Justin Fields' tough start to the 2023 season continued on Wednesday when he mentioned coaching as a potential reason for his early-season struggles. He later walked back those comments and said he takes all the blame.
Either way, it's been a surprising start for Fields, who was a popular pick to take a Jalen Hurts-type leap after the Bears opted to not only stick with Fields rather than draft Bryce Young, but also trade the No. 1 overall pick to Carolina for WR DJ Moore.
So far Chicago is 0-2, Fields has more turnovers (4) than touchdowns (3), has run for just 62 yards and ranks 25th among QBs in EPA per play. The video game numbers he put up last year when he ran for over 1,000 yards are nowhere to be found, yet. Patience is running thin for Fields, who is 5-22 in 27 career starts.
Fields provided insights to these struggles before he changed his tune about coaching.
"I don't think it's too many (voices). It's just that when you're fed a lot of information at a point and time and when you're trying to think about that info when you're playing, it doesn't let you play like yourself," Fields said. "You're trying to process so much information to where it's like, you know, if I just simplify my mind. ... I think the biggest thing for me is playing the game like I know how to play. Like I've been playing it my whole life."
The results of this information overload are staggering. It's beyond perplexing that Fields has the shortest average pass length in the league at 4.5 yards downfield. It's even the fourth shortest by any QB two games into a season since 2006, as far back as that data is available from Pro Football Focus.
His average pass length has been cut in half from 9.1 yards downfield in 2022 (fifth-longest in NFL). There's never been a QB whose average pass length dropped even 3.0 yards from one season to the next. It's just two games, but it's still alarming that Fields' mark is currently down 4.6 yards from 2022.
Shortest Avg Pass Length Through Week 2 - Since 2006
His furthest pass attempt this season traveled 24 air yards. He is the only qualified QB without a single pass of 25-plus air yards in 2023. As you can see with the heat map of Fields' pass attempts in the last two years, so far this is not close to how he sprayed the ball around last season.
What makes this even crazier is Fields has time to find players down field. He has the third-longest average time to throw this year at 3.24 seconds. From 2017-22, 24 players have had an average time to throw of 3.0+ seconds. The shortest average target depth of that group was Daniel Jones at 6.4 last year. Again, Fields is at 4.6.
The Bears are still sending receivers deep, too, even more so than last year by a significant clip. They rank top 10 in frequency of post and go routes run this year after ranking bottom 10 last year. They are also bottom 10 in crossing routes, slants and screens this year after they were top 10 last year.
So has time to throw, Chicago is running receivers deep more often, and yet he's somehow turned into a checkdown machine. Makes perfect sense right. Information overload could certainly play into that. From there, we can debate whose fault it is. Fields if he's not processing info fast enough or the Bears' coaches for overloading him with information.
I'd say blame falls with both parties.
One thing is clear, there are areas where the Bears coaching fails to take advantage of Fields' strengths. His arm strength and mobility. Fields has the lowest percentage of passes thrown 10-plus air yards this year. He also has the lowest percentage of passes from outside the pocket of any qualified QB in the NFL. That's like playing NBA Jam and not using the turbo button.
Even though this play from Week 2 below resulted in an incompletion, you can see Fields' playmaking ability when he leaves the pocket.
Part of the reason he broke out around the midway point last year was because Chicago got Fields on the move, ramped up their usage of play action and got the ball in his hands more on designed runs. Now they are going backward in all those areas. He is also averaging 2.0 designed runs per game this year, down from nearly five in 2022.
Justin Fields Percent of Pass Attempts in Career
10+ air yards
Fields is hardly innocent either. There are too many plays like this one below where Fields has time to throw and misses an open receiver.
Chicago's offensive line takes a lot of heat but sacks are a QB stat and there are also far too many plays where he takes an unnecessary sack. This fumble against the Packers in Week 1 is a perfect example. Rather than check down on third-and-short for a first down, he scrambles resulting in the turnover.
He picked up his 100th career sack in the Week 2 loss to Tampa Bay, becoming the third-fastest player ever to 100 career sacks (29th game) behind Randall Cunningham and Jake Plummer. He's taken 79 sacks with 4.0+ seconds to throw in his career, 16 more than any other player since 2021.
Then of course, there are outside forces. Defenses are making their own adjustments after Fields joined Lamar Jackson and Michael Vick as the only QBs with 1,000 rushing yards in a season last year. Fields is seeing zone coverage at the highest rate in the NFL this year (88 percent). He also has 0 touchdown passes and three interceptions versus two-high safety coverage in 2023.
Death by 1,000 cuts is not how Fields is going to beat you, but to a degree, Chicago's coaching and opposing defenses are both trying to make him into something he's not, a pocket passer.
Fields provided a solution. "I feel like I was playing robotic, not playing like myself," Fields said. "My goal this week is just to say 'F it.' Play football like I know how to play football. That includes thinking less and going out there and playing with instincts rather than just, say, info in my head."
When asked what playing like himself looks like, Fields answered, "you'll see, soon."
The Bears play Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs this Sunday at Arrowhead with a prime opportunity to get Chicago's season turned around and prove you belong on the same field as the best quarterback on the planet.
It's already approaching now-or-never territory for the Bears and Fields. The Bears have never started 0-2 and made the playoffs. This is their 22nd 0-2 start in their 104th season. They've lost a franchise-record 12 straight (10 started by Fields) so the clock is ticking.