TRADE JUSTIN FIELDS AND CHICAGO FINALLY MIGHT CURE ITS QB PLAGUE
There are many more sensible reasons to start anew — primarily, drafting a real passer at No. 1 and restocking an abysmal roster — even as a quarterback-phobic city remains intrigued by a track star
As sure as frostbitten skin and cries not to lather ketchup on a hot dog, that time has come in Chicago. For too many years, I tried to help the good people with their communal plague, and I don’t mean racial divides, street violence, political malfeasance, expressway snarls or two dead newspapers. Carl Sandburg, a poet who was much too smart to be a Bears fan, called it the “City of the Big Shoulders.”
I renamed it the “City of the Weak Shoulders.”
Chicago does not know what a great quarterback looks like. One would have to be pushing 80 to carry even a vague recollection of Sid Luckman, in his leather helmet, running the T-formation in his No. 42 jersey. He retired in 1950, died in 1998 and is considered the only formidable QB in the 103-year history of an NFL charter franchise. Repeat that: One historically elite QB in one hundred and three fecking seasons, as the drunken Irish would say on the South Side. Because the Bears never have sufficiently addressed their blind spot at the most important position in team sports, they’ve won only one of the 57 Super Bowls played through next month. They did participate in one other, though I’m not sure it ever happened, only remembering that I was drenched in a Miami downpour as Prince belted out “Purple Rain.”
So, at yet another crossroads in their godforsaken football existence, I will offer more help to the good people. I come with another suggestion. They were dazzled this season by the feet of Justin Fields, who might win a skills contest as the league’s fastest man — and would be awesome sprinting away from pickpockets on Michigan Avenue — and came within a 63-yard burst of breaking Lamar Jackson’s record for QB rushing yards. The problem with Fields is a familiar one: He has yet to prove he can pass the football consistently and accurately in a league where, yeah, passing the football remains more important than running the football. The magical archetype at the position, presumptive MVP and possible two-time champ Patrick Mahomes, looks to pass the ball first with his thunder arm — a Big Shoulders arm — and run with it as an alternative. Josh Allen, another MVP candidate when he isn’t lifting a grief-stricken Buffalo, does the same. Ditto for Jalen Hurts. Joe Burrow is a pass-first QB. Justin Herbert is a pass-first QB. Tom Brady might be old and Aaron Rodgers ready for retirement, but they’ll be first-ballot Hall of Famers because they were pass-first QBs.
Fields is one-dimensional and counterproductive. As Fields of Dreams, Soldier Field and other stadiums are pinball machines where he careens off barriers and ultimately slides down the chute. Those Olympic-style sprints through flailing defenses were accompanied by 16 fumbles, 11 interceptions and only 1,143 passing yards, for an NFL-worst average of 149.5 yards per game. In a league of 32 teams, he ranked 25th in passer rating, unable to master the nuances of quick out-patterns and back-shoulder throws. Sure, he was quite exciting, sometimes breathtaking, especially in a town where there’s nothing to do but hibernate, avoid snow-slipping buses and rack up heating and meal-delivery bills between October and May. But in the process of entertaining the good people, who have forgotten what it’s like to win in the City of Very Weak Sports Owners, Fields also played for a team that lost 14 games. Even by Chicago standards, 3-14 is reason to go on a bender and pee in the river.
A reward does come, though, with the league’s worst record. The Bears will have the very first pick in the April draft. Suddenly, they have a chance to secure a real quarterback with a pass-first, run-second mentality and a long-term pro future — Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud or Florida’s fast-rising Anthony Richardson. All are better ideas moving forward than Fields, who can be used as trade bait in a league where nearly half the teams are desperate for QBs. Imagine obtaining two high draft picks, in the first and third rounds, for Fields. Imagine using those picks and a league-high $118 million in cap space to acquire much-needed help across an abysmal roster: defense, offensive line, skill-position weaponry.
AND you draft a quarterback who has a chance to be great — not one who has yet to prove his passing abilities entering his third season, not one who already has been battered by five years’ worth of wear and tear. The way Justin Fields plays football is a recipe for a concussion crisis. In fairness, he hasn’t had the preferred opportunities to grow as a passer without ample protection and game-breaking receivers. But these days, NFL quarterbacks establish their greatness immediately. See Burrow. See Herbert. They are rewarded accordingly, showered with mega-millions. Do you really want to give Fields a major contract when you have no clue if he’ll ever develop as a two-way dynamo? When you can reset the position with a rookie contract that allows even more free-agency flexibility in plugging myriad holes?
Some folks in Chicago are alarmed by this thought process. They like the idea of a defensive monster such as Will Anderson Jr. or Jalen Carter at No 1. Again, they do not know what a great quarterback looks like. Fields is not a great quarterback and, at best, he might reach the bottom of a top 12. But there are too many reasons to trade him to keep him on a whim and a prayer. The new front-office tandem of general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus — who replaced two guys named Ryan and Matt — did not select Fields in 2021. They might like to choose their own quarterback to help them avoid pink slips and, more importantly, build political momentum to construct a new stadium in the northwest suburbs.
This makes way too much sense. Certainly more than messing with Soldier Field’s aesthetic by wrapping a Carnival cruise ship around the Neoclassical, Parthenon-like colonnades and Doric columns. In defending Fields as “something real good” yet acknowledging “he has to improve,” Poles said Tuesday that he’d have to be “absolutely blown away” by Young or another QB — or, presumably, by a trade offer — “to make that type of decision.” Guess what? Teams are going to blow him away with offers to trade Fields.
Question is, even with a proper solution, would the Bears screw up the QB pick the way they screw up everything else? Young is considered the safest option with highly developed skills — throws well, avoids mistakes, thinks on his feet, sees the field from the pocket or on the move, generates drives — but he’s 6-1 on his tip toes. Stroud is 6-3 and scared the dawg turds out of Kirby Smart and Georgia’s historic defense, throwing four scoring passes in the national semifinal and quieting Ohio State loons on social media. Levis has the strongest arm and maybe the most upside, evoking images of Allen with his 6-3, 232-pound body in a high-tempo college offense that produced quick scores. Richardson is a man at 6-4 and 231 pounds and poised in the pocket, able to scamper at the last minute as a dangerous specimen.
The rush on quarterbacks in this draft might be unprecedented, simply because of league-wide need. Poles is positioned to finally save the Bears, or relegate them to their usual sinkhole. Fields sounds comfortable that he’ll eventually sign a big contract in Chicago, saying he’s “already” the team leader. He even offered to help the GM recruit free agents.
“I’m sure we’re going to have that conversation here in a bit,’’ Fields said Monday. ‘‘Whatever he’s going to do, I fully trust him. His goal is to make the best team he can for us.’’
Yet he didn’t hesitate to address his own shortcomings. There’s a reason he was the fourth quarterback taken in 2021, behind the now-emerging Trevor Lawrence, bust candidate Zach Wilson and injury-riddled Trey Lance. All of the above had better potential as pro passers. Only Lawrence, heading to the playoffs in Jacksonville, has kept his promise. It was mentioned to Fields that he almost broke Jackson’s rushing record of 1,206 yards.
“It’s a rushing record, and I’m a quarterback,’’ he said, unimpressed. “If there was one record I’d like to break, it’d be a passing record. We’ll see if we can get that done in the near future.’’
The near future? In the NFL, three seasons is an eternity for a QB. We know who Justin Fields is and what he isn’t. In a blessing from sports gods who must feel sorry for Halas Hall, the Bears could turn him into six quality players, as proposed by former league GM Mike Tannenbaum on ESPN.
Theo Epstein came to Chicago and broke the Curse of the Billy Goat. The good people might build Poles a statue if he finds a quarterback suitable for the City of the Big Shoulders. If nothing else, let him put ketchup on his hot dog while he freezes his ass off waiting for April.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.