(670 The Score) Spare me any speeches about the Bears improving their NFL Draft position.
Save your euphoria over Justin Fields, franchise quarterback, for a day that feels more appropriate – and there will be plenty of those days if the past month is any indication.
Stop trying to convince anybody in your group chat that the Bears' 31-30 heartbreaker to the Lions on Sunday at Soldier Field was anything but what it truly was.
This was snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
This was the Bears missing an opportunity to grow, because winning still matters to NFL players and coaches trying to build something special. This was a very bad loss, the kind of game you can’t blow when leading by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter at home.
This was the Bears out-Lionsing Detroit, losing a winnable game by self-destructing in a way that left a mark.
Unfortunately, this was Fields also reminding people that he still can be a big reason the Bears lose a game as much as he'll be the biggest reason they win many.
That reckless reminder came on second-and-18 from his own 17-yard line with 10 minutes, 29 seconds left in a game the Bears led 24-17. Fields tried too hard to make something happen, floating a pass intended for tight end Cole Kmet instead of throwing the ball away. In the WBBM-AM radio booth, analyst Tom Thayer called it a “panic throw," as everyone in the audience nodded. With a one-score lead at that point of the fourth quarter, that pass should have landed in the second row – not in the hands of the enemy. But Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah, Fields’ teammate at Ohio State, picked off his errant pass and returned it 21 yards as the Lions soon tied the game at 24.
There will be other plays to help explain how the Bears blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead to help the Lions pull off their biggest comeback in 29 years, which also was Detroit coach Dan Campbell’s first road win, but any list will start with Fields’ pick-six. It left as deep of an impression as Cairo Santos’ missed extra-point attempt later, proved as impactful as Fields’ 67-yard touchdown sprint on the next series and more indelible than an illegal-use-of-hands penalty that negated a Jack Sanborn interception.
Fields again provided spectacular moments worthy of excitement, leading the Bears in rushing with 147 yards on 13 carries and completing 12 of 20 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns. But he'll be the first one to tell you he can’t make that poor decision, calling it a “dumb play” that “will never happen again for the rest of my career." Good. Follow his lead. If the outsized expectations for Fields after a career-changing month has led to comparisons of the greatest NFL quarterbacks, then the standards for his play must be considered similarly. And that interception fell as short of meeting those high standards as the ball did of reaching Kmet. If you want to magnify his best moments, fine, just don’t minimize his worst ones.
And so the happiest two-game losing streak in the NFL becomes a three-game skid that will test the mettle of the Bears, who now have lost six of seven for anyone still counting.
“You have to be able to overcome things," Bears coach Matt Eberflus said. “I’ve seen it before through my years of coaching that you have to be able to overcome adversities. That could come in many forms. When you do that, you’ll see it. You’ll be like, ‘OK, there it is,’ and guys are overcoming through execution, making plays in critical moments and then what you do is end up winning the game."
Which is the opposite of what the Bears did against the Lions.
With 11 minutes, 37 seconds left, the Bears led 24-10. Over the next 68 seconds, the Lions scored twice and the lead vanished. Fields nearly came to the rescue with another highlight-reel, history-making touchdown run, but Santos missed his kick and the defense collapsed and, well, here we are processing familiar frustration. There's no silver lining to find, so good luck looking. None. You won’t find a self-respecting football coach in America who will find a positive in blowing a two-touchdown lead at home to an inferior opponent. The Bears didn’t deserve to win this game, and nothing about that reality merits praise.
To Fields’ credit, he shot down any such talk when asked how he balances his own ascension with his team’s descent.
“It’s just what are your priorities as a player," Fields said. "Is it to break records or is it to win? Personally, mine is to win. I don’t care about breaking records. I just want to win games."
Yes, Chicago, it’s OK to want Fields to play well and for the Bears to win. It’s not either/or, and the risk of dropping a few spots in the NFL Draft is worth the reward of letting a young quarterback experience winning. That’s part of his development too, an important factor that shouldn’t get lost in the hype.
What happened around Fields in the days leading up to Sunday came closer to a coronation than celebration despite the Bears suffering consecutive losses to the Cowboys and Dolphins. Everything’s a little louder in the NFL’s third-largest market. The mix of euphoria and exaggeration around town after Fields was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week was palpable.
In fairness, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy saw it coming in October – back when Fields wasn’t making NFL history and national headlines. Some skeptics mocked Getsy for publicly citing progress when nobody else saw it, but he must have noticed small strides Fields took in practice. Yes, practice – which matters to this coaching staff.
Somehow, everything changed. Plays were borrowed, concepts copied. Less was more. Simplifying everything for Fields complicated life for opposing defenses as the Bears found a way to marry their play-caller’s scheme with their quarterback’s skill.
Great coaching met elite talent in the middle and, as a result, Fields changed the trajectory of his season and possibly his career. The more Fields ran, the better he threw. The more he threw, the more accurate he became. The more command and confidence he showed, the more Fields’ brand of special surfaced. Watching the Bears is fun again.
We saw it again on the Bears’ first touchdown, on which Fields used every tool in his belt: elusiveness, quickness, power and smarts. With 21 seconds left on the clock before halftime and the Bears facing third-and-goal from the 1, Fields scrambled around in and then out of the pocket, made two Lions defenders miss and darted toward the goal line, where he lowered his shoulder for an emphatic, game-tying touchdown.
The Bears' go-ahead score in the third quarter included a more methodical 10-play, 76-yard drive that saw Fields make some nice throws to keep the chains moving. The most memorable came on the six-yard scoring pass to Kmet, the first of his two touchdowns. The second came on the most explosive pass play of the day. On second-and-1 at midfield – a play-caller’s dream scenario – Fields faked a handoff and rolled toward the left hashmark. Keep in mind that Khalil Herbert just had gashed the Lions for 21 yards on the first two carries of the drive, setting up the play-action pass. Kmet lined up on the left end but ran a crossing route deep enough that he was at the numbers when he caught Fields’ pass. The 50-yard touchdown gave the Bears 21 unanswered points for a 24-10 lead.
It was a far cry from how the Bears started the game.
On third-and-14 on the opening series, for example, after Fields started the game with a 28-yard keeper, the Bears called a running play to David Montgomery. Needing 14 yards, Montgomery gained four yards and Santos kicked a field goal to get points, but those moments represent chances to grow.
The next phase of improvement involves trusting Fields early to complete a pass under those circumstances, not playing it safe to preserve a field goal. The next level of Fields’ development also means completing more than one pass for six yards in the fourth quarter. Both goals are related.
Defensively, the Bears played down to their expectations despite an inspired performance from Sanborn, the undrafted rookie linebacker who had 12 tackles, two sacks and an interception negated by penalty.
During the week, defensive coordinator Alan Williams tried valiantly to come up with different ways to tactfully say what he can’t really say. The Bears lack talent in the front seven, and not even Buddy Ryan on his best day likely would have much luck devising ways to get to the quarterback with this bunch. Linebacker Joe Thomas deflected a couple of Jared Goff’s passes Sunday. Nicholas Morrow flew around well. But the front seven flashes were too few and far between.
When Williams identified Sanborn as the defensive player who stood out most against the Dolphins last week, that sounded like good news – but it also was the bad news. Sanborn is an overachiever and feel-good story because he grew up in Lake Zurich and made his hometown team as an undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin. Bears play-by-play voice Jeff Joniak already has assigned Sanborn a nickname -- “The Jack Hammer," Joniak shouted Sunday after Sanborn’s second sack of the game. But still, when a team’s standout performer for two straight games happens to be somebody with Sanborn’s credentials, it speaks volumes about the lack of talent and depth on the roster.
Sanborn can emerge as a playmaker and enjoy a long NFL career as a linebacker and special teams contributor, but if he’s the most obvious player on your defense, your defense has limitations. At one point after starting cornerback Jaylon Johnson left with an injury against the Lions, the Bears defense relied on three undrafted free agents among the back seven: Sanborn and cornerbacks Lamar Jackson and Jaylon Jones. That’s no way to build a championship roster. Yet that’s the Bears’ only way to survive a tough season.
Since the Bears' trade of Robert Quinn, their edge rushers lose too many one-on-one battles. Since their trade of Roquan Smith, their linebackers lack the ability to blitz and create pressure or sacks. Goff didn’t start 10-of-10 like Tua Tagovailoa did or complete his first 17 passes like Kirk Cousins did, but he seldom looked harassed enough to get out of rhythm by anybody not named Sanborn.
On the Lions’ 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ate 7 minutes 26 seconds in the first half, Goff got into a rhythm, especially with Amon-Ra St. Brown, who shredded the Bears secondary by patiently picking his spots. On fourth-and-goal from the 2, with no doubt Campbell would go for it, Goff waited for tight end Brock Wright to clear and perfectly placed the ball for the first touchdown of the game. It was the 11th touchdown the Bears defense had given up in the previous 10 quarters, an alarming rate.
Goff finished 19-of-26 for 236 yards and a 113.6 passer rating. He also got the victory, for whatever that’s worth these days.
David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-10 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.
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