(670 The Score) How hospitable of the Bears to make Lovie Smith feel right at home Sunday back at Soldier Field.
The Texans coach saw his old team beat his new one, 23-20, with an offense that got off the bus running and an opportunistic defense that created a fourth-quarter takeaway – overcoming the kind of bad Bears quarterbacking that Smith saw so often during his nine years on the opposite sideline. When linebacker Roquan Smith returned his interception to the Texans’ 12-yard line with 1:05 left to help the defense bail out the Bears offense yet again, it must have felt as familiar as it was frustrating for Smith, who followed the same formula from 2004-'12 in Chicago to become the franchise’s best coach since Mike Ditka.
Lovie Ball still works.
“I know I have a history here, (but) those days are long gone," Smith said. “Today, we needed to get a win and it was about us getting that first win, and we weren’t able to get it. Simple as that."
Simple as this: Kicker Cairo Santos walking it off with a 30-yard field goal set off a celebration muted most everywhere in Chicago except the Bears locker room. Inside there, giddy players and coaches understandably savored their second victory of the season and an encouraging 2-1 start for a new regime.
Soon enough at Halas Hall, they'll confront the reality that required looking beyond the scoreboard. The Bears won a football game, but Justin Fields lost momentum in his progress toward becoming their franchise quarterback.
I asked Bears coach Matt Eberflus postgame what he would say to those more concerned about his quarterback’s step backward than they were excited about his team’s step forward.
”It’s always going to be about the football team," an ebullient Eberflus said.
That’s always the right answer, of course, but good luck finding a consensus in a football city obsessed with making every game a referendum on Fields’ future.
It’s up to every head coach to make sure his obligation to 52 players isn’t outweighed by a preoccupation with one. It’s up to Eberflus, in this case, to strike the balance between developing a quarterback and winning football games – but mostly on Fields to raise his level of play to warrant such high expectations.
Let’s face it: Except for a few plays here or there, that hasn’t happened yet this season. Against the Texans, Fields struggled mightily, going 8-of-17 for 106 yards with two interceptions and a 27.7 passer rating. The Texans sacked Fields five times, a product of him holding onto the ball too long as much as his offensive line getting beaten.
“I just played like trash," Fields said, and a football city nodded collectively in agreement.
Good thing for the Bears that the Texans play the same Tampa-2 defense so susceptible to the run. The Bears' offensive line and its zone-blocking scheme controlled the line of scrimmage in amassing 281 rushing yards – their highest single-game total since 1984. Consider too that David Montgomery left after three carries for 11 yards due to a lower leg injury that Eberflus called “day-to-day." Khalil Herbert stepped up in a big way, gaining 157 yards on 20 carries, including a 52-yarder. Fields piled up 47 more yards on eight carries, keeping his legs the most dangerous aspect of his game. Equanimeous St. Brown added a 41-yard run on a jet sweep that arguably was offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s best call on a day on which special was hard to find.
With due respect to the Bears being tied for first place in the NFC North, Sunday’s biggest takeaway revolved around a question more than an answer.
What’s wrong with Fields?
Keep in mind that Fields has yet to even validate the offseason conversation about how well the Bears surrounded the quarterback with talent at wide receiver or the offensive line. We’re not there yet and, perhaps alarmingly, not even close to that point. To reach that level of discourse, Fields must prove he can complete the routine pass, something that challenged him greatly against the Texans. He missed on the simplest throws, side screens that serve as extended handoffs and dumps over the middle to wide-open tight ends. He aimed the ball and looked uncomfortably tentative, like a running back learning the position. And, frankly, at this stage of Fields’ development as a franchise quarterback, he's one helluva running back.
Nothing looks as smooth or natural as it should for a player with his football pedigree. Everything looks like a cross between mechanical and methodical. Accuracy remains a rumor Fields has yet to confirm, something still missing badly. Apologists can point to a couple examples of precision if they insist — second-half completions to top targets Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet were on the money — but those throws into tight windows were the exception instead of the rule. With Fields, the rule has been nobody can quite be sure where the ball will end up on any given pass play, and that’s no way to run an offense or build hope.
And faith seems to be fleeting, with even Getsy showing a lack confidence in Fields in one telling series. Starting a drive on the Bears’ 10-yard line in the second quarter, Getsy called three straight running plays – hardly following through on the staff’s stated commitment to “highlight the talent” on the offense or showing a belief in his quarterback. Later, on third-and-16 with two minutes left in the first half, Getsy called a screen pass behind the line of scrimmage that revealed just how careful Fields has forced him to be. One week after his offense looked primitive enough to wonder if they were bringing back the T-formation, Getsy called 17 passes. Fields has only thrown 45 passes in three weeks.
What’s next week, the Wishbone offense?
The troubling outing by Fields against the Texans raises the biggest red flag yet. Because it came against one of the worst teams in the league. Because it came in the third game of his second season. Because so few of the terrible throws were forced and had nothing to do with having no weapons or poor protection.
Texans safety Jalen Pitre made both interceptions, which he will need to remember next April when he reports them to the IRS as gifts. After one of Fields’ incompletions, CBS analyst James Lofton, a Hall of Famer, called it “an easy layup." After several others, the Grabowskis in the 400 level screamed “#&*#&#!”
To his credit, Fields acknowledged how far he has to go and planned to spend Sunday night reviewing the game tape. If Sunday damaged Fields’ confidence, he at least can take solace that it only strengthened Eberflus’ commitment to put him in the best situation possible to succeed.
“When you’re working with a young QB, in a new offense, the people around him have to be solid or have to be good," Eberflus said. “You support that quarterback while he’s growing."
The defensive support started with Roquan Smith, who rebounded from his own dismal effort against the Packers. Smith missed practice all week with a hip injury but roamed with abandon to make 16 tackles, an All-Pro effort punctuated by the late interception that drew postgame comparisons to Shaquille Leonard of the Colts. Leonard plays the same weak-side linebacker spot better than anybody in the game, and Eberflus also coached him in Indianapolis.
“That, to me, is getting there, where that position, it's a hot position, and we need production out of that and he certainly had a really good game today," Eberflus said.
So did safety Eddie Jackson, who forced a fumble and intercepted his second pass of the season (the Bears are 12-0 in Jackson’s career when he intercepts a pass). Cornerback Kindle Vildor enjoyed some strong moments, with two passes defended and a tackle for loss. Safety Jaquan Brisker stayed active, making six tackles. The secondary had its breakdowns, such as on a 52-yard completion to Chris Moore, but overall played sound enough against the pass and run to limit the Texans to 329 total yards.
A crowd of 60,592 on a gorgeous day along the lakefront booed Fields but perhaps grew most frustrated seeing the Bears mismanage the final drive of the first half and fall asleep on a fake punt with the “punt safe” defense on the field. Eberflus took responsibility for both situations postgame without sounding a bit defensive, a good sign for a team that won’t play a more beatable opponent than the one it just defeated. Still, in the NFL, you have to beat bad teams, and the Bears simply took care of business.
“The biggest takeaway for us is resilience," Eberflus said.
Eberflus’ quarterback certainly will need to be resilient after this one.
And that’s just the start.