Can Fields, the Bears start winning close games?
The end of this season could be the final referendum on Bears quarterback Justin Fields. The Bears likely will be well-positioned to draft a quarterback in the spring, with potentially two top-five draft picks thanks to their offseason trade with the Carolina Panthers.
Bears general manager Ryan Poles needs to come up with a game plan at quarterback. That could mean sticking with Fields. It could mean drafting a rookie QB and moving on from Fields. Or it could mean drafting a rookie and keeping Fields as the starter to begin next season. The discussion around Fields' future has dominated conversations about the Bears over the past week and a half.
Fields returned from a thumb injury with seven games remaining on the schedule. Already, Fields and the Bears lost a close contest, 31-26, against the Detroit Lions on Nov. 19 at Ford Field.
For head coach Matt Eberflus and the Bears, last Sunday's game brought back an all-too-familiar feeling.
Much like last season, when the Bears went 1-7 in games decided by eight points or fewer, the Bears couldn't close out a fourth-quarter lead. The defense, which played well most of the afternoon, allowed the Lions to score two late touchdowns and erase a 12-point lead in a matter of minutes.
On the Bears' last-ditch effort to go for a game-tying field goal with less than a minute remaining, Lions defensive end Aidan Hutchinson knocked the ball from Fields' hands for a strip sack fumble. Bears right tackle Darnell Wright kicked the ball out of bounds for a safety, which essentially ended the game.
It's unfair to blame Fields for the loss. He played about as well as he could have, rushing for 104 yards and throwing for 169 yards and a touchdown.
But on some level, performance during crunchtime has to play into Poles' evaluation of Fields. NFL teams pay quarterbacks to win games in the fourth quarter.
The Bears are 1-13 in one-possession games Fields started. Throw out the Minnesota loss earlier this season, when Fields didn't play in the second half. Add in a Cincinnati win during Fields' rookie season, when he replaced an injured Andy Dalton in the second half. That brings the total to 2-12.
The Bears held fourth-quarter leads in seven of those 12 losses.
The only game-winning drive that Fields engineered in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter was a field goal drive to beat Houston in 2022. In a tie game, linebacker Roquan Smith's interception set up the Bears' offense in field goal range. The following offensive possession netted zero yards.
The only other game-winning drive in the fourth quarter happened with more than 12 minutes remaining against the San Francisco 49ers at a rain-soaked Soldier Field during the 2022 season opener.
"[It's] just doing all I can to make the team successful," Fields said when asked about finishing games. "Whatever that includes, whatever play call we have, just doing that play call, focusing on the play call, operation, a lot of things. The quarterback has to do a lot of things in terms of motion landmarks, mechanics in the two-minute drill, protection, stuff like that. There's lot of things that I can name off, but just doing my job and doing it the best I can when it matters."
For comparison, Jacksonville QB Trevor Lawrence (who was drafted the same year as Fields) has engineered five fourth-quarter comebacks and six game-winning drives in the regular season, plus another in the playoffs. Houston rookie C.J. Stroud, who has played 10 NFL games, already has as many fourth-quarter game-winning drives as Fields. Stroud is 4-2 in games decided by eight points or less.
Asked about Fields in crunchtime, Eberflus pointed to the team as a whole.
"We're having leads on people, and a lot of it is about finishing," Eberflus said. "The finish part. Well, what is that in the NFL? That's about two-minute offense, two-minute defense, four-minute offense and four-minute defense. You have to do a really good job with that. That's where we have to improve as a football team. Not just Justin. It's us as a group."
Certainly, football is a team game. It takes 11 players to execute on a given play. Everything has to click on offense, defense and special teams.
"We've just got to keep digging and work," safety Jaquan Brisker said. "We're literally right there."
But winning a game in crunchtime could mean all the difference for Fields and his future as the team's starting quarterback.