LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The minute Justin Fields announced Sunday that he tweaked his hip during a 41-10 loss to the Detroit Lions, an easy escape hatch was opened up for the Bears.
With an important NFL draft position at stake Sunday in the season finale against the Minnesota Vikings, Bears general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus chose to prioritize the future of their rebuild over one final meaningless game of “experience” for their quarterback.
After starting to backtrack on Fields’ availability for the season finale Monday, Eberflus announced Wednesday that the Bears ruled Fields out due to a strained hip, ending the quarterback’s second season. Nathan Peterman will start in his place.
Do I doubt Fields is banged up? Absolutely not. He has taken a beating this season behind a bad offensive line. But the hip strain also gave the Bears an avenue to make the right move for a franchise still on the ground floor (basement?) of a rebuild.
A win Sunday, something that only Fields’ magic could deliver, could knock the Bears from the No. 2 (or No. 1) pick in the draft all the way down to No. 4 should the Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos both lose Sunday.
That could mean the difference between drafting a generational talent in Jalen Carter or Will Anderson and getting a player outside the elite echelon of the draft board. A fluke win also could cost them the chance to acquire a highly-valuable draft asset they auctioned off to a quarterback-desperate team looking to move up and draft either Bryce Young or CJ Stroud.
The Bears enter Sunday’s season finale against the Vikings, having lost nine straight games. The Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, and the Lions have all gashed the Bears’ struggling defense.
The chances of them winning Sunday against the 12-4 Vikings were remote with Fields. Remote but existing.
The Bears couldn’t afford to take the chance.
The Vikings have little to play for Sunday and will only play their starters sparingly. That means Fields would spend most of Sunday going against the backups for one of the NFL’s worst pass defenses.
Playing Fields on Sunday would have been the equivalent of dumping chum into the ocean, diving in, and hoping a shark doesn’t interrupt your swim.
There’s also Fields’ health to consider and the offseason work ahead.
Through 15 games this season, Fields has been sacked 55 times and has been pressured on 45.7 percent of his dropbacks, per Pro Football Focus. Fields was sacked seven times and hit nine times in Sunday’s blowout loss to the Lions.
The Bears’ offensive line has been leaky all season. Right guard Teven Jenkins left the loss to the Lions with a neck injury. His backup Michael Schofield was carted off with a knee injury a quarter later.
With protection issues, a nagging left shoulder separation, and this hip strain, the Bears are protecting Fields from himself and the operation they’ve put around him by sitting him for the season finale. That ensures the 23-year-old quarterback will have an entire offseason to recover and get to work making the necessary improvements heading into Year 3.
The Bears were expected to win between four and six games this season. Poles spent his first year on the job tearing down the roster and preparing for the rebuild ahead.
Eberflus and Fields understand what they have built this season and the essential ingredients moving forward.
“Justin and I had the conversation yesterday about the leadership that we have had from players and coaches to be able to set the vision and set the direction of how we go about our business and working through our habits every single day,” Eberflus said Wednesday . “That’s what resonated with him and that’s what resonated with me.
“When you do that over time, and you have additional draft picks and all those other things and you work towards that and all that improves, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be really good. But you can’t have that without the foundational floor of the habits it takes to create the winning environment it takes to get that done.”
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Fields made critical steps forward during the 2022 season. He became one of the NFL’s most electric playmakers in the running game and made positive steps forward as a passer. There is still a lot of work for Fields to do as a pocket passer.
Poles said as much in an interview with Jeff Joniak.
“He’s shown the ability to make a ton of plays with his legs,” Poles said of Fields. “No one questions his playmaking ability, but really growing as a passer is going to be the next step.”
Putting a confident offensive line around Fields should help the young quarterback make significant strides in 2023.
There’s no question that Fields is dinged up. He has been most of the season. But he also played every snap of the loss to the Lions despite straining his hip in the first half.
The Bears have their entire future ahead of them. Fields is a big part of that. So is the draft position they hope to secure Sunday.
Fields had nothing more to gain by playing Sunday vs. the Vikings. The Bears had everything to lose.
In ruling Fields out, Poles and Eberflus show they can see the bigger picture and don’t want anything obscuring that vision.
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