June 21, 2024


Exercise makes you strong

The reckless abandonment of Justin Fields

Chicago Bears rookie wide receiver Velus Jones was issued a locker right next to quarterback Justin Fields.

Receiver crisis averted. Chemistry achieved. Next stop: Montana-to-Rice.

“I haven’t seen him yet since I’ve been down here,” Jones told reporters on the first day of Bears rookie camp earlier in the month. “But we have been texting on the phone and FaceTiming, just manifesting what’s to come. Most likely probably link up with him when I get out here.” (Quotes per Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Chicago.)

Yes indeed, Jones most likely probably will link up with Fields, if they have not by now, what with being teammates with lockers next to each other and whatnot. But it’s so encouraging they are texting and manifesting things already! Fields and Jones are gonna be great friends. How DARE anyone suggest that the new Bears regime is treating poor Fields to the Uriah the Hittite treatment?

C’mon: you know the Bible story of Uriah the Hittite. Uriah is King David’s favorite general. Uriah’s wife Bathsheba is David’s favorite Instagram follow. David impregnates Bathsheba, and when some unbiblically skeevy schemes to cover his tracks go awry, David orders Uriah to the front lines of a dangerous battle, then withdraws all of his other troops.

Problem solved! Just don’t ask what happened to the baby.

Bears general manager Other Ryan Poles and head coach Other Matt Eberflus aren’t giving up on Fields. Perish the thought. They’re just sending him onto the field with a receiving corps that would embarrass the Birmingham Stallions. If Fields’ career craters, then whoopsie! He was another of Original Recipe Ryan Pace’s mistakes, right?

Jones spent his first media availability justifying his existence to what sounded like a genuinely patient, sympathetic press pool. Everyone knows it’s not Jones’ fault that he’s the only receiver that the Bears drafted. When asked about the fact that he turned 25 years old a few days after the interview — Jones, who played five total college seasons for USC and Tennessee, is two years older than Justin Jefferson — Jones emphasized his “maturity.” That’s one way of spinning it. That’s practically the only way of spinning it.

Jones is fast and athletic. He was a fine collegiate return man with a high-character reputation. He looked okay at Senior Bowl week. When we assembled the Fantasy 40 for the draft, he kept lurking in the top 50, just behind prospects such as Khalil Shakir (Boise State, Bills) and Bo Melton (Rutgers, Seahawks) who were more dynamic and/or polished. As a developmental WR3 and special teamer on a strong offense, Jones would look like a fine addition.

But Jones is not a developmental depth receiver. He’s a likely immediate starter on a wide receiver corps also featuring:

  • Darnell Mooney, who ranked 63rd in DYAR last season, though a putrid offense and revolving-door quarterback situation clearly nerfed his metrics. Mooney would be a fine WR2 on a real offense.
  • Equanimeous St. Brown: A former charter member of the Aaron Rodgers Shame Squadron. Caught 16 passes in the last two seasons.
  • Byron Pringle: Pringle caught 42 passes and ranked second in DVOA in his third NFL season in 2021, with much of the production coming when the Chiefs downshifted into short-passing mode against nonstop two-deep shells. Most of Pringle’s catches came over the short middle of the field. It sure sounds like Pringle’s success was the residue of playing with Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce, but let’s charitably pencil him in as an “adequate” slot receiver.
  • Tajae Sharpe: A draftnik binkie from 2016 who has bounced from the Titans to the Vikings to the Falcons to the Bears over the last four seasons. That’s a pretty straight downward trajectory.
  • Dante Pettis: Skinny, oft-injured speedster with 25 receptions in the last three years.
  • David Moore: Seattle’s answer to Equanimeous St. Brown. Moore stumbled from the Panthers to the Raiders to the Seahawks last offseason, alternating between the practice squad and healthy scratches.
  • Dazz Newsome: Last year’s sixth-round pick out of the North Carolina offense that also produced Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dyami Brown and Sam Howell. Newsome could potentially emerge as a replacement-level nifty-shifty guy.

There’s no way to put a shine upon this stink nugget of a receiver corps. And there’s no way a tight end corps headlined by Cole Kmet will take any pressure off the receivers or Fields.

Under the circumstances, placing Jones’ locker next to Fields’ is actually a discouraging sign. The Bears aren’t even pretending that, say, they expect Pringle to become Fields’ security blanket, or Newsome to develop, or even Mooney to take the next step after a 1,000-yard season. Here ya’ go, Justin: we found you a brand-new WR1 in the middle of the third round. Go become BFFs and manifest things! And if it doesn’t work out, don’t say we didn’t try. 

Yeah yeah yeah, Walkthrough is reading too much into locker room placements and rookie-camp soundbites. But that’s the thin soup the Bears have given us to slurp. Trevor Lawrence got a bundle of B-list free agents: the food may not be great, but the portion is huge. Zach Wilson got Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall and two veteran tight ends. Fields got a rock in his trick-or-treat bag.

Last August, I explained that Pace and Matt Nagy were playing a silly self-preservation game with Fields, Andy Dalton and Nick Foles. Their unstated but obvious plan: mothball Fields as “unready” early in the season; unleash him during a Dalton slump; ride a little bump of late-season success and excitement; claim that everything was now going according to plan and that continuity and stability were essential to Fields’ growth; stay employed for another year. They almost pulled it off, too, except that Dalton got hurt too early in the year; Fields stunk out of the gate; Nagy refused to call designed runs for Fields and began pawning off play-calling responsibilities/accountability; Fields suffered a myriad of rib/knee/hand/ankle/COVID stuff; and both Pace and Nagy were so staggeringly overmatched that the Magnificent McCaskeys could no longer pretend to not notice.

New Ryan and New Matt are also playing a self-preservation game. This season is the last regime’s fault. We’re not responsible for anything, so don’t expect us to win. And we’d rather reset our expectation clock in 2023 at Year 1 with a rookie than at Year 3 with Fields, because that buys us extra time to not have to worry about success.

The Bears have been called out for recklessly abandoning Fields by just about everyone, so naturally a contrarian argument has been formulated by fans/stans. It goes like this: the Bears have needs everywhere, second-round picks Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon had first-round grades, any receiver the Bears selected in the second round would be a reach, and nothing matters because this is just a rebuilding year.

To address those points:

  • The Bears have needs everywhere. True. Either developing or getting an accurate evaluation of their potential franchise quarterback is a more pressing need than bolstering the secondary a smidge.
  • Second-round picks Brisker and Gordon had first-round grades. So did receivers George Pickens and Skyy Moore, who were still on the board when the Bears selected Gordon. “First-round grade” is a canard and a colloquial term; team evaluators and media analysts alike broke this and every other draft class into about 15 top-tier prospects and a second tier of perhaps 30 or 40 players which included Gordon, Brisker, Pickens, Moore, Jon Metchie and others. Technically, about 50 players per year can be described as having “first-round grades” for the purposes of a self-serving argument.
     Had the Bears selected David Ojabo or Nakobe Dean instead of a receiver, they could at least justify the pick as a player who had gotten top-10 or top-15 notice and was therefore too good to pass up. The Bears chose a pair of defensive backs because they prioritized their bad secondary over their league-worst receiver corps. Period.
  • Any receiver the Bears selected in the second round would be a reach. Not Pickens, Moore or Metchie. Also, nothing was stopping them from selecting a receiver on Day 3. Shakir, Melton, Romeo Doubs or Calvin Austin could easily win a roster spot from someone like Sharpe or Pettis.
  • Nothing matters because this is just a rebuilding year. Rebuilding years are not gap years after high school for smoking weed on the basement couch. Real rebuilding must be tactical and aggressive. Look at what the Giants are doing: eating bad contracts on one front, adding top draft talent on the second, hedging their bets with Daniel Jones (without throwing their chips out the window) on the third. Poles and Eberflus weren’t given two first-round picks to work with, but they were given Fields and a less-than-catastrophic cap situation. What have they done so far? Turned Khalil Mack into a rookie safety, slapped some Band-Aids on the offensive line, and purpose-built the weakest offense in the NFL. Good thing they drafted a punter!

And if you assume the Bears are just tanking for a 2023 quarterback, then you are proving my point.

Justin Fields and the Lessons of Deep History

Justin Fields’ DVOA last year was -28.4%, 32nd in the NFL. For new readers: Fields was 28.4% worse than the league average at quarterback, which is very bad indeed.

But nearly 40 years ago, John Elway was worse at -34.2% as a rookie in 1983.

Our DVOA database now goes back 40 years; the strike-shortened 1982 season is on its way. That provides Football Outsiders with a deep historic perspective that other analytics sites cannot match. It also helps that writers like me are old — back-achingly, penny-pinchingly, blood-pressure-regulatingly old — with semi-clear memories of things that happened four decades ago. It’s easy for us greybeards to forget that Elway might as well be Bobby Layne to not just readers, but colleagues, editors, bosses, etc.

The 1983 season was less of an NFL turning point than a tipping point. The league had lengthened the season to 16 games and changed rules to make passing much easier in 1978. Five transitional years followed: the defensive juggernauts of the 1970s still reigned, but quarterbacks such as Dan Fouts and Joe Montana began putting up shocking offensive numbers with the help of coaches such as Don Coryell and Bill Walsh. Then, within a few months between the autumn of 1982 and the summer of 1983, Michael Jackson released “Thriller;” the final episode of “M*A*S*H” aired; Elway, Dan Marino and the rest the Class of 1983 was drafted; and the 1980s officially began. Everything before that took place on 35mm NFL Films stock; everything for about 20 years after took place on grainy VHS stock.

I would like to claim that my first kiss was wedged in there somewhere, but I spent most of the spring of 1983 trying to win a tabletop football championship with Ken Anderson’s 1982 APBA card.

Anyway, Elway was horrendous as a rookie. Marino was phenomenal: second in DVOA once he wrested a starting job from Don Strock. Fouts ranked first, Montana third but first in DYAR.

Terry Bradshaw underwent elbow surgery in March of 1983. Replacement Cliff Stoudt threw 21 interceptions and finished just ahead of Elway in DYAR. The Steelers still went 10-6, which bodes well for Mitch Trubisky’s attempt to replace a legend with a bum arm. Ken Stabler, another 1970s dinosaur, ranked 24th in DVOA in a 28-team NFL in what would be his final season as a starter. Anderson finished ninth in DVOA in what would be his last good statistical season. The 1970s legends were mostly cooked, but the 1980s legends had not yet arrived. Jim Kelly chose the USFL over the NFL. Marino was a late-season sensation waiting for his true breakout in 1984. A punky QB named Jim McMahon ranked 25th in DVOA for an unremarkable Bears team. And Elway was a mess.

Elway rose to league-average in 1984, then became a top-10 quarterback for many, many years. It’s noteworthy that he did so without much of a supporting cast and with a Dan Reeves offense which was behind the times, though a star-studded defense helped make the Broncos perennial Super Bowl contenders. The Broncos traded a lot to acquire Elway from the Baltimore Colts, and there was no free agency back then, but eventually the Broncos built a passable playmaker corps out of guys such as Vance Johnson and Mark Jackson, while young Mike Shanahan began blowing a little dust off the scheme.

Long story short, history tells us that a superlative quarterback prospect can succeed in less-than-ideal offensive conditions. It also tells us that it might happen once per generation if everything breaks right, so it’s not the sort of situation to count upon. History also tells us that while many future great quarterbacks are pretty terrible in their first seasons, from Elway to Troy Aikman to Josh Allen, nearly all of them show substantial growth in Year 2. This is a make-or-break year for Fields, Trevor Lawrence and Zach Wilson, three youngsters hoping that they can become this era’s Elway.

All that said, I wonder if we’re reaching another NFL tipping point: longer schedule, brace of quarterbacks entering their second seasons, the COVID years creating the sort of upheaval the 1982 work stoppage brought, veteran quarterbacks of yesteryear retiring one by one. When Bradshaw underwent surgery in the spring of 1983, he checked into the hospital under a pseudonym to avoid press/fan scrutiny.

Bradshaw’s fake name? Thomas Brady.

Time truly is a flat circle.