CLEVELAND -- There might be a day when the Chicago Bears can look back and find a positive in all this, that what happened inside FirstEnergy Stadium served some purpose. It was that brutal, that devastating, that jaw-dropping on so many levels. The afternoon started with giddy anticipation of what rookie quarterback Justin Fields could do in his first start. It ended with all sorts of questions about his preparedness and -- more frighteningly -- how this team actually will try to utilize him.
Here's the news that needs to be discussed quickly: Chicago lost to the Cleveland Browns by a score of 26-6 on Sunday. Now on to the more revealing numbers, the ones that will tell you plenty about how ill-equipped the Bears were to compete in this contest. They generated 47 total yards, ran only 42 plays and surrendered nine sacks to a Browns defense that treated Fields in much the same fashion that hungry lions handle passive animals that stray into the wild.
What was so stunning about Chicago's performance with Fields under center was that they seemed to have no real plan at all. Some of that had to do with the Browns, but this game was always going to be more about the Bears: the potential of their quarterback, the talent among the men blocking for him and ultimately the approach Chicago is taking to coaching him.
"This is not how we wanted it to go," said Bears head coach Matt Nagy. "You almost can't make it up. It's that bad."
It's obviously not uncommon for rookie quarterbacks to struggle once they have a chance to lead a team. Former New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning didn't play well until his fifth game as a starter – he completed just 38.6 percent of his passes with one touchdown and six interceptions in his first four games under center – and he wound up with a couple Super Bowl rings and a likely spot in the Hall of Fame. Hell, we're just one week removed from New York Jets rookie quarterback Zach Wilson tossing four interceptions against the Patriots, including three in his first seven attempts. These things happen.
The major problem with what happened to Fields is that it's hard to be optimistic about immediate next steps. This wasn't solely about a young signal-caller taking his lumps. It was about all that is wrong with this team colliding at the worst possible moment. It was about the very real likelihood that this season now ends with Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace losing their jobs and the Bears looking for somebody who has a real plan for turning this quarterback into the star that city desperately craves.
It's apparent that Fields holds onto the ball too long, either because he can't see what's happening or he's trying too hard to make something happen. His offensive line is looking worse by the week, largely because it seemed like Fields could improve its performance with his mobility and feel for improvisation. Nagy wisely took all the blame for everything that happened -- "I obviously didn't do a good job of getting this offense ready," he said -- but that didn't even need to be said. The more pressing questions revolved around the lack of a running game (David Montgomery had just 10 carries) and the determination to keep dropping Fields back instead of using more movement (whether through bootlegs or moving the pocket) to ease the pressure.
Browns linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah acknowledged that Cleveland aimed to stifle the mobility of the young quarterback, saying the plan was "to bottle up Fields." Since that was the case, then the Bears didn't have anything resembling a Plan B. Fields finished the day with six completions on 20 attempts for 68 yards and 12 rushing yards. The only positive: He didn't turn the ball over.
When asked about his anticipation for this game, Fields said, "I was expecting to win. I didn't have an expectation on how many touchdowns I'd throw, but I think every game you should approach it like you're going to win. It's that simple. As far as it being my first start, I wasn't treating it like a first start. I was trying to treat it like a game where I'd go out and play and not make it bigger than what it is."
"He kept his poise," added Bears guard Cody Whitehair. "Obviously, there are two different ways he could've went about it. He took the route where he stayed positive, came in the huddle very poised and we kept coming out there to try to get it going. But next week, we'll be better and we'll get this thing turned around."
There's no reason to think Fields won't do everything possible to improve in the coming weeks. What's more debatable is where this season goes for him. The Bears had been keeping him off the field because they had a plan for his development, a belief that the more tutelage he received away from the real action, the better off he'd be in the long run. Score one for Nagy and Pace on that front now. If that's how it's going to look every week with Fields under center, then they might as well go back to Andy Dalton, who's sidelined with a knee injury after starting the first two games.
The scary proposition for the Bears is that they're going to approach Fields the same way they approached Mitch Trubisky, a first-round pick they also had hoped would become their franchise quarterback. Trubisky had some nice moments in his second season as a starter -- when he used his athleticism to make plays for a Bears team that won the NFC North in 2018 -- but he never evolved beyond that. It's pretty rare for a head coach and general manager to have two cracks at developing a highly drafted quarterback. The clock that had been ticking on both Nagy and Pace officially sped up after seeing what a week of preparation could do for their young signal-caller.
The only hope for the Bears' offense is that Fields shows better if he has to play again next week. Dalton is considered week-to-week and Nagy has maintained that Dalton will remain the starter when he’s healthy. There would've been plenty of controversy surrounding that decision if Fields had balled out Sunday. His performance now gives the Bears an easy out, a chance to return him to the sideline and play the waiting game with his development.
That feels like a worthwhile long play. The problem is that everyone saw what Chicago put on the field with Fields on Sunday, a completely inept plan for a totally unprepared quarterback who relied heavily on the support of Dalton and fellow backup quarterback Nick Foles after the game.
"I talked to Nick and Andy on the sideline and they both said this is football," Fields said. "You're going to have these days. You just have to bounce back and play better. ... I know me, personally, I want to get back and work as hard as ever to get better each and every day."
There will be one big difference when Fields begins his work week on Monday. Bears fans have been waiting to see him play and his first impression was a big, fat dud. That doesn't mean he's different from most young quarterbacks. But it's not a good look in a city like Chicago, and there will be more skepticism flowing this week.
That town has been waiting decades for a true franchise quarterback to show up. There have been plenty of hopefuls and nobody who's really succeeded since the days of black-and-white television. There's still plenty to like about Justin Fields and where his career might head. The problem is that his first start isn't going to make anybody feel good about that position today.