Fields in Focus (1/8): General Overview and Progress Report

| May 3rd, 2023

Justin Fields has finished his 2nd NFL season, and the Bears have clearly committed to him as their quarterback for at least 2023. With that in mind, let’s take stock of how Fields grew (and didn’t grow) from his rookie season, where his strengths and weaknesses lie, and what he needs to improve to take the next step.

Like I did with Fields in Focus last offseason, this will be an in-depth series exploring several different aspects of Fields’ performance in 2022. The overall breakdown will look like this:

  • Part 1: Comparison to rookie season and growth throughout 2022
  • Part 2: Where and how effectively Fields threw the ball.
  • Part 3: How Fields did on different types of plays (play action, quick vs. slow developing).
  • Part 4: How often Fields was under pressure, and who was to blame.
  • Part 5: How Fields performed under pressure.
  • Part 6: How efficiently Fields produced explosive plays.
  • Part 7: How Fields did against man and zone.
  • Part 8: Fields’ future outlook.

Rookie Comparison

Let’s start today by taking a brief look at Fields’ basic statistics and how they compared to his rookie year. The table below shows how the two seasons stack up, as well as the NFL average for 2022 (calculated by team for any volume stats).

A few thoughts:

  • The first thing that stands out is that Fields threw the ball less often in year two than year one. On the surface, this seems surprising, as usually teams will ask a QB to throw more often as he matures.
    • I was tempted to chalk this up to Fields taking more sacks and scrambling more frequently in 2022, but that hypothesis didn’t pan out. Fields was sacked 3.6 times/game as a rookie and 3.7 times/game in 2022, and Pro Football Focus (PFF) charted Fields with 4.5 scrambles/game in his rookie season compared to 4.7 scrambles/game in year two. Adding in sacks and scrambles, Fields dropped back to pass 35 times/game as a rookie and 29 times/game in year two.
    • The difference, then, comes from the new offensive scheme, which was intentionally more run heavy. In 2021, the Bears ran it on 44% of offensive plays, but that increased to 56% in 2022.
  • Taking more sacks is worrying. Ideally you would like to see that rate go down as Fields gets more familiar with the speed of NFL defenses, as happened throughout the course of his rookie season. We’ll look at sacks and pressure in more detail later in this series, but this is definitely something that needs to improve. An optimist could say this is largely due to the talent the Bears lost on offense after 2021 more than anything Fields did, as Allen Robinson, Jason Peters, and James Daniels all left in free agency and there were essentially no resources invested in replacing them.

  • Otherwise, Fields generally improved somewhat as a passer, which can best be seen through his completion % and yards per attempt numbers both ticking up a little bit. For a bit more context, the NFL average in 2022 was 64% completion and 6.6 yards/attempt, so Fields was generally around average overall in terms of passing efficiency.
    • His largest improvement came in the improved touchdown and interception numbers. This gave him a TD/INT ratio of 1.5, more than double that of his rookie season but still below the league average of 1.8.
  • While his passing improvement may have been modest, Fields’ improvement as a runner was substantial, which should come as no surprise to anybody who even casually followed the Bears in 2022.
    • As noted above, Fields’ scramble rate stayed pretty consistent from year to year, but his efficiency improved tremendously. He went from 8.2 yards/scramble as a rookie to 10.3 yards/scramble last year, which highlights that he became better at reading defenses and figuring out when it was time to take off running.
    • Fields’ increase in run volume came entirely on designed runs, which increased from 2.7 runs/game to 6.0 runs/game. This shows a willingness of the coaching staff to play to Fields’ strengths, and Fields rewarded that with a substantial increase in efficiency from 2.1 yards/designed run to 4.7 yards/designed run.

Growth Through the Season

Of course, it’s also worth looking at Fields’ season to see if there are any clear signs of progression. After all, Fields was starting over, and learning to play with a lot of new players, so it makes sense that there would be some growing pains.

Indeed, Bears fans may remember from last September that Fields did have clunkers against Green Bay and Houston in the first few weeks of the season. It wasn’t until Minnesota in Week 5 that Fields really started to even resemble his rookie self, and splitting the first four games out from the rest of the season shows a stark difference, as you can see in the table below.

A few thoughts:

  • That first month was a big yikes, as Fields pretty clearly didn’t really know what he was doing in the offense yet.
    • The rest of this series is only going to use data from Week 5 on for Fields. That first month was awful, but I have no reason to expect it will repeat itself, and that month of garbage skews the rest of his data, obscuring any lessons we could hope to learn.
  • Looking at the passing stats from Week 5 on, Fields is around league average in completion percentage and a bit above league average in yards/attempt and TD/INT ratio.
    • His sack % isn’t as bad as it was in the first month but is still close to twice as high as the league norm. Again, we’ll look more at this later, but that is pretty clearly the biggest thing that needs to improve for Fields going forward.
  • Fields’ rushing production also skyrocketed after that first month, as figuring out when to take off running was a big part of his improvement.
    • The scramble frequency increased slightly, from 4.3/game to 4.8/game, but the efficiency improved drastically from 7.8 yards/scramble to 11.1 yards/scramble. This suggests that Fields did a better job of figuring out when to take off and run, which was part of his growing comfort in the offense.
    • The designed runs increased substantially in both volume (4.3/game to 6.6/game) and efficiency (0.8 yards/run to 5.6 yards/run), which suggests that offensive coordinator Luke Getsy both became more comfortable calling Fields’ number and figured out how to better deploy him as a runner.
  • All told, Fields produced an efficient 250 yards from scrimmage and 2 touchdowns per game from Week 5 on, which is pretty solid.

Lessons Learned

In case you got lost in the words above, here’s a quick recap of the main takeaways:

  • Fields’ overall passing statistics improved slightly from his rookie year, and his growth as a runner was substantial.
  • These trends are even more concrete when you remove the first month, when Fields was terrible as he adjusted to a new offense, and focus on the rest of the season, which is what we will do for the duration of this series.
  • Looking at that 11-game sample from Week 5 on, Fields’ profile suggests very loosely an average to above average passer who takes too many sacks but is an elite threat as a runner. That’s the general base we’ll work from as we explore more detailed areas of his passing performance to see where he shines and what improvements can be made to take him to the next level.

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