September 27, 2022

New Bears GM’s top priority: Protect QB Justin Fields at all costs

Fields was sacked 36 times in 12 games as a rookie. Nam Y. Huh, AP Photos

When the Bears finally hire a general manager — and at this point it looks like the process will stretch into next week or beyond — he’ll need to get right to work addressing the very problems that created this job opening in the first place.

The priority and overarching goal will be to establish the necessary infrastructure for Justin Fields to grow into a franchise quarterback. In order to get there, the Bears must treat him like he already is one.

The new general manager must support Fields in a way that Ryan Pace didn’t. When the Bears drafted Fields No. 11 overall, there weren’t any questions about his talent or potential. The predominant concern was whether the Bears were equipped to develop and enhance what he brought to the table.

Conversely, when Alabama’s Mac Jones went to the Patriots four picks later, it immediately was assumed they’d know exactly what to do with him.

So, with the first year of Fields’ precious, incredibly economical rookie contract essentially wasted, the new general manager must aim to make the most of the remaining three years before the Bears are forced to either extend him with a huge contract (a good problem) or draft his successor (an actual problem).

After one season of playing with Pace’s personnel and in former coach Matt Nagy’s nonfunctioning offense, it’s difficult to make any significant assessment of which outcome Fields is heading toward. The incoming general manager needs to put all the other pieces in place so he can get a clear view of Fields.

The Bears have interviewed at least 10 candidates so far, with several more expected. The latest was former Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie on Thursday. Colts director of college scouting Morocco Brown is scheduled to interview Monday, NFL Network reported.

The Bears also interviewed Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich, an NFL quarterback for nine seasons, for their head-coaching vacancy Thursday.

The first item on the new GM’s to-do list will be to choose an offensive-minded coach with a system that fits Fields’ skills. He’s got great accuracy on his deep ball, excellent movement within the pocket and the ability to sprint for a first down at any moment. That’s a great mix.

“Justin’s going to have a very bright future,” Nagy said in his final public sentence as Bears coach.

That’s only true in the right hands. The surest sign that this season was a lost cause was when the Browns destroyed Nagy’s game plan for Fields’ starting debut in Week 3. They dismantled and exposed it so thoroughly that Nagy said, “You almost can’t even make it up — it’s that bad,” and promptly surrendered play-calling.

Fields has a far better chance with a coach who wants to maximize his ability rather than contort it to fit his model. Nagy’s favorite quarterback was Alex Smith. Find someone who isn’t so cemented in convention.

Once you do, the next order of business is the offensive line. If the Bears make no other improvements next season, so be it. Just fortify the offensive line to the point that Fields can actually play.

Some decisions will be dictated by the timeline for being a legitimate playoff contender. “Legitimate” is the key word there. Pace spent the last three seasons trying to recapture the magic of 2018 and wasn’t clear-eyed enough to see that the Bears were miles behind the NFL’s elite. Had he recognized that after the 2019 season and acted accordingly, he’d still have his job.

While many of the moves will be with an eye on the future, such as what to do with the massive contracts of Robert Quinn and Khalil Mack, the Bears still need to facilitate Fields’ growth in the present. They can’t let him disintegrate with a faulty offensive line and limited skill players as they stockpile draft picks for 2023 and beyond.

Besides, the teardown basically already happened on offense — albeit in a seemingly directionless manner. The Bears were 19th in salary-cap dollars spent on offense this season and have the second-lowest amount committed on that side of the ball for next season.

Wins might not matter next season, but Fields’ progress does. The Bears are banking on him being their long-sought answer at quarterback, but he can’t get there alone.