Justin Fields’ 2022 Season Won’t End the Twitter Debates, and the Bears Won’t Care

| March 30th, 2022

Justin Fields’ potential future in Chicago is not going to be decided by Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus in 2022. That evaluation has already concluded and he’s their guy moving forward, certainly through 2023. The next “evaluation” of the quarterback will take place at the backend of that ’23 campaign, when the professional sample size is adequate, and the organization must consider their long-term financial commitments to him.

Why? Why is there not more pressure on this coming season?

First, because the Bears are not going to be good this year. That’s just a premise with which more fans need to be comfortable.

Second, because Poles and Flus know it will not be easy to install a new offense for Fields – his third in three years – and have the kid flourish. They’ll want to see him take significant steps from year one to year two, of course, but they’ll by no means expect a finished product. There will not be many finished products when it comes to the 2022 Chicago Bears.

But most of all, expectations for Fields will be managed because the leadership knows of 2022’s roster limitations. This is a scrap metal season, an attempt by Poles to sell the beater left in his driveway by Ryan Pace for parts. That notion has guided his approach in these first weeks of free agency. Other than attempting to sign the best three-tech on the market to significant money, the Bears have focused on a series of mid-tier (or lower) guys on upside, short-term deals. Their failed attempt to get Ryan Bates from Buffalo was the best example of this. Bates is not a great guard. He’s a good, solid, YOUNG player. The rest of their signings tell the same story:

  • Justin Jones, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Nicholas Morrow give the Bears bodies on defense but don’t figure to have long-term value in the organization unless they perform to a seriously high level.
  • Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown come to the Bears with personal connections – the former to the GM and the latter to OC Luke Getsy. If either player develops a serious rapport with Fields, the signing will be a home run. (My prediction is Pringle sticks around in Chicago for several seasons.)
  • Khari Blasingame returns the fullback position to Chicago and signals a serious transition to the Shanahan style.
  • Dakota Dozier is a depth piece with starting experience.

Twitter is a vomitorium where Justin Fields is always trending. When you click his name, which I try not to do and consistently fail, you find an endless series of Bears fans arguing with every other anonymous fan base about him. No one is right. No one is wrong. Everyone is angry. These tend to be the fans DESPERATE for the Bears to overspend on offensive linemen and wide receivers not worth the money. They want their opinion proved correct. They want Fields to be great right now.

But sadly, the Bears are at a weird organizational crossroads. They drafted their quarterback of the future and then fired the whole of their football operations the following season. Poles must act like Fields’ rookie season never happened; operate like Fields will be the team’s first round pick this season. And then he must build the roster accordingly moving forward. Poles and Flus start with a clean slate in Chicago. Fields should too.

Fields might become a great player. He also might not. For now, the Bears will be patient. They’ll keep the future in focus, at the expense of 2022. Can fans of the franchise do the same?

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Dannehy: Bears Can’t Ignore Defense as They Build Around Fields

| March 16th, 2022

The signing of Larry Ogunjobi was telling in that it shows the new Chicago Bears regime knows it has to maintain a solid defense for the development of Justin Fields, or whoever the long-term quarterback may be. Ogunjobi will fill a critical position in the Matt Eberflus defense, profiling as the prototypical three-technique, responsible for pressure up the middle. The contract, reported to be three years and $40.5 million, caused some uproar. Why? Because 2022 should rightfully be all about quarterback and it’s hard to argue a defensive tackle helps a quarterback. But this addition will help take pressure off of Justin Fields.

And the new defensive tackle is a very good player. He has had ten or more tackles for a loss, five sacks and at least 13 quarterback hits in three of the last four seasons. He essentially replaces Akiem Hicks, who hasn’t had ten tackles for loss or five sacks since 2018.

Trading Khalil Mack certainly sent mixed signals.

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For Poles and Coach Flus, the 2022 Off-Season is About Justin Fields

| March 4th, 2022

Winning is important. Winning breeds more winning, creates a positive environment, and is the only way to establish the type of culture that produces sustained success. Joe Judge, in some bizarre, late-season pressers, tried to sell the cultural shift he authored in New Jersey to Giants ownership. They canned him. Why? He didn’t win enough. All reports from inside the building were positive. All results from on the field were not. The latter is all that matters, ultimately.

Football is a sport and sports are about winning and losing. That’s why they spend all that money on those fancy scoreboards. But for the new Bears leadership, 2022 should be about one thing and one thing only: finding out if Justin Fields is “the guy”. Finding that out while winning is, of course, the ideal scenario, and if he is “the guy” they will win. But the decisions made in the coming months should be geared towards the former, not the latter.

The Bears should spend money. But they should spend money on young offensive linemen and outside weapons that can grow and develop with Fields in the years to come. This isn’t the time for a 34-year-old guard or a veteran wideout on a one-year deal. The Bears are not championship contenders next season, despite what the Bengals achieved this past one. The money spent in 2022 needs to be relevant in 2023, 2024 and maybe even beyond.

And they shouldn’t spend a nickel on defense. (Hyperbole, yes, but you get the point.) The players they have rostered on defense for 2022 are plenty good enough to field a unit with a middle-of-the-pack floor, especially if Coach E is worth his salt at the top of the pyramid. Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson and Eddie Jackson (in this defense) are a terrific defensive core. Play Thomas Graham. Draft a corner. Find a good off-ball LB in the middle rounds. This unit is going to require significant overhaul upfront in the coming years. Adding a high-priced talent now doesn’t make any sense.

Folks like to throw around the word “rebuild” in the NFL but rebuilds don’t really exist. A team’s championship clock starts the second they decide who the quarterback of their future will be. The Bears should have made that determine the second they drafted Fields, putting the likes of Mack and Allen Robinson on the trading block moments later. They didn’t.  They self-inflated the value of their roster. They thought they could contend in 2021 with Andy Dalton. (I can’t believe that sentence is even possible to type.) And they wasted a year.

They don’t need to waste another second. Make ’22 about 1. If that project is successful, the years that follow will be too.

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Plenty of Flashes, Plenty of Work Left: Briefly Recapping Data’s “Fields in Focus” Series

| February 23rd, 2022

Data’s seven-part “Fields in Focus” series wrapped yesterday to rave reviews across the internet. You can scroll back and read each of the pieces, or you can download the entire series in PDF form right here.

Fields In Focus

Rookie seasons for quarterbacks are usually messy. But if there’s one major takeaway from our excellent “Fields in Focus” series, it’s this: the whole of the Chicago Bears organization owns the messiness of this kid’s rookie campaign.

Here are some other takeaways from the series.

  • Justin Fields had very discernible issues this season but each of them falls under the same label: lack of experience.
    • Fields struggled with the underneath stuff, particularly because he was constantly looking down the field and coming back to the short stuff too late. It takes young QBs time to accept what’s there when it’s there. (Patrick Mahomes made a leap in that regard only this season.)
    • Fields took several sacks he shouldn’t have taken, and subsequently fumbled the ball too much, because it takes young (especially supremely athletic) QBs time to understand that ain’t Rutgers on the other sideline anymore. You can’t run away from most of the pass rush in the NFL, no matter how quick your 40 time.
  • The most glaring point made in the series was in regard to the non-utilization of play action, even when it was proving to be where Fields thrived. It proves two things. (1) The previous coaching staff built their 2021 offense for Andy Dalton and never intended to play Fields. (2) The previous coaching staff once again failed at the most basic element of coaching: self-evaluation. It was a hallmark of the Pace/Nagy era. They were completely incapable of accurately evaluating their own performances/roster.
  • Wood’s numbers are important, but they are not definitive. Numbers are only part of the story in the NFL. You can’t numerically quantify receivers running poor routes. You can’t numerically quantify the impact of penalties on play calls when it comes to down and distance. Football is a situational game; in a way the other sports are not. Sometimes an incomplete pass is a smart play, though the numbers won’t show that. Sometimes a one-yard gain is an achievement. So, use these numbers as an additional tool in your evaluation, not the only tool.
  • If you believe explosive plays are the key to scoring points, it’s hard not to be excited by Fields’ potential. This line stands out: “When Justin Fields was playing, he was able to overcome a poor scheme and weak supporting cast to lead the NFL’s most explosive rushing attack and produce explosive plays at an above average rate on a per-play basis.”
  • Fields improved during his rookie campaign; the eyes and the number tell that story. No reason to believe that improvement won’t continue in 2022. But that improvement will be greatly aided by strengthening the group up front and outside. Put simply, the Bears don’t have good enough players on offense. And until they do, their ceiling will be limited.

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Fields in Focus Part VII: Rookie Comparison

| February 22nd, 2022

So far, this series has focused on what Fields did well and where he struggled during his rookie season. Now I want to broaden this to think a bit about what it could mean for his future. In order to accomplish that, I’m going to compare Fields’ stats in a wide variety of categories to those of every other rookie QB with at least 250 pass attempts in the last decade. All data will come from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

Overall Comparison

Including Fields, there have been 37 QBs who attempted at least 250 passes during their rookie season over the last 10 years. The data below shows how Fields compared to the rest of the sample in a variety of wide-ranging metrics. Places where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those where he ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • Overall, this matches what we saw with Fields when compared to all 2021 QBs. He holds the ball a long time, pushes it down the field, doesn’t complete a lot of passes, but is generally decent in yards/attempt, big time throws, and turnover worthy plays. He generally ranks a bit better in most areas when compared to other rookies than he did compared to all 2021 QBs, but that makes sense; most rookie QBs are bad.
  • What do these stats mean going forward? I tried to look at a few of them to see if they could project anything.
    • If you do a simple big time throw – turnover worthy play analysis, Fields ranks 5th, and the guys around him are a pretty good list, with Ryan Tannehill, Justin Herbert, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Mac Jones. That’s certainly not a guarantee, but it’s encouraging.
    • Of course, Fields having the 3rd worst accuracy is not good. Others near him in that category include DeShone Kizer, Geno Smith, Case Keenum, Josh Rosen, and EJ Manuel, which is blech, but Josh Allen and Andrew Luck are right there too, so it’s not necessarily a death sentence on his career.

Data Split By Depth

Like I did earlier in this series, I want to take a little bit closer look at accuracy by splitting it up by depth. It’s harder to throw an accurate pass when it’s further down the field, but those passes carry more value because they gain more yards. Since Fields had a higher average target depth than most, maybe his seeming accuracy issues were really just him throwing deep more often.

The table below shows how Fields compared to the 37 QB sample of rookies with 250+ pass attempts in both frequency and accuracy of passes to different depths of the field. Once again, places where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while those where he ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

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Fields in Focus Part VI: Offensive Hindrance

| February 21st, 2022

This piece examines if we can quantify how much the offense around him may have hurt Fields’ production.

Dalton Dropoff

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.

Anecdotal Evidence

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:

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.

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Fields in Focus Part V: Explosive Plays

| February 18th, 2022

This piece looks at how efficiently Fields helped the offense produce explosive plays. All stats are from Pro Football Reference, with many of them compiled using their Game Play Finder tool.

Setting up the Study

I’ve been tracking explosive plays for several years now because I found they have a strong correlation to total points scored by the offense. Therefore, they’re an important indicator of offensive success; by and large, good offenses produce more explosive plays.

The exact criteria I use for explosive plays are runs that gain 15 or more yards and passes that gain 20 or more yards. This is borrowed from ESPN Stats.

Normally I just track total explosive plays over an entire season, but that’s a little harder to do here since Fields only played in 12 of 17 games, and only started 10 of them. So, I’m going to take a slightly different approach and look at explosive plays per game and per play. I’m going to split the Bears’ season into three groups, and consider each group separately:

  • Games Fields started and finished. There were nine.
  • Games Dalton or Foles started and finished. There were six.
  • Games split between Fields and Dalton. There were two: Cincy (Week 2) and Baltimore (Week 11). These are getting ignored, since I can’t easily figure out who was on the field when explosive plays happened.

This will allow me to compare Fields’ explosive play production to the NFL as a whole, but also to how the exact same offense functioned with a different QB.

Explosive Passes

I want to start with a graph for visual effect, because I think it’s hilarious.

I’ll get to a more typical table with concrete numbers in a second, but for now the graph below shows how many dropbacks (pass attempts + sacks) were needed to produce an explosive pass for all 33 QBs with 200+ passing attempts in 2021. The two Bears samples (Fields and the Dalton/Foles combo) have their dots shown in orange.

As you can see, Fields is right about in the middle of the pack, but look at the Dalton and Foles sample sitting way out to the right by itself! They’re farther away from 32nd place than 32nd is from 1st. Those QBs are truly in a league of their own.

OK, enough making fun of the crappy veteran QBs that Chicago’s last regime somehow thought were the answer to their problems the last 2 off-seasons. Now for some actual numbers. The table below shows this same data as the graph above, but also includes the Bears from 2020 and 2019, so you can see that this is not a new problem for Chicago.

A few thoughts:

  • Chicago’s passing game has been among the least explosive in the NFL for years. I’m not sure if that’s due to bad scheme or bad quarterback play, but in reality, it’s probably a combination of both.

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Fields in Focus Part IV: Rookie Progression

| February 17th, 2022

This piece looks at how Fields’ performance changed as his rookie season wore on. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

General Overview

Let’s start with a general look at Fields’ stats over the course of the year. A few quick notes:

  • They are split into three groupings (Weeks 2-5, 6-8, and 9-15), because each group showed some clear distinctions compared to earlier games that I’ll point out below.
  • The first and third groups were considered to be 3.5 games for the per-game stats, because Fields played about half of the Cincinnati (Week 2) and Baltimore (Week 11) games.
  • Basic passing statistics are shown in blue, basic running statistics in orange, and advanced passing style statistics in green. Basic stats are from Pro Football Reference; advanced stats are from Next Gen Stats.

A few thoughts:

  • Those first 3.5 games of Fields’ career were rough. He only completed 50% of his passes, got sacked on 17% of dropbacks, and threw into tight coverage (aggressive throw) over 25% of the time. Basically, he didn’t really know what he was doing. It’s fair to think that being thrown into the fire after the coaches went out of their way to NOT PREPARE him to play during training camp and the preseason hurt him in that regard.
  • Starting in Week 6, there are three drastic changes in how Fields operated that made me group these games differently.
    • The first is that the Bears started relying on him a lot more, which you can see by the big jump in dropbacks/game (includes all pass attempts, sacks, and Fields runs, which were mostly scrambles).
    • In the midst of this heavier usage, you can see Fields running the ball far more often and more effectively, which resulted in his sack rate dropping a bit (though it was still high, the league average was 6%).
    • You can also see Fields’ throws into tight coverage drop significantly, which indicates he was doing a better job of finding open players to throw the ball to.
  • All three of those Week 6 changes continued throughout the rest of the year, but two more significant factors changed starting in Week 9, which caused me to group those final games separately.
    • First, Fields’ yards/attempt mark made a significant jump. It had been fairly steady in the first two samples but was drastically different in Weeks 9 and beyond. This wasn’t driven by just one game, either; three of Fields’ four outings in weeks 9+ featured a yards/attempt greater than 7, a feat which he had only accomplished once in his first 7 games.
      • For a little more context, Fields’ 6.3 yards/attempt mark through Week 8 would have been 28th of 33 QBs with 200+ pass attempts in 2021, while that 7.8 mark would rank 5th.
    • Second, Fields’ time to throw took a massive jump as well. Through Week 8, he was around league average in that 2.75 second range, while the 3.15 seconds he averaged from Week 9 on would have been the highest in the NFL in 2021.
      • Holding the ball too long can be a problem, as it opens you up to sacks, but Fields’ sack rate dropped here. He even threw it into tight coverage less frequently.
      • Coming out of college, Fields was known as a guy who holds the ball and likes to push it deep. In those final few games of his rookie year, we see him figuring out how to make that style work. That bodes very well for the future.

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Fields in Focus Part III: Under Pressure

| February 16th, 2022

This piece will examine how frequently Fields was pressured, who was to blame for that pressure, and how Fields performed when under pressure. All stats are from Pro Football Focus (PFF) unless otherwise noted.

Pressure Frequency

Fields was one of the most heavily pressured QBs in the NFL as a rookie. PFF had him pressured on 43% of dropbacks, the 3rd highest rate of 39 qualifying NFL QBs (34% median, 45% worst). Pro Football Reference, which is more selective with what they consider a pressure, had him at a 27% pressure rate, the 5th highest mark in the NFL (23% median, 31% worst).

The table below shows how much of the pressure for each QB PFF blamed on each position. Fields’ stat is provided, and his rank compared to the other 39 QBs, as well as the range of the other qualifying QBs.  Cells where Fields ranked in the top 10 are highlighted in green, while cells where Fields ranked in the bottom 10 are highlighted in red.

A few thoughts:

  • By and large, Fields was not particularly to blame for the pressure he faced. PFF only credited him with being responsible for 13% of his pressures, which was the literal middle of the pack for the 39 QB sample.
  • Pressures may not have been his fault, but many sacks were. Fields allowed 24% of his pressures to turn into sacks, which was the 6th worst mark in the NFL (median 17%). This matches Lester Wiltfong’s Sackwatch series, which blamed Fields for 9 of the 36 sacks he took in 2021. If you go back and look at the film breakdown for those (which Lester does for all of them), the majority came when the initial pressure was not his fault, but then Fields could have gotten the ball out or escaped and didn’t.
  • In general, the pass blocking from the offensive line ranged from average to below average (again, 20th is the middle of a 39 QB sample). Two spots stood out from that: right guard was pretty good (it’s worth noting RG James Daniels is a free agent) and center was pretty bad. Sam Mustipher has to be upgraded this offseason.
  • It’s a small sample size, but the tight ends allowed a high rate of pressure compared to other QBs. When looking at tight ends, PFF had Cole Kmet ranked 43rd and Jesse James 30th in rate of pressures allowed out of 68 total qualified tight ends, which is around average for both, so I’m not sure what happened here. Maybe it’s a small sample size thing, where the tight ends gave up most of their pressures when Fields was in at QB (as opposed to Dalton or Foles).
  • I think sample size with running backs (the majority of the other) was probably an issue too. PFF had David Montgomery and Khalil Herbert 25th and 23rd, respectively, in rate of pressures allowed out of 64 qualified running backs, which is a little above average but nothing spectacular.

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