Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:
But first, a look at one young quarterback who needs to get rolling before it's too late ...
Admitting an evaluation mistake is the hardest thing to do as a scout. But it's part of the business. No matter how many hours of film study and research you devote to any one prospect, and regardless of the pedigree, it's still very hard to tell whether a talented player will develop into a blue-chipper at the highest level of the game. With that in mind ...
As an enthusiastic supporter of Justin Fields throughout the pre-draft process back in 2021, I'm afraid it's getting close to the time for me to raise my hand and take an "L" on my eval of the former Ohio State standout. I believed the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder was the second-best quarterback prospect in the class, behind only Trevor Lawrence. I thought he had a chance to take the league by storm as a five-star talent with outstanding athleticism and playmaking ability. And while I would still rate him ahead of Zach Wilson, Trey Lance and Mac Jones, that's obviously not saying much nowadays. After studying the tape, I'm no longer confident he will develop into the elite quarterback I initially envisioned.
Despite his spectacular flashes as a runner and mobile playmaker over his first two-plus seasons -- Fields rushed for 1,143 yards in 2022, averaging an NFL-best 7.1 yards per carry -- the 24-year-old has not developed into a credible passer with the capacity to win from the pocket or as a movement thrower on the perimeter. While there is still time for the third-year pro's refinement to catch up with his elite physical tools, the clock is ticking -- FAST -- on Fields to show enough promise to convince the Bears that he is worthy of a commitment beyond his rookie contract. After all, this is a team that is currently in the middle of a 12-game losing streak going back to last season, with Fields having started 10 of those games. The disastrous skid is the longest losing streak in franchise history and symbolizes the futility of a proud franchise.
Moreover, the string of losses puts Fields' talent, upside and long-term potential under the microscope, as observers attempt to determine whether Chicago should cut its losses and look to find its next quarterback in the 2024 NFL Draft, which could be loaded with enticing signal-callers. Don't forget: Current general manager Ryan Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus didn't draft Fields; they inherited him from the previous regime.
To put it simply, Fields is fighting for his life as a starting NFL quarterback. That's not hyperbolic. It's just the reality of a league that doesn't exactly major in patience, especially when it comes to the game's most important position.
If the third-year pro is going to turn things around, he has to play with more confidence, urgency and efficiency. Fields has showcased electric playmaking skills, but he has been maddeningly inconsistent as a passer since entering the league. Over 29 NFL games, including 27 starts, he has posted a 59.4 percent completion rate and 78.8 passer rating. Those poor numbers are compounded by his 24 interceptions, 31 fumbles (only eight lost, which is quite fortunate) and 101 sacks taken (including an NFL-high 55 last season).
Though Fields' supporters will point to a leaky offensive line and underwhelming weaponry during most of his Bears tenure, it is hard to ignore the repeated miscues and mistakes from the young quarterback. He has to take better care of the ball and either find a way to string together completions or utilize his superior athleticism to keep the offense on schedule. We have seen athletic quarterbacks with accuracy woes flourish in this league. (Michael Vick and Cam Newton immediately spring to mind, while Lamar Jackson, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts have experienced ups and downs with ball placement, as well.) But this season, Fields has failed to provide precision with his arm (60.6 percent completion rate, 70.7 passer rating) or potency with his legs (13 rushes for 62 yards and one touchdown). Consequently, Chicago's offense is always off schedule.
Sure, Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy could call more designed runs and read-option plays to tap into Fields' athleticism, but truly great players make plays regardless of their circumstances. That is why I had trouble with his headline-grabbing comments from earlier this week, when he talked about feeling "robotic" while essentially throwing his coaches under the bus.
"My goal this week is to say, 'eff it,' and go out there and play football like I know how to play football," Fields said on Wednesday. "That includes thinking less and just going out there and playing off of instincts, rather than say so much info in my head and data in my head, and clearly just going out there and playing football. … That's when I play my best is when I'm out there playing free and being myself. So I'm going to say kind of bump all the what I should, this and that, pocket stuff. I'm going to go out there and be me."
Fields walked back those comments later in the day, saying his quotes were taken out of context and he doesn't blame his coaches, but that felt like clean-up work. Fields can allude to factors beyond his control, but at the end of the day, he is the one who has the ball in his hands every play, so he ultimately decides what happens after the ball is snapped. Whether he delivers the ball on time and on target to a designated receiver or flees the pocket on an impromptu scramble, Fields' job is to move the offense down the field. No one cares what it looks like if he picks up first downs and scores points. But Chicago's offense isn't doing that through the first two weeks of the season.
All that said, Fields isn't the only one in Chicago on a potential hot seat. If this unprecedented losing for the franchise continues, you have to imagine the coaching staff could be in line for a shakeup, at the least. In the moment, with Sunday's trip to Kansas City for a date with the defending Super Bowl champions, this feels like a team teetering on the brink. Just this week, defensive coordinator Alan Williams resigned from the team, only adding to the general tumult.
Consequently, despite what I said above, Getsy does have to find a way to better utilize Fields' talents as a dual-threat playmaker. The Bears have to do whatever it takes to get back in the win column. Chicago hasn't won a game since before last Halloween, so it's high time to push the envelope and see if the Bears can unlock Fields' potential as a quarterback, inherently putting the team on a better track. The head man knows this.
"I just think that he wants to be able to let it flow, let it go, let him be himself and play free, and I think that's where he's at right now. That's what we want," Eberflus said of Fields on Wednesday. "We want him to do that. He feels that presence in the pocket where he's got pressure and he sees a place where he can work to either do a scramble drill, throw the ball down the field or take off and go."
That is true: Chicago NEEDS Fields to "let it flow." Whether that requires the game plan to feature more quarterback runs (QB power and counter), zone-read plays and RPOs or just simple passing concepts that suit Fields' eyes and processing skills, the Bears must empty the bag to see if they can salvage the quarterback, win games and calm franchise waters.
The Bieniemy factor in Washington
It is too early for Eric Bieniemy to take a victory lap, but it sure looks like the Washington Commanders' offensive coordinator will be in line for an apology from the naysayers who have questioned his coaching acumen over the years.
Despite getting constant praise from Andy Reid for his role in constructing the Kansas City Chiefs' prolific attack while breaking in a young (albeit ultra-talented) quarterback, the former NFL running back has never received the widespread credit he deserves. But what we're seeing right now -- with his previous offense sputtering after his departure and his new unit thriving under his direction -- further underscores his offensive wizardry.
The intense, old-school approach that made some players bristle during training camp has produced a high-octane offense that currently ranks seventh in scoring, with a 2022 fifth-round pick leading the way under center. The Cowboys and Eagles have sucked up most of the air in the NFC East, but the Commanders are right there with their rivals, sitting in a three-way tie atop the division at 2-0.
Studying the tape from Washington's first two games, it is apparent that young quarterback Sam Howell is comfortable with his role in the offense, completing 65.7 percent of his passes for an average of 251 yards per game, with four total touchdowns against two turnovers. The second-year pro plays with a calm, relaxed demeanor that suggests he knows exactly what he's doing when he comes to the line of scrimmage for each play. From barking out the signals to making checks and adjustments based on defensive looks, Howell is in command, exhibiting maturity beyond his years. Some of the 22-year-old's confidence can be attributed to the extensive experience he gained at North Carolina, where he started 37 games during his three years as a Tar Heel. Logging all those reps in a diverse Air Raid offense, Howell clearly grew to understand the timing and rhythm of a passing game that frequently deploys five eligible pass catchers into the route. His experience finding the second and third options in the progression, including running backs on checkdowns, helped him master the art of staying on schedule.
Running Bieniemy's quick-rhythm attack for the Commanders, Howell swiftly works through his progressions to identify and target the open receiver. He's a pinpoint passer with great arm strength, enabling him to attack every area of the field with precision. Though he is generally careful with the football, Howell does not mind squeezing passes into tight windows when necessary. His superb ball placement, anticipation and timing stand out on tape, and it is easy to see why he was the choice as Washington's QB1 over veteran free-agent addition Jacoby Brissett.
While Howell does most of his work from the pocket, he is athletic enough to extend plays on impromptu scrambles. He routinely escapes when the pocket collapses to pick up positive yardage on the move. In addition, Howell flashes enough running ability to execute an occasional zone-read or designed quarterback run to keep defenses on their heels.
With Bieniemy willing to tap into Howell's unique talents as a strong-armed passer with crafty movement skills, the Commanders have constructed a rock-solid offense that maximizes an impressive cast of perimeter weapons while masking some of the O-line deficiencies that could derail the unit's efforts. Bieniemy's play designs prioritize keeping the QB clean, but also provide Howell with five available options on most routes. Tasking his running backs with making chip blocks on the way out into their routes, Bieniemy has emphasized protection, which allows Howell to operate from a clean pocket on most downs. Given the jitters most young quarterbacks experience within a collapsing pocket, the extra attention on keeping Howell clean has helped him jump out to a fast start as a new full-time starter.
As Washington's offense continues to evolve under Bieniemy's direction, the running game should become a more significant factor, leading to more explosive plays through the air on play-action passes. Howell has shown potential as a deep-ball thrower, but the Commanders have been unable to unleash bombs with opponents sitting in umbrella coverage.
Despite all of the praise I've just heaped on the Commanders' emerging offense, this remains a work in progress. Bieniemy and Howell must reduce the number of sacks and negative plays. In addition, the young quarterback has to improve his situational awareness in order to continue guiding the team to the winner's circle. But overall, the early returns on this QB-OC pairing are quite promising.
With Washington playing host to Buffalo on Sunday, Bieniemy and Howell get their toughest test of the young season. I'm excited to see how they fare. The Commanders are looking to establish themselves as true players in the NFC playoff picture. And if this offense can continue to complement a talented defense with game-wrecking potential up front, Washington could find itself back in the postseason tournament for just the second time in eight years. And Bieniemy's critics will be forced to give credit where it's due.
TREND WATCH: New special teams stunt!
New England came up short against Miami this past Sunday night, but the Patriots' innovative field goal block undoubtedly had special teams coaches around the league scribbling notes and studying the tape. If you have not seen Brenden Schooler's block -- which really gave New England new life in the third quarter -- it's something to behold.
One week after I wrote about the weaponization of motion in the Dolphins' offense, the Pats deftly incorporated a similar quirk into their special teams -- coincidentally using it against Miami. With the Dolphins lined up for a 49-yard field goal, Schooler initially aligned split out wide, before motioning inside on a dead sprint. With great forward momentum, he timed the snap count perfectly, turned diagonally upfield and blew past Miami's wing before laying out to easily block the kick. The precise timing and flawless execution will put the block on teaching tape that'll play on loop in special teams meeting rooms at the professional and collegiate levels. Coaches will attempt to duplicate the creative strategy -- and potentially expand on it.
How did the Patriots come up with the novel design in the first place?
"It's just outside-the-box thinking, I guess you'd say," Pats special teams coordinator Cameron Achord said, via ESPN. "There's things you're looking for as the game goes on, whether it's the snapper, maybe it's the way a guy is set, a hand movement, a holder's head. We go through the process and it's just looking for any keys, details that can give you an edge. It's not something that every week you're going to be able to do.
"The normal operation for a field goal unit, from snap to kick, is somewhere between 1.27 and 1.34 (seconds). So you have to have the acceleration and speed to turn the corner and get to the block point, which is usually about 5 yards in front of the holder."
Schooler certainly deserves credit for making the block, but his teammates helped create the opportunity. Most crucially, New England's Kyle Dugger took a hard inside rush off the edge to occupy Miami's wing, Christian Wilkins. The combination of the aggressive inside rush and Schooler's perfectly timed crash resulted in a free run to the block point.
With Schooler showing the football world a new, unorthodox way to block a kick, we're all left with the same question: What was the trigger to start his motion sprint? Perhaps the Patriots had inside information on the timing of the kick, given Miami punter/holder Jake Bailey's previous experience with New England. After four seasons with the Patriots, Bailey signed with the Dolphins this past offseason. Considering Bailey also handled holding duties during his time in Foxborough, Bill Belichick might have picked up on a tell in Bailey's holding operation that helped the Patriots get an early jump on the kick. Obviously, the Pats aren't about to reveal their secrets.
Will other teams look to replicate and/or tweak the strategy? If so, how will kicking teams respond? Special teams aren't always the flashiest part of football games, but they can provide game-changing plays. New England's inventive field goal block not only got the Pats back in the game, but it had my mind racing with intrigue and curiosity. I'm fascinated to see where this goes from here.