Fields in Focus (8/8): Final Takeaways and the Future Outlook

| May 12th, 2023

Today is the last of eight articles taking a closer look at Justin Fields’ 2022 season.

Lessons Learned

Let’s start with a brief recap of some of the main takeaways from the series so far:

  • Fields experienced moderate growth as a passer from his rookie season but did not make “the leap” that you typically see from great quarterbacks in year two.
  • Fields shows very clear strengths (throwing the ball deep, running) and weaknesses (short, quick passes and taking too many sacks). This leads to plenty of big plays but also far too many negative ones.
  • Evaluating Fields becomes difficult due to the poor supporting cast around him.
    • This especially showed up with the offensive line in the pressure data. Fields is always going to be a quarterback who holds the ball for a bit longer than most, meaning that he is particularly dependent on a quality offensive line to make that style work.
    • This showed up most clearly with the pass catchers when looking at how bad Chicago’s non-Mooney WRs were against man coverage. Nobody else was able to get open, and Chicago’s entire offense suffered as a result.

Year Three Growth

Now let’s look at how Fields compares to a trio of recent QBs who had year three breakouts: Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, and Josh Allen. The table below shows their statistics in year two vs. year three of their careers, and Justin Fields’ data for year two in 2022.

A few thoughts:

  • Looking at the other three QBs, I don’t think Tua Tagovailoa is a very good comparison. He doesn’t use his legs much and is generally a shorter passer with a high completion percentage. His year three breakout was driven by a new coach/offense and pushing the ball deeper (his average target depth increased from 7.0 yards to 9.6 yards), and none of that is related to Fields.
  • Hurts and Allen, on the other hand, are pretty similar stylistically to Fields in that they hold the ball longer and push the ball down the field, which generally results in a lower completion percentage. Their year two stats line up pretty well with Fields’, with the exception of Fields being sacked significantly more.
    • Improvement for both in year three coincided with them taking more of the easy stuff. According to PFF, Allen and Hurts both increased their rate of short throws (54% to 58% for Allen, 52% to 61% for Hurts) and decreased their deep shots (15% to 13% for Allen, 16% to 13% for Hurts). They didn’t completely change their play style but became a bit more willing to take the easy yards underneath, which helped them complete more passes, gain more yards per attempt, and avoid more interceptions. Fields had a similar year 2 passing profile (55% passes behind the line or short, 16% deep), and he should look to make those same changes in 2023.
    • Hurts and Allen both saw their rushing efficiency decrease in year three compared to year two, which is also a reasonable expectation for Fields after his rushing came close to setting NFL records last year. This study found that running QBs often see passing efficiency improve in year three, and that these QBs become less dependent on needing to use their legs as they become more effective through the air.

One thing that all three QBs had in common is that their teams handed them a premium WR after year two. The Bills traded for Stefon Diggs, the Eagles traded for AJ Brown, and the Dolphins traded for Tyreek Hill. The substantial upgrade at pass catcher helped propel each of them into the MVP conversation in year three (Hurts and Allen both finished 2nd in MVP voting) after having some uncertainty about whether they were franchise QBs following year two. The Bears can only hope that trading for DJ Moore has the same effect on Fields.

The more likely – but far less desirable – outcome is laid out quite nicely by the running QB study linked above:

“A modest improvement is the most likely outcome based on historical trends, but that might put the Bears in quarterback purgatory – i.e., having a serviceable quarterback that is not good enough to win it all while still ensuring the team does not have a high enough draft pick to pick a new one.”

There are some recent examples of superstar QBs emerging in year three, but the majority of great QBs are great by year two, and Fields wasn’t. This was the danger of doing absolutely nothing to help Fields last offseason. Now we hope he can buck the common trend and follow the path of Hurts and Allen.

Final Thoughts

Justin Fields proved in 2022 that he can make chicken salad out of chicken shit. Now the Bears have worked to upgrade the ingredients in the offense around him, and it’s time to find out what he can do with them.

It’s possible all we get is a better chicken salad. This is exactly what happened a decade ago in Chicago with Jay Cutler. Like Fields, Cutler had lots of big plays and plenty of bad ones while being forced to spend his first few years in Chicago making it work as best as he could behind a bad offensive line and throwing to bad wide receivers. By the time the Bears finally gave him a solid supporting cast, he had developed too many bad habits trying to survive to ever reach his full potential.

That history may repeat itself with Fields, but there’s also the tantalizing possibility that he uses the new and improved ingredients around him to make a gourmet meal. That’s the dream every Bears fan has been hoping for since Sid Luckman retired in 1950. 2023 is the year when we’ll know definitively if, after 73 years, the Bears have finally found their next franchise quarterback.

[Editor’s Note: Chicken salad is delicious and I in no way endorse Wood’s anti-chicken salad agenda.]

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