There isn’t much Chicago agrees on. This is a segregated city divided by racial and socioeconomic lines that will fight about the schools, the cops, the designated hitter, calling ‘dibs’ on street parking, and which Harold’s Chicken Shack is the best. It takes something exceptional to bring us together that typically only a force of nature like Michael Jordan, our worst winter storms, and our collective hatred of the mayor can accomplish.
That’s why there was a fleeting moment of beauty inspired by a single tweet from the official account of the Chicago Bears on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday night in March. The tweet in question could have been seen as innocent enough, but not to Chicago. To Chicago, a picture of Andy Dalton with the phrase “QB1” meant war.
For once, all of Chicago was pulling in the same direction, united in our contempt for a bad post by the football team that doesn’t love us back.
Chicago knows a terrible quarterback when it sees one, and a Photoshopped image of Dalton in a Bears uniform sent us over the edge. The team’s quarterback situation has been more or less hopeless for last 100 years, and there wasn’t a single person from Jackson Park to Edgewater who thought signing Dalton would change that.
It would be an immense understatement to say the Bears only know pain at QB. The greatest player to ever play the position for the franchise threw his first NFL pass the same year World War II began. As the sport evolved, the Bears mostly stayed the same, relying great defenses and dynamic running backs while their signal callers uniformly amounted to a great civic embarrassment.
The Bears had been searching for a quarterback since Jim McMahon helped the 1985 team win the franchise’s only Super Bowl. They tried and failed at everything. The Bears took quarterbacks early in the draft in Mitch Trubisky and Cade McNown only to see both flame out in epic fashion. They took QBs late in the first round in Jim Harbaugh and Rex Grossman, and it didn’t work out much better. They signed mid-tier free agents like Erik Kramer and Mike Glennon, and took their biggest swing when they traded multiple first-round picks for 25-year-old Jay Cutler coming off a Pro Bowl season.
Cutler made some immaculate throws, Kramer had one very good season, and as hard as it is to believe now, Grossman and Trubisky even had a few hope-inspiring moments. The common denominator was disappointment and futility at the most important position in sports. The Bears’ century-long search for a franchise quarterback continued unabated.
Chicagoans don’t need to be told about this history, because we’ve lived with it every day of our lives. The context only makes what the Bears did on Thursday night in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft even more astounding.
Justin Fields should have been the second pick in the draft. While the pre-draft debate tried to split hairs on Mac Jones and Trey Lance, the better argument would have been Fields vs. Trevor Lawrence. The QBs had been competing against each other since they first entered the football consciousness as elite recruits from the same class who each graded out among the 10 best overall recruits of the rankings era.
Lawrence won a national championship at Clemson as a freshman and was anointed as the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft from the moment it happened. Fields, meanwhile, had to transfer from Georgia to Ohio State before promptly lighting up college football on his own, throwing 67 touchdowns to nine interceptions and averaging 9.2 yards per attempt as the Buckeyes twice reached the College Football Playoff under his guidance.
Fields should have been everything the NFL coveted. He had size and strength at 6’3 and nearly 230 pounds. He had the speed with a 4.45 40-time. He had the pedigree, the numbers, the toughness, the wins, and the leadership qualities after spearheading a petition to bring back Big Ten football this past season. Instead, the NFL soured on Fields somewhere along the way, with criticisms that parroted the same dog whistle rhetoric about an inability to “process the game” that too many Black quarterbacks have unfairly faced. It didn’t take much film work to see it was a bogus assessment.
Fields’ fall on draft day to the fourth quarterback selected was a gift to the Bears. Jets fans, Falcons fans, and Panthers fans begged for their teams to take Fields, yet he was still on the board with the No. 11 pick. That’s when maligned Bears general manager Ryan Pace surrendered his No. 20 overall pick, next year’s first rounder, and two mid-round selections to move up and get Fields.
It’s an extraordinary move for so many reasons. The entire fanbase had been hoping Pace and head coach Matt Nagy would be fired after a disappointing 8-8 season that saw the final nail driven into the Trubisky era. There were rumors the Bears could land Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson but the team let down its city again by settling for Dalton. If Dalton looked like every awful quarterback the Bears have employed for the last several decades, the selection of Fields is an incredible swing in the other direction.
The Bears have had very few Black quarterbacks over their 100+ year existence. Fields is only the second Black QB the franchise has ever drafted, and the first since Vince Evans in 1977. He will be the league’s second fastest quarterback behind Lamar Jackson from the moment he plays his first game, but the wonderful thing about Fields’ game is that his outlier athleticism isn’t the foundation of his skill set but rather a complement to his terrific pocket passing ability.
Trubisky might have also been seen as a legit top-five pick in mock drafts coming into the 2017 draft, but there is a world of difference between the level of prospect he was coming out of North Carolina compared to Fields. Trubisky sat on the bench for two years at UNC, and immediately made his team worse during his lone season as a starter in 2016. Fields had 11 more touchdowns and three less interceptions on nearly 100 fewer attempts as a sophomore than Trubisky did during his breakout junior season. Fields’ team also won at the highest levels of the sport, highlighted by a 385-yard, six touchdown performance to upset national title favorite Clemson in the playoff.
Fields has been considered a no-doubt, flat-out stud from the moment he rose up the ranks as a recruit, and he’s never proven himself to be anything less than that. There are no certainties in the NFL Draft, especially with quarterbacks, but if the Bears screw this one up they may never get it right.
That Fields was drafted on the same day Aaron Rodgers started to force his way out of Green Bay only makes things even sweeter. The Bears’ roster still has plenty of problems, and the head coach and GM remain major question marks. For once, though, the Bears have hope. That’s something all of Chicago should agree on.
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