to board a return flight from Vegas with enough profit to buy a new car. Fun to dream about, sure. But it’s incredibly foolish to bank on.

Lest anyone forget, Mitch Trubisky was in Fields’ position not all that long ago, the No. 2 pick in 2017 and an instant beacon of hope for Chicago. Alas, for myriad reasons, Trubisky never came to close to reaching the level of stardom Pace envisioned. After too many lengthy stretches of inconsistency and so few signature moments, the final grains of sand in Trubisky’s Halas Hall hourglass ran out in March. He’s now a modestly paid backup with the Buffalo Bills. And his failures in Chicago sharpened the demoralized feelings Bears fans had been experiencing before Thursday night.

Through that lens, the Bears and their grumpy-turned-giddy fan base must temper this surge of draft-weekend excitement with a measured outlook for the future. Optimism is understandable. Parade planning, however, should be put on hold.

Bumps in the road will be inevitable. And with no promises that Bears players will gather in full for on-field practices at Halas Hall in mid-May and into June, the timeline for Fields’ orientation and eventual breakthrough might need adjustment.

Nagy also must show now, with a young quarterback he had a major say in selecting, that he can provide productive tutelage to turn his sputtering offense into a high-powered machine.

In 2017, Nagy was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City when the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes, then set him up for a developmental year that aided his rise into becoming a league MVP and a Super Bowl champion.

“You can draft the players but you also have to develop them the right way,” Pace said. “And that’s what I love about the environment we have. Matt has the blueprint.”

Day emphasized that Fields wouldn’t come to Halas Hall in an impatient state of mind, that he’s eager to hear the Bears’ plans for him, learn from Dalton and Nick Foles and push himself to be ready whenever his time to start comes.

“The goal,” Day said, “is to have a long career in the NFL and to grow and develop and build. It isn’t, ‘Oh, I’ve got to be there (starting) on Day 1 and I’ve got to get all this (right away.)’ There has to be a long-term vision on this. … The ceiling’s really, really high. I’m sure that’s what everybody in the city of Chicago is fired up about. That’s what the Bears organization recognized. But part of this process for him is going to be to sit there and learn early on.”

Fields arrives with so much talent and so much promise, a complete package of athleticism and aptitude. He also has opened a new window of hope for Bears fans who entered draft week bracing for more disappointment but now feel a rush of anticipation.

It’s a refreshing outlook shift, no doubt, and a new beginning for a prospect who is as ready-made for the upcoming challenges as any quarterback the Bears have ever had.

“I’m excited,” Fields said. “I just can’t wait for the future.”

Chicago shares that sentiment. That wasn’t the case just a few days ago.

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