LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In three simple sentences, rookie quarterback Justin Fields provided the city of Chicago with the kind of reassurance not felt in these parts in more than a generation.
“I’ve been kind of in the spotlight since high school,” Fields, the Bears first-round draft pick, said last week when questioned about his readiness to occupy the headlines in the NFL's third-largest market.
“So, I kind of feel like I’m made for this. I’m built for this.”
Those words sent most Chicagoans into an even greater fever pitch. The overwhelming majority of Bears fans are not on the fence about Fields. General manager Ryan Pace’s aggressive move to trade up nine spots for the Ohio State quarterback was met with almost universal praise.
In case you are new to the Bears, the NFL’s charter franchise has been wandering aimlessly in the quarterback market for 70-plus years.
What went wrong?
Try ... everything.
From a quarterback perspective, most of the 1960s and '70s were a blur -- the Bears won the NFL championship in 1963 but spent the next 13 years out of the playoffs.
Jim McMahon guided the franchise to Super Bowl XX, but injuries cut short his time in Chicago.
Jim Harbaugh -- like McMahon -- arrived with plenty of talent, but the organization lacked the necessary offensive coaching and infrastructure to properly develop and aid him.
Erik Kramer had a spectacular -- by Bears’ standards -- 1995 season but never again reached the same heights.
First-round pick Cade McNown. Bust.
First-round pick Rex Grossman played dynamite football the first month in 2006 -- the Bears reached Super Bowl XLI -- but the lows were too low to sustain a long career.
Jay Cutler -- arguably the most talented player to play the position for the Bears -- rewrote the passing record books but led the club to one playoff appearance in eight seasons.
And, finally, Mitchell Trubisky, another first-round pick, showed flashes but struggled to find the necessary consistency against top-flight competition.
Fields is trying to break the mold. Look no further than the quarterback’s collegiate career to find why the Bears believe he can.
After transferring to Ohio State from Georgia, Fields played two years of dominant football at one of the top programs versus the country’s best talent. Fields passed for 63 touchdowns with nine interceptions, as Ohio State went 20-2, won two Big Ten Championships and made two College Football Playoff appearances. Fields, a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, threw for 385 yards and six touchdowns in a brilliant semifinal performance against Clemson.
Those stat lines matter when projecting a quarterback at the next level.
Then factor in the rare physical skills that were on full display at Chicago’s recently completed three-day rookie minicamp. Make no mistake, rookie camp is not anywhere close to live NFL regular-season action, but Fields' size [6-foot-3, 228 pounds], movement and arm strength were certainly noticeable, even in the controlled, non-contact environment.
“It’s one of his greatest strengths that he has -- being able to have that accurate deep ball,” Bears coach Matt Nagy said. “We went to his second pro day. Justin was back there, and right before, [Buckeyes coach] Ryan Day said, ‘Watch when this next deep ball comes up right here.’ What do you know, Justin got the ball from gun, rolled out to the right and let one go -- you could just feel it. I think that’s one of his better things that he does. And that’s something that we want to be able to use as much as possible.”
Nagy’s evaluation of Fields continued.
“He definitely also has rare speed for a quarterback,” he said. “When you watch him play on tape for the 40-time that he ran, it's a controlled speed that he has. So he plays quarterback first and then uses his legs second. So what happens when you naturally have that: defenses can collapse the pocket, and they still can't get you, and you extend plays with your legs. That's hard for defensive coordinators. When you become a runner, when they take it away -- and not just being able to run for 15 or 20 yards, but you're able to take it the distance and go for 70 or 80, which he can do -- that's a whole other element.
“And so the exciting part in being able to have a guy where you can do some things with his legs, but you know he can do some great things with his arm as well that's fun, that's a good deal right there.
"We want him to learn this offense so that he can play at that 4.4 speed that he has when he's out there. A guy like Andy Dalton or Nick Foles that do not have that 4.4 speed to be able to play fast mentally with the decisions they are making along with Justin. When you have that speed that he has, it's definitely a rare element.”
The skills are present. Now Nagy and the team he assembled -- quarterback coach John DeFilippo, offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, assistant quarterback coach Mike Snyder, Dalton and Foles -- must develop Fields. Nagy, in particular, no doubt relishes the opportunity to turn Fields into a franchise passer after the Trubisky experiment ran its course.
The Bears are -- rightfully so -- taking the wait-and-see approach with Fields.
“Andy is the starter,” Nagy reiterated over the weekend. “Andy will take the starter reps.”
Nevertheless, Fields is very likely to play as a rookie. The exact date when he supplants Dalton is up in the air, but Nagy probably will create specific packages or plays for Fields to get his feet wet early on.
The best-case scenario is for Fields to overtake Dalton organically. If that happens, perhaps the Bears can break the quarterback curse that has plagued the city.
“I know that time is the biggest question right now for Justin, and I completely understand that, because there is an excitement and there is that want for all of us to be able to see what Justin can do,” Nagy said.
“We'd be lying to you if we didn't say that or believe that, but we've got to make sure as we go through this thing that we also do what's best for the Bears and for Justin. And so that's where I think as time goes by and how things go, we'll know and we'll all see it and feel it, and I think it will be very natural how this process goes.”