Dougherty: Justin Fields, Jordan Love and a potential changing of the guard in the NFC North
GREEN BAY - Is the search over? Have the Chicago Bears finally found a quarterback?
It’s early, but the Bears have to feel optimistic that finally, 71 years after Sid Luckman retired, they have someone who has a real chance to be their quarterback for a decade or more in Justin Fields, the No. 11 pick overall in this year’s draft.
Not that Fields has been a shining new light in the NFL. Quite the opposite. In most respects, he’s having a rough time in a year when all the rookie quarterbacks are struggling early.
Fields’ 64.5 passer rating ranks No. 31 in the league, a spot behind one fellow rookie (Trevor Lawrence), and a spot ahead of another (Zach Wilson). If you’ve seen the Bears in any of Fields’ three starts, you know it has been at least as bad as these numbers suggest: The Bears are No. 30 in the NFL in scoring and No. 32 in yards.
This guy is raw and has a long, long way to go. The Green Bay Packers surely have seen that on the game tape as they've prepared to face Fields for the first time this Sunday.
But that same tape also shows Fields’ talent and poise. There are signs of the “It” factor too. Job No. 1 for quarterbacks is to find a way to win, and as unsightly as it’s been, the Bears are 2-1 with Fields as their starter.
Last Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders, for instance, Fields had only 84 yards passing by the halfway point of the fourth quarter. But then he completed back-to-back throws for 27 yards total that put the Bears in position to kick a field goal that put them up by eight points with less than three minutes to play.
“The numbers don’t look great right now, but that’s to be expected,” said one NFL scout this week. “It’s just the infusion of confidence, the belief, the energy that he brings, that’s what a franchise quarterback does while they learn on the job. … He’s not getting rattled, he’s playing poised. He made two big-time throws last week at the end of the game despite struggling, two big-time throws. The ability to get out of trouble, he’s showing that. The presence is hard to quantify, but those are the big factors to me that he’s showing.”
Now, three games isn’t much, and it’s still hardly a given Fields will become a top-10 quarterback in the league. But the early signs hold promise, and if it happens he’d change a dynamic that’s been baked into the NFC North the last 30 years. Instead of challenging for the division title once every few years, Chicago will be a challenger almost every year.
Maybe the best illustration of the Bears’ uphill climb during the Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers eras is this: Since 1992, which was Favre’s first season as starter, the Packers’ have the NFL’s best passer rating (92.5); the Bears rank 29th (77.4).
Fields also is taking over when the Packers might be on the brink of moving on from Rodgers. It’s a long way from now to March, but if Rodgers still wants to be traded in the offseason the Packers might very well oblige so they can get the most they can for him while they can, rather than the measly compensatory pick they’d recoup if he leaves a year later in free agency.
If and when Rodgers departs, it will be Fields for the Bears and Jordan Love for the Packers, two first-round picks only one draft class apart, though Fields was taken much earlier in the round (No. 11 overall this year to Love’s No. 26 in 2020).
Love has yet to take a meaningful snap in a regular-season game, so comparing the two since they’ve left college is more art than science. All the scouts have to go on with Love is three preseason games this year, which means unlike Fields he hasn’t faced a defense that’s game planned to stop him.
I asked three NFL scouts this week whether they’d rather have Fields or Love at this point. All three have seen much or all of Love’s preseason tape, and all three chose Fields. All three also liked Fields more than Love coming out of college.
One of the scouts even rated Fields higher coming out than Lawrence, the first pick of this year’s draft.
Of a Fields-Love comparison, he said: “It’s not even close.”
Another of the scouts was less convinced Fields is on his way and took several seconds to ponder before choosing Fields as a better prospect than Love. For all of Fields’ early struggles, he immediately ranks among the top running quarterbacks in the league. He ran the 40 in a reported 4.46 seconds at his college pro day and rushed for 1,133 yards in 34 games in college. Love is mobile but not in that class – he ran 4.74 at the NFL scouting combine and rushed for 403 yards in 38 college games.
“Love is a better passer,” the scout said. “He’s got a looser arm, better release, better touch short and medium. Fields can throw the deep ball really well with touch. The scheme (Love) is playing in is quarterback friendly, which is helpful. Fields was more athlete, first read, OK arm, kind of average mechanics, average release quickness, could throw hard but it wasn’t always a spiral, average accuracy and ball placement. He was more of a playmaker than Love because of the athleticism.”
The main question about Love from all three scouts is how teammates will react to the understated presence the scouts saw on his preseason video. Fields, for his part, gives the Bears a jolt just because of his dynamic playing style.
“Sometimes you can tell when a quarterback enters that everyone around him is energized,” one of the scouts said. “You can tell the other players were excited because they thought they were going to be successful (with Fields), and when (Carson) Wentz got hurt and Jalen Hurts went in, you could tell guys want to play for him. I don’t see that from Love. He’s not high energy, it’s like he’s just out there running the offense. Which is fine, there are plenty of quarterbacks like that that are good. (Jimmy) Garoppolo is a good quarterback, but I wouldn’t say the troops are excited to go play for him.”
Another scout likened Love’s vibe to Eli Manning’s. He thinks if Love’s cool demeanor carries over to when the pressure is highest, it could be more asset than liability.
“Eli was the most milquetoast guy you could have; as far as a leader and the presence thing he wasn’t very dynamic,” the scout said. “… But guys respond differently to different players, and that cool, calm vibe, players respond to that as well.”
Love’s time, though, won’t come until next season at the earliest. It may be even later. Fields’, on the other hand, is here and now. By the end of this season, the Bears should have a pretty good idea of just what they’ve got. At least one of the scouts thinks the odds are high he’s already shown he’s a keeper.
“Justin Herbert you knew right away,” the scout said. “Kyler Murray, you knew right away. Lamar (Jackson), as soon as he started playing, you knew right away. Patrick Mahomes, as soon as he got a chance to play, oh man. With Justin you’re already starting to see it. Five, six games down the line it will become even more obvious.”
The future of the NFC North is riding on it