Home Sports Justin Fields’ fireworks and the quest for 3,000 rushing yards: 10 Chicago Bears things to watch in the final month of the season

Justin Fields’ fireworks and the quest for 3,000 rushing yards: 10 Chicago Bears things to watch in the final month of the season

by staff

Who said a last-place season couldn’t be any fun?

Chicago Bears fans have found new fulfillment in losing this season, with many unfazed by the team’s 3-10 record and another skid that has lasted more than a month. All this was part of the disclaimer after the organizational reboot in January, right? An NFL rebuild sometimes requires acceptance of a total teardown and the accompanying debris.

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Plus, the Bears now have themselves an electric, playmaking quarterback. We repeat: The Chicago freakin’ Bears now have themselves an electric, playmaking quarterback.

The explosive emergence of Justin Fields since mid-October has generated an adrenaline rush around these parts that’s both exhilarating and unfamiliar. Over his last seven starts, Fields rushed for 711 yards and seven touchdowns, including an NFL-record three scores of 50 yards or longer. (That’s a career record, by the way, for a quarterback. Fields accomplished it in 29 days.)

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Fields also has passed for nine touchdowns since Week 6, was the NFC Offensive Player of the Week in Week 9 and continues to bring big-play juice to the offense every week.

This offers Chicago a license to dream about where Fields can propel this franchise — once he has a sturdier offensive line, a more potent receiving corps, a better defense and a roster filled with more talent and depth.

So forget that when the Bears return to action Sunday at Soldier Field against the NFC-leading Philadelphia Eagles, they will be 55 days removed from their last victory and figure to be a double-digit underdog at home.

Don’t worry that in the 30 seasons since Mike Ditka was fired, the Bears now have 12 seasons with at least 10 losses and only four playoff victories.

Forget that the current roster has dozens of holes that need filling in what will be a demanding roster-replenishing cycle next spring.

All of that can wait.

Optimism always feels much better than anxiety. So who on planet Earth would choose worry over hope?

After a Week 14 open date, the Bears return to Halas Hall on Monday with four games remaining, four more weekends with plenty of significance and entertainment value folded in. With that in mind, here’s our viewing guide of 10 things to watch before Bears players clean out their lockers on Jan. 9.

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Justin Fields. Justin Fields. Justin Fields.

If you’re taking your eyes off Fields, you’re missing the biggest point of this season, which started with a quest to see if he could develop into a difference-making franchise quarterback. Thirteen games in, Fields’ playmaking brilliance has been plentiful, especially since the “mini-bye” that carried the Bears from a Thursday night loss to the Washington Commanders in Week 6 to a Monday night win over the New England Patriots 11 nights later.

A few shrewd schematic adjustments helped unlock Fields’ greatest gifts and awakened the offense. In his last six starts, Fields completed 67.4% of his passes for 1,027 yards and nine touchdowns with a 95.9 passer rating. The Bears averaged 27.8 points during that stretch and converted 55.2% of their third-down opportunities, now ranking sixth in the NFL in third-down efficiency.

Furthermore, with a team-best 905 rushing yards, Fields has been the engine of the league’s most productive ground attack and seems certain to go over 1,000 yards in the next couple of weeks.

For the season, Fields has produced 13 runs of at least 15 yards and 27 completions of at least 20 yards. This is all evidence of progress and potential. No one should argue otherwise. Bears fans haven’t had a fireworks show like this to enjoy since … well, ever really. Now there’s another four weeks to take it all in.

Fields threw for a season-high 254 yards against the Green Bay Packers in Week 13, just the second time this season he has topped 200. He seemed comfortable in the pocket and poised with his decision making. That was a step in the right direction, even with two late interceptions that helped seal the Bears’ sixth consecutive loss.

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But the Bears continue to own the league’s least potent passing offense, averaging just 140.6 yards — more than 165 yards per game behind the NFL-leading Kansas City Chiefs and 56 yards per game outside the top 25.

Fields’ interception rate (4.0%) remains the worst among the league’s 34 qualifying quarterbacks. His passer rating (85.4) ranks 26th, sandwiched between the Patriots’ Mac Jones (87.0) and the Commanders’ since-benched Carson Wentz (84.1).

Two things can be true simultaneously. Fields is having a productive and encouraging season. And he still has a long, long way to go.

In his next two games, Fields will face a pair of big-boy defenses. The Eagles are the NFL leader with 15 interceptions to go with 48 sacks. The Buffalo Bills, who will visit Soldier Field on Christmas Eve, have an AFC-best 22 takeaways while allowing only 17 points per game. Measuring-stick moments are ahead.

Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts, left, and wide receiver A.J. Brown pose as they leave the field after a game on Dec. 4, 2022, in Philadelphia.

While we’re on the subject of the Eagles and Bills, the career ascents of quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen are worth mentioning. Both came into the league with high expectations — Hurts as a second-round pick in 2020, Allen as a top-10 selection in 2018. And both were inconsistent early in their careers, leaving some doubt as to whether they could become difference-making franchise leaders.

Now both dual-threat quarterbacks are MVP candidates and the engines of Super Bowl-contending teams. And both will be visiting Soldier Field in the next two weeks.

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Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) celebrates with fans after defeating the Patriots on Dec. 1, 2022, in Foxborough, Mass.

Hurts and Allen have made marked individual improvements since they broke into the league and have led their teams into the playoffs. Both also have benefited this season from having dynamic playmakers in their offense. Hurts has A.J. Brown and Devonta Smith to throw to, with his top two receivers having a combined 131 catches, 1,995 yards and 15 touchdowns. Allen has impressive chemistry with Stefon Diggs, who is now up to 94 catches, 1,239 yards and 10 touchdowns.

It would be nice for the Bears to get Fields some weapons like that soon. It also would be nice if Fields can follow the career climbs Hurts and Allen have made.

Bears running back David Montgomery (32) runs the ball against the Texans on Sept. 25, 2022, at Soldier Field.

If the 2023 NFL draft were held today, the Bears would own the No. 3 pick, positioned either to select one of the biggest stars of the draft class or to shop that selection in a possible trade back that could net general manager Ryan Poles a bounty of valuable draft capital. This is the much-celebrated consolation prize for the Bears being as bad as they are.

It seems unlikely the Bears would climb to the top of the draft board between now and Jan. 8. The 1-11-1 Houston Texans have remaining games against the Chiefs, Tennessee Titans, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts and might be hard-pressed to win two more times than the Bears do.

As for the possibility the Bears could succeed their way out of a top-five pick with a win or two late in the season, the other bottom-tier teams to track over the next four weeks include the Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints, Arizona Cardinals and Colts, all of whom have four victories or fewer.

TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston celebrates a catch for a first down in the second half of the Big 12 championship game against Kansas State on Dec. 3, 2022, in Arlington, Texas.

While we’re on the topic of the draft, it’s probably worth mentioning a few of the elite prospects who might interest the Bears with their top pick and how you can do some casual advance scouting from the couch.

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Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter is an absolute monster, a 310-pound wrecking ball in the middle of the Bulldogs defensive line. Bears fans might get two chances to watch Carter play in the College Football Playoff. Georgia will face Ohio State in the Peach Bowl on New Year’s Eve in Atlanta. If the Bulldogs win, they would face either Michigan or TCU in the national title game Jan. 9.

TCU standout Quentin Johnston could be the first receiver drafted in April. He’s 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds with explosive athleticism and has 53 catches, 903 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games this season. Johnston’s Horned Frogs will play their national semifinal against Michigan in the Fiesta Bowl on Dec. 31.

Alabama edge rusher Will Anderson is a two-time winner of the Bronko Nagurski Award as the nation’s best defensive player and will play his final college game against Kansas State in the Sugar Bowl on Dec. 31.

Clemson’s Bryan Bresee is another quick-twitch defensive line prospect who will be playing in the Orange Bowl on Dec. 30 against Tennessee.

There are many more intriguing draft prospects to watch across the 43-game bowl schedule, which begins Friday morning with the Bahamas Bowl and runs through the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2. Poles and his talent evaluation crew should stay busy.

Bears wide receiver Chase Claypool (10) can’t make a catch in the end zone under pressure from Jets cornerback Sauce Gardner (1) on Nov. 27, 2022, in East Rutherford, N.J.

The Bears made one of their biggest acquisitions for the 2023 season in November when Poles traded his second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers to bring Claypool to Halas Hall.

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That deal was a bit of a preemptive strike in the bid to add weapons around Fields in the passing game. Poles acknowledged his assessment of the 2023 free-agency class at wide receiver left him a bit underwhelmed and sparked the midseason deal.

In four games since joining the Bears, Claypool has 12 catches and 111 yards, still learning the playbook and assimilating into his evolving role in the offense. As of now, the Bears’ second-round pick would be the No. 34 selection. That’s an expensive investment in Claypool, whose rookie contract runs through March 2024.

It’s uncertain what the long-term return will be. But at a minimum, over the final four games this season, you’d like to see playmaking flashes from Claypool and improving timing and chemistry with Fields.

Signage for the Pro Bowl is seen at Allegiant Stadium on Feb. 6, 2022, in Las Vegas.

It’s a new format this year. On a trial basis, the traditional Pro Bowl game will be replaced by a trio of flag football games on Feb. 5 in Las Vegas.

During an NFL Network special at 7 p.m. Saturday, 88 players will be selected as usual to the NFC and AFC rosters. Fields offers the Bears’ best hope of being represented. The Pro Bowl rosters will feature three quarterbacks from each conference.

In the NFC, Hurts is a lock to make his first Pro Bowl. The Seattle Seahawks’ Geno Smith also seems like a good bet to be invited. That would leave one opening that could be up for grabs among Fields, Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins and Aaron Rodgers. And what happens if, say, Hurts is preparing for the Super Bowl and can’t attend? Or another quarterback in the running decides not to participate?

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Mitch Trubisky was the last Bears quarterback to make the Pro Bowl, going as an alternate in 2018. Jim McMahon — way back in 1985 — was the last Bears quarterback to be named to the initial roster.

Pro Bowl rosters are determined by votes from fans, players and coaches, with each faction carrying equal weight. As of last week, Fields was not among the top 10 quarterback vote getters from fans.

Bears running back David Montgomery (32) leaps over Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander (23) on Dec. 4, 2022, at Soldier Field.

Through 13 games, the Bears are averaging a league-best 189.2 rushing yards, on pace to set a single-season franchise record with 3,216. Only four teams in the Super Bowl era have topped 3,000 rushing yards in a season. The 2019 Baltimore Ravens, led by MVP Lamar Jackson, set a league record with 3,296 yards in a 16-game season.

The 1978 Patriots (3,165 yards in 16 games), 1973 Bills (3,088 in 14 games) and 2020 Ravens (3,071 in 16 games) are the only other members of the 3,000-yard club.

Fields has rushed for at least 70 yards in six of his last seven starts and set an NFL regular-season record for a quarterback with 178 against the Dolphins in Week 9. David Montgomery (641 yards, four touchdowns) has remained steady.

The Bears also could get running back Khalil Herbert back from injured reserve before the season ends. Herbert, who has been out with a hip injury, will be eligible to return to practice Dec. 20.

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Bears safety Jaquan Brisker (9) walks off the field after a loss to the Vikings on Oct. 9, 2022, in Minneapolis.

As many fans fast-forward to their 2023 mock drafts and dream of a franchise-changing class, it’s worth keeping an eye on Poles’ first draft class as GM. How that group finishes the 2022 season could shorten the list of offseason needs.

Can defensive backs Jaquan Brisker and Kyler Gordon return from concussions and put together a strong finish? Will wide receiver Velus Jones earn more opportunities on offense and take advantage of them? What will left tackle Braxton Jones’ performance review look like at year’s end?

Can defensive end Dominique Robinson accelerate his growth to become a more impactful playmaker? Does safety Elijah Hicks have potential to be a defensive contributor or is he better used mainly on special teams? Will punter Trent Gill be able to handle the winter weather at Soldier Field?

Oh, and don’t forget about undrafted rookie linebacker Jack Sanborn, who has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the season and continues to state a case that he deserves to retain a starting role beyond this year.

Bears wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (19) heads to the sideline after the final offensive drive results in an interception by Falcons safety Jaylinn Hawkins (32) on Nov. 20, 2022, in Atlanta.

It might not matter to everybody, but Fields and the Bears offense have a hump to get over when it comes to putting together game-winning drives in the final minutes of close games.

In each of Fields’ last four starts, the Bears had the ball with less than six minutes remaining with a chance to tie or take the lead. Each time they failed to do so and lost.

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In Fields’ last two starts, his final pass was a defeat-sealing interception, bringing his season total to six fourth-quarter picks.

Can Fields eventually mature into a clutch playmaking quarterback under late-game pressure, especially once he gets an upgraded supporting cast? Of course he can. But there’s no harm in starting to build that library of winning experiences now.

Every achievement Fields and the offense enjoys becomes fuel for the belief tank that the Bears will need to become a playoff contender.

At a minimum, Bears coaches and players feel like the experience they have gained this season in pressure-packed situations is valuable to the learning process. At some point, though, everyone at Halas Hall would love to reap the profits of a victory.

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