How Bears QB Justin Fields can move from potential to winner by passing more

Bears quarterback Justin Fields warms up last month.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Bears quarterback Justin Fields’ taste in quarterbacks is evolving.

‘‘The younger I was, the more I was into dual-threat guys,’’ he said. ‘‘The older I got, I started to look more at pocket guys.’’

That’s what Fields believes himself to be — and what the Bears desperately need him to be in his third season.

‘‘That’s what a quarterback is,’’ he told the Sun-Times last month. ‘‘A quarterback is a guy that can throw the ball, a guy that can get the ball to his playmakers when needed, when the pocket breaks down. And when we want to switch things up with the run-option, the lead-option, we’re able to do that. Having the ability to run puts a lot of stress on the defensive coordinators and what they have to do and what they have to game-plan for.’’

One year after posting the second-highest single-season rushing total by an NFL quarterback — he finished 64 yards shy of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson’s record of 1,206 yards in 2019 — Fields knows what he needs to do. Only by being a passer who can run, not a runner who can pass, will Fields begin to answer the biggest question facing the Bears.

If Fields makes a leap this season, starting with the opener Sunday against the rival Packers, he could earn a contract extension worth around $100 million guaranteed as early as the offseason and inherit the mantle of Bears franchise quarterback. If not, the Bears will have two first-round draft picks next April they could use to replace him.

Amid all that, Fields knows he needs to be himself — even if he borrows from other quarterbacks.

‘‘I like how they play the game,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel like I can take bits and pieces from their game and try to add it to mine, stuff that they do well. Try to copy it.’’

He started wearing No. 1 in high school as a tribute to Cam Newton, the Panthers’ bruising runner and long-range passer who was his favorite quarterback.

‘‘Just how he was on the field,’’ Fields said. ‘‘His swagger.’’

As he got older, his taste in quarterbacks evolved. He loved the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson for his combination of pinpoint passing and running.

‘‘Of course,’’ Fields said, ‘‘he doesn’t run as much now.’’

As he began dominating the Big Ten at Ohio State, Fields started watching Aaron Rodgers film. He’s amazed at how the former Packers great remains effective, even at 39.

By the time Fields was drafted, he was into Matt Ryan, the quarterback for his hometown Falcons. Ryan was a technician.

‘‘His under-center footwork, his play-action, throwing strike routes, those deep slant routes,’’ Fields said.

All four are different from each other — and from Fields. Newton was 2 inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than Fields. Wilson is listed, charitably, as 3 inches shorter than Fields. Rodgers is 15 years older than Fields. Ryan’s longest run in 13 seasons with the Falcons was 20 yards. He’s the antithesis of Fields, who last season emerged as the NFL’s best rushing quarterback.

That’s the point.

‘‘I am a different quarterback than all those guys,’’ Fields said. ‘‘If I can just learn as much as I can from them and take what they did and take the things that they did well . . . .’’

Few NFL quarterbacks have been able to run like Fields, but more are starting to try.

When Tom Brady retired in February, the NFL lost its last statue passer. Almost every other quarterback is athletic enough to move the pocket, even if there are few who have Fields’ innate ability to make defenders miss once he takes off running. As evidence, Fields ticked off the first-round draft picks this year: the Panthers’ Bryce Young, the Texans’ C.J. Stroud and the Colts’ Anthony Richardson.

‘‘I definitely see kind of a slow change into where guys are definitely going to have to use their legs,’’ Fields said. ‘‘I can’t really think of any guys in the league right now that just can’t run. I don’t see any pure pocket passers that have no ability to run.’’

The proliferation of running quarterbacks has grown exponentially. In 1993-97, only one quarterback ran at least 100 times in a season: Steve McNair. In 1998-2002, two did: Michael Vick and Daunte Culpepper. In the next five-year stretch, there were five such seasons of 100 or more quarterback carries. Then eight in 2013-17.

In 2018-22, there were 16 instances.

‘‘For most teams, movement and the ability to extend plays and some quarterback-designed runs are a necessity in 2023,’’ NBC Sports analyst Chris Simms said. ‘‘It’s no longer just a little bit of a privilege.’’

Twelve of the best 20 rushing seasons by a quarterback in NFL history have come in the last six years. A focus on athleticism comes simply from playing to quarterbacks’ strengths, Bears quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko said.

‘‘Whether it was the 49ers in the ’90s, when Steve Young was the most mobile quarterback and they were running all those keepers, I think it’s just an evolution,’’ he said. ‘‘I don’t know that you ever want to pigeonhole yourself into saying: ‘Here’s the evolution. This is what they have to look like now.’ We’ll find the best players and do what they do well.’’

The Bears did that at midseason in 2022, moving Fields into an offense that further emphasized his running ability. They developed the best ground game in the NFL.

But even if the Bears’ rushing attack remains stellar this season, Fields needs to become a proficient passer.

‘‘With Justin Fields, the question is, is he a natural enough thrower — and that was my question coming out of Ohio State — to where he can make the adjustments?’’ Simms said. ‘‘The running game’s not working today? OK, so what? He can still go 25-for-32 for 310 [yards] and three TDs with his arm.

‘‘That’s where I think we’re all not sure.’’

In 25 career starts, Fields has topped 200 passing yards only six times. He has thrown for three touchdowns in a game once.

Fields’ throwing motion isn’t as easy as that of Jackson or Vick, Simms said. He considers Fields the best running quarterback in the NFL, but that might not be enough. Simms pointed to Jackson’s 1-3 postseason record and to the Eagles, who had the best offensive line and one of the most dangerous receiver tandems in the sport, losing the Super Bowl last season after being up by 10 points at halftime.

‘‘The biggest reason was because [Eagles quarterback] Jalen Hurts is not an A-minus or an A-plus passer quite yet,’’ Simms said. ‘‘At some point, to me, it’s still about, you’re going to have to make decisions and throws at a consistent level in the pocket to get to that ultimate pinnacle, as far as winning a Super Bowl.’’

Coming off the worst record in the NFL, the Bears have a long way to go before they even think about the Super Bowl. This season, however, is about figuring out whether they already employ a quarterback who, in the right situation, might be capable of winning one in the future.

At stake is millions of dollars and the direction of the franchise. Fields said it’s nothing greater than the weight he puts on himself.

‘‘Like I always say, my expectations are higher than everyone’s,’’ Fields said. ‘‘When everybody thinks I did good, I’m saying, ‘No, I could have done better than that.’

‘‘I don’t really feel any pressure, just because I think I know what I need to do.’’

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