Does Justin Fields solve all the Chicago Bears’ QB issues of recent past?

By: Stephan Teodosescu

CHICAGO, Ill. — Yes, it’s early, but the hype in the Windy City is palpable. Just a slate of preseason games and a few snaps in a Week 1 loss to the Rams, and Bears fans think they have a franchise savior in first-round draft pick Justin Fields. The team around him might be questionable, but fans think having “their guy” under center for years to come can maybe, potentially, hopefully, get their franchise back to its glory days.

The story of how we got to this point is well told by now. GM Ryan Pace traded up in the 2017 NFL Draft to pick Mitch Trubisky second overall. But not only did Pace commit one of the cardinal sins of NFL drafting by trading up — according to the analytics community at least — but he passed on a guy named Patrick Mahomes in the process.

In 2021, Pace did the same thing; he traded up. But this time for a player that comes with a lot more fanfare than Trubisky did. Will the Justin Fields era in Chicago end like all other quarterbacking eras have in a bust, or will he get the Bears back to the Super Bowl like so many optimistic fans think he will?

Andy Dalton got the starting nod in most of the Bears’ preseason games as well as the first regular season tilt of the year on Sunday Night Football last weekend. The preseason game against the Miami Dolphins was fans’ first chance to see Justin Fields in live game action since being drafted out of Ohio State. Dalton proved ineffective in his first two drives captaining the Chicago offense in that game, so before you knew it, head coach Matt Nagy called Fields’ number for his first ever NFL action. Predictably — in what was probably the most anticipated preseason game in franchise history — Fields came in to a standing ovation from the 33,000 at Soldier Field.

In his first pro start Fields went 14-of-20 for 142 passing yards, a 30-yard passing touchdown, and scored another TD on the ground. In three total preseason appearances Fields went 30-for-49 passing for 276 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also finished with 11 keepers for 92 yards and a score.

Despite Fields’ impressive preseason stats, Dalton got the regular season opening week nod against the Rams this past weekend. The starters’ role is his to lose, according to Nagy, but every Bears fan knows it’s only a matter of time before Fields takes the reins.

Bears fans have long yearned for a good quarterback. While their rivals from Green Bay have been blessed with some of the best signal callers in NFL history — Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers — Chicago has dealt with a carousel of mediocre-to-straight up bad quarterbacks. The Bears did make the Super Bowl off of one good year from Rex Grossman, but he turned into a pumpkin from there on out.

Analyst Brett Kollmann talked about how Fields’ skillset has been sorely lacking from Bears QBs in recent years, and how he may be just what the doctor ordered in the quarterbacks room this season. His analysis is thoughtful, and on point, in my opinion, so give it a watch:

So what is Fields stepping into exactly in Chicago? Last season the combination of Mitch Trubisky and Nick Foles combined for a poor year under center for the Bears. They gained 0.1 Expected Points Added (EPA) per dropback on average, while the league’s best passing teams were north of 0.25 EPA/dropback, according to Ben Baldwin and Sebastian Carl’s nflfastR model. Their peers included teams like the Bengals and Cowboys, both of which have bona-fide franchise quarterbacks in Joe Burrow and Dak Prescott, but who were lost to gruesome injuries during the course of the season.

EPA per play is a measure of the extent to which each play a team runs places it in a better position to score points. In other words the change in expected points from one play to the next is what we call EPA — it’s an accurate measure of the value of each play. Higher EPA on offense is better, while a lower EPA on defense is more desirable.

Trubisky and Foles didn’t exactly set the world on fire with their offensive efficiency, as measured by EPA, in 2020. While Trubisky did see a good share of successful plays (defined as having positive EPA), he was benched early in the season in favor of Foles. But Foles didn’t make the Bears’ quarterback situation any better as he turned out to be one of the worst quarterbacks in the league from a statistical perspective.

Kollmann noted that one of the team’s biggest flaws on offense was the difficulty they had finding chunk yardage last season. They ranked second worst behind the Cincinnati Bengals in share of total plays that are considered explosive, which we’re defining as pass plays gaining 20 yards or more, or rushes gaining 15 yards or more. A total of 5.1 percent of their plays from scrimmage were considered explosive vs. a league average of 6.8 percent.

When you think of these explosive plays you think of teams with dynamic QBs like the Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs or even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the age-defying Tom Brady. The Bears meanwhile made you feel like every first down gained was an absolute chore. That stemmed from the play of their two quarterbacks who struggled to move the chains, especially so via the deep ball.

According to Kollmann, Trubisky completed only 18 percent of his deep throws last season, and if you look at his completion percentage by depth of target, he clearly was not among the NFL’s top threats when slinging the ball downfield. In general completion rate drops below 50 percent for passes traveling more than 20 yards through the air, but on average, Trubisky’s dropped below that benchmark just 15 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Contrast that with Mahomes — if you had a nickel for every time somebody compared Trubisky to Mahomes, you’d be rich — who thrived in that range of distance and Rodgers who’s drop off on longer throws was certainly not as steep.

To his credit Trubisky is a mobile quarterback so the threat of him gaining yardage with his legs always kept defenses honest. The same can’t be said about Foles though who lacked the ability to extend plays that broke down in the early going. Those two issues — Trubisky’s lack of accuracy and Foles being a one-dimensional threat — contributed to the Bears sporting a bottom half offense, which scored just 23 points per game in 2020.

Fields, in contrast, is a dynamic quarterback. He can run with the football and make accurate throws on complicated reads, as evidenced by his preseason performance. In Kollmann’s words, “He is everything that Trubisky and Foles are not, simultaneously.” He teased those skills on Sunday night with his 3-yard scamper to the house for his first career regular season touchdown against the Rams. Dalton mustered a couple successful runs as well, but unfortunately for the Bears, Dalton picked up right where Trubisky left off last season by struggling to stretch the field. He averaged just north of four air yards per attempt in Los Angeles, which ranked 31st among 32 quarterbacks in Week 1, according to Next Gen Stats. Meanwhile Fields took just five total snaps but accounted for more touchdowns than Dalton did.

Nobody in their right mind thinks Dalton will last long as the Bears starter this season, especially so after his Week 1 performance. We don’t know much about Fields’ ability to throw downfield against pro defenses yet, but if anything Dalton is keeping his seat warm as he gets more comfortable navigating the playbook. The Rams, of course, are known for having a solid defensive scheme but Chicago will need to try to attack downfield with the pass game if it wants to be a contender this season, and if it wants to get back in the good graces of the fanbase. Perhaps an early move to Fields as the starter could help with that.

Either way winter in Chicago can’t come soon enough for Bears fans if it means getting Fields starting under center.

*** Code for generating the above plots can be found on my GitHub.

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