This piece examines if we can quantify how much the offense around him may have hurt Fields’ production.
My initial idea was to look at Andy Dalton’s stats in Chicago compared to his previous seasons. Dalton has been on three different teams over the last three years – Cincinnati in 2019, Dallas in 2020, and Chicago in 2021 – so if his performance took a drastic drop in 2021 compared to the previous stops, that would be supporting evidence for the theory that Fields was hurt by the offense around him.
The table below examines Dalton’s efficiency (blue) and playing style (orange) across his last three seasons. Deep throw % is from Pro Football Reference’s Game Play Finder, while all other playing style stats are from Next Gen Stats.
As you can see, there doesn’t actually appear to be much of a change across seasons. Dalton’s sack rate rose a little in Chicago, but he also held the ball a little longer. Besides that, he was pretty much the same bad quarterback in all three years. You can argue Dalton had a similarly bad supporting cast in Cincinnati in 2019, but he played in a really good Dallas offense in 2020, and there is no evidence that going from that to Chicago hindered his performance.
Of course, you could make the claim that Dalton is simply a bad QB, and that doesn’t change no matter how good or bad the offense is around him. But that doesn’t help us if we are trying to identify how (or how much) the supporting cast impacted Fields in 2021.
On the surface, it’s reasonable to think that Fields’ stats took a hit due to factors that are outside of his control. Consider the following:
- Two different sources said the Bears were able to get WRs open at the lowest rate of any team in the NFL.
- Related to that, there were plenty of complaints about the offensive scheme and play calling, which features a comically high rate of hitch routes for WRs, and, as we saw earlier this series, not as much play action as was warranted considering how well Fields did on play action.
- Somebody attempting to quantify how much help a QB received ranked Fields 28th of 32 NFL QBs, meaning only 4 other QBs got less help from the rest of their offense than Fields did as a rookie.
Clearly, it’s fair to say that Fields wasn’t operating in ideal circumstances as a rookie, but how much did that actually hurt his performance? I want to briefly look at three specific areas where Fields appeared to be impacted more than Dalton.
As we saw earlier in this series, Fields was hurt by drops more than most NFL QBs were. Pro Football Focus (PFF) said 7.6% of Fields’ pass attempts were dropped, the 11th highest drop rate in the NFL and 1.4% above average. Pro Football Reference, which tracks drops separately, said Fields had 6.9% of his passes dropped, the 2nd highest rate in the NFL and 2.4% above average.
Given this, you would expect that Andy Dalton had an abnormally high drop rate as well. After all, he was throwing to the same targets. That does not prove to be the case, however. PFF had Dalton at a 5.1% drop rate, the 6th best mark in the NFL, while Pro Football Reference had it at 4.0%, the 8th best mark in the league.
I have no idea what to make of this data. Maybe it’s just a fluke with a fairly small sample size of less than 300 pass attempts for both QBs. Maybe it’s because Dalton throws shorter passes, which probably makes for easier catches. Maybe it’s because Dalton’s passes come in more softly due to a lack of arm strength, or maybe Fields needs to take a little off of some of his passes to make them more catchable. Whatever the reason, Justin Fields was hurt by drops far more than Andy Dalton was.
Another area that varied greatly for both quarterbacks was pressure. We saw earlier in the series that Fields was under heavy pressure; PFF had him with the 3rd highest pressure rate, 8% above average, while Pro Football Reference had him with the 5th highest pressure rate, 4% above average. PFF also said that this pressure was not really his fault, but mostly due to an offensive line that ranged from below average-to-bad.
Dalton, by comparison, was not pressured nearly as frequently. PFF had him pressured 5% below league average (13% below Fields), while Pro Football Reference had him pressured 3% less than league average (7% less than Fields). The reason here is likely due to getting the ball out quickly. Dalton’s average pass took 2.64 seconds, the 6th shortest time in the NFL, while Fields’ took 2.91 seconds, the 7th longest time in the NFL (according to Next Gen Stats).
Given that Fields held the ball longer, you might be tempted to blame him for facing so much pressure, but it’s worth noting that PFF blames both Fields (13.2%) and Dalton (13.6%) for equal amounts of the pressure they faced, and both are right around league average in this regard. So, it wasn’t Fields’ fault that he got pressured so frequently. Rather, Chicago’s offensive line was simply not able to hold up for that extra quarter of a second that Fields held the ball compared to Dalton. Chicago’s offense was designed to get the ball out quickly, which we have seen is not what Fields excels at, and they were unable to adequately adjust their scheme to account for Fields’ playing style.
You might expect to see Chicago adjust their pass protection to buy Fields more time, but there is no evidence that happened. Chicago used an average of 5.3 pass blockers/snap in games where Dalton or Foles played the whole time compared to 5.4 pass blockers/snap in games where Fields played the whole time (hat tip to Quinten Krzysko, aka Butkus Stats, for helping me parse through PFF’s data to figure out this information). Here we see clear evidence that Chicago’s coaching staff refused to adjust what they wanted to do in order to maximize their QB’s strengths.
And that high pressure rate had an enormous impact on Fields. PFF stats indicated Fields was one of the NFL’s best passers in a clean pocket, and one of the NFL’s worst when pressured. He was 5x more likely to turn it over when pressured vs. kept clean, which was the 2nd biggest swing in the NFL. He also averaged 2.4 yards per attempt more when kept clean than pressured, the 6th highest swing in the NFL. Dalton did not see that same dropoff when unpressured; in fact, he was more likely to turn it over out of a clean pocket than when facing pressure.
Finally, let’s take a look at how play action impacted both Fields and Dalton. For starters, they used play action roughly equally; Fields utilized play action on 24% of dropbacks, while Dalton was at 21%. These values ranked 28th and 30th, respectively, out of 39 qualified QBs, and were both slightly below the NFL average of 26%.
But Dalton and Fields were impacted by play action far differently. PFF stats also indicated Fields was one of the NFL’s best passers when using play action, and one of the worst when not using play action. He was more than 4x as likely to turn the ball over when not using play action, the largest swing in the NFL, and averaged 2.5 yards/attempt more when using play action, the 6th highest swing in the NFL. Dalton, meanwhile, was more likely to turn the ball over on play action.
Here again we see the coaches not tailoring their scheme to their talent. It makes sense to keep play action rates low for Dalton, as it didn’t seem to help his performance, but Fields was one of the most play-action dependent QBs in the NFL, and the Bears didn’t really change how often they used it when he was in the game. The most frequent play action using QBs in the NFL utilized it on 35-40% of their pass attempts, while Fields was at 24%. How much more effective would he have been with an extra 10-15% of his passes featuring play action?
So how much did the offense around Fields hurt him in his rookie season? It’s impossible to say for sure, especially since there’s no evidence that Andy Dalton’s production dropped off in Chicago from his time in a good offense in Dallas in 2020. We do know that Fields was far more hurt by drops than Dalton was in 2021.
In general, it seems that Chicago’s coaches designed an offense around Dalton’s playing style, which focused on traditional dropbacks that allow the QB to get the ball out quickly. When Dalton got hurt and Fields took over as QB, they suddenly had a QB who excelled in play action and needed additional protection to buy him extra time to find shots down the field. But the Bears didn’t change their play calling at all from when Dalton was in the game, which resulted in them asking Fields to play to his weaknesses instead of trying to maximize his strengths.
To be fair, it is on Justin Fields to improve when under pressure and not using play action. New GM Ryan Poles said as much. But it’s also on the coaching staff to maximize Fields’ strengths (which Poles also said), and the Bears very clearly didn’t do that in 2021.