I want you to look at this photo of me and Bears wideout Darnell Mooney Friday after practice. I was explaining something about the importance of a quarterback and receiver being in perfect alignment. I said to him: “In that incredible New England comeback from 28-3 in the Super Bowl against Atlanta, guess which wide receiver had the most targets in the fourth quarter and overtime for the Patriots. Malcolm Mitchell.” That’s when his face got that way. Like, who is Malcolm Mitchell? Rookie. Played only one year in the NFL. Bad knee forced him to quit. I said, “When I asked Tom Brady about it, he said there was a reason for it: 112 practices.” All those comeback routes Mitchell ran late in the game and Brady targeted him on were because they’d run them a couple of hundred times in practice, and Brady trusted him implicitly.
My point: I’d just watched Justin Fields practice in the new Luke Getsy offense imported from Green Bay, and I felt very much that it’s a work in progress. Fields rolled right several times, a la Aaron Rodgers, and looked for a receiver, and he ended up tucking it and running. It’s only with time that someone—Mooney, rookie Velus Jones, Dante Pettis, tight end Cole Kmet — or maybe more than one will get in tune with Fields, and the young QB will be able to find a receiver instead of running. Nothing wrong with running, of course — Fields is fleet and quick. But it’s good to know if he rolls right six times a game, he has a legit run or pass option five or six times.
“I’m happy you shared that story with me,” Mooney said. “I’m not sure how long it will take. But that makes perfect sense.”
This is what a new offense is like, and this is what a new regime is like. Rookie GM Ryan Poles says he doesn’t like calling this a teardown, but what do you call a camp roster with 54 of 91 players brand new…and the personnel staff new, and the coaching staff new, and the franchise quarterback in his 16th month on campus?
This is going to take a while, but Poles isn’t taking shortcuts, and that’s good. When Poles traded 31-year-old Khalil Mack to the Chargers for second- and sixth-round picks, it was a signal that Poles and coach Matt Eberflus want to build for the long haul. That’s why I don’t think this is a make-or-break year for Fields. He’ll have every chance to win the job long term, and patience will be a virtue with this staff. Getsy is a teacher of the first order. “Probably the best quarterback coach I’ve had in my life,” said Fields.
When I watched Fields Friday, what I thought needed the most work was his anticipation throws, his rhythm throws. Not to harp on Brady, but what became rote with him was knowing precisely where each receiver would be on each route, so he could throw when the receiver wasn’t looking, certain of the spot he’d be when the ball was released. Fields isn’t there yet.
“We’re working on the rhythm throws,” Eberflus said.
Fields gets it. He knows mastering an offense means being able to throw ball after ball to a spot, not waiting to see him be open. The key will be for Fields and for the fans to understand this will take time, and lots of the final pieces aren’t on this roster yet.
“Each day I feel we take a step forward,” said Fields. That’s important.
I’m not bullish on the Bears to contend this year. On the total rebuilds — Bears, Giants, Texans, Jags — that’s really okay. In fact, it’s preferable. I am bullish on the groundwork being laid by Poles and Eberflus. The respect they have for Bears history, and the desire to get the Bears back to contention, was evident Friday. Eberflus, when setting up his office, wanted to honor the history of the franchise and make every player aware that their jobs are to return the franchise to prominence. In the space behind his desk that most coaches reserve for family photos or mementos, the new coach asked for pictures of the nine Bears with retired numbers. When players sit in his office, he asks them to name at least three of them. Some get Walter Payton. Some get Dick Butkus. But it’s ancient history to most. But they matter, and Eberflus wants to keep them alive for this generation.
Also behind his desk, in the middle of display of the great Bears, are two empty plexiglass shelves, small ones, and two empty spots at the base of the display. Eberflus wanted the two shelves for George Halas Trophies, emblematic of the NFC champions. And he wanted the spaces below to be there for two Super Bowl trophies.
That’s right: Super Bowl trophies. They don’t call them Lombardi Trophies around here, by the way.