COLUMBUS — The Justin Fields audition for the Chicago Bears came two seasons ago in Michigan.
With Bears general manager Ryan Pace and director of player personnel Josh Lucas in attendance, Fields exited the game with a left knee injury when a teammate hit his leg. Back on the field seven plays later with new hardware on his leg, he delivered what Pace believes to be the best throw of his career.
Scrambling out of pressure, Fields rolled to his left and saw Garrett Wilson streaking down the sideline. He set his feet on the fly, hitting Wilson in the end zone for a 30-yard touchdown pass. Fields sliced through Michigan’s offense that day, finishing with 302 yards and four touchdowns and rolling up 56 points on a top-ranked Wolverines defense.
But the quarterback’s determination and toughness was what stayed with Pace through the years. It’s why the Chicago Bears traded up for the No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft on Thursday night, selecting Justin Fields and hoping the former Buckeyes great can right Bears football in the Windy City.
“I was at the Michigan game a couple of years ago when he came back in from a knee [injury], and we know about the ribs and the hip,” Pace said. “I mean, this guy’s toughness, on a scale of 1 to 10, is an 11.”
Fields showed up in Columbus two seasons ago and immediately made Ohio State a national-championship contender. He took the Buckeyes to two consecutive College Football Playoff appearances, leading them to a national title berth last season.
The NFL Draft cycle has been especially brutal on Fields, though. His character and arm accuracy have been overly-criticized. For months, his name appeared at a different landing spot by the day.
But now it’s over. Pundits will continue to talk about how he was the fourth quarterback taken off the board, after Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Trey Lance. But Fields will block it out, focusing his attention on winning football games at the same clip he did at Ohio State — which he leaves after posting a 20-2 record.
“There’s definitely been a lot of criticism,” Fields said on Thursday night. “But you know me, at the end of the day, I feel know myself. I know how much I work I put in the game. I know how much I love the game. I know how much I want to be great. It just comes to a point in time when you just have to cut all that criticism out.
“Of course it’s good to listen to the criticism you get from people that are actually there to help you. So, if it was from a coach or anything like that, of course I’m gonna take that criticism. But I feel like there’s a lot of criticism coming from outside voices that didn’t really matter. So I just did my best to cut all that out and really just get to work.”
He now heads to Chicago, where the Bears haven’t won a Super Bowl since 1985. Fields also becomes part of their never-ending quarterback jigsaw puzzle. The Bears have now drafted four first-round quarterbacks since 1999. They’ve traded away three first-rounders when acquiring Rick Mirer and Jay Cutler, too.
Fields is capable of being the right fit to the jigsaw puzzle. The first step is developing a strong relationship with his new head coach, Matt Nagy. Entering his fourth season with Chicago, he and Pace have been under pressure make the Bears a playoff-caliber franchise and championship contender. The Mitch Trubisky experience didn’t go as planned, and now the Bears are hoping Fields can be the answer.
Nagy was at the Ohio State Pro Day earlier this spring, and he and Fields developed a relationship over the last few months over Zoom calls. Nagy’s talked with Ohio State coach Ryan Day, too. The two crossed paths during Day’s time in the NFL, and they used to be rivals in the late 1990s when Day was the quarterback at the University of New Hampshire and Nagy under center of Delaware’s Wing-T offense.
A former Heisman Trophy finalist, Fields walks into a win-now situation. The Bears defense ranks in the upper half of the league, and their offense has proven targets Allen Robinson II and Jimmy Graham with a decent running back in David Montgomery.
The Ohio State product should have the tools needed to be successful in Chicago.
“I think the kind of player the Bears are getting is a versatile player, a guy that can make plays both with my arm and my legs,” Justin Fields said. “Of course, a smart player. A player that makes smart decisions and a player that wants to win. That’s willing to do whatever to win. Of course that’s my No. 1 job, however that may be.
“I have the determination to be great. Nobody kind of has a story that I have, so just everything inside of me [is] wanting to be a great quarterback, wanting to be a franchise quarterback. And of course, I’ve been dreaming for this moment my whole life. All of those intangibles, my work ethic and all that together will be different for me.”