Heading into the 2023 NFL season, Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields was a popular ‘sleeper’ pick for MVP and/or Offensive Player of the Year. After rushing for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns during the previous season, many predicted that he would take a Josh Allen or Jalen Hurts-esque leap as a passer in Year 3, rounding out his game and making him a viable (and dangerous) dual-threat QB at the professional level.
Fans and followers of Fields bore witness to the former Georgia Bulldog and Ohio State Buckeye’s true “dual threatiness” during his productive and highly efficient time on campus, so it just seemed natural that this Ryan Day mentee would finally figure out the passing piece with an improved roster in the Windy City.
C.J. Stroud, on the other hand, was expected to deal with significant growing pains as the new signal caller of a Houston Texans franchise in perpetual rebuild. Although the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist and deadly accurate passer had put up video game numbers as a Buckeye and proven his mettle against a vaunted Georgia defense, he supposedly performed poorly on some test and was drafted into a less-than-ideal situation.
I mean, seriously. Did anyone look at the Texans’ depth chart in August and think those weapons would be remotely productive? Stroud was viewed by some as the rookie QB most likely to fail, with greater bust potential than the likes of Bryce Young, Anthony Richardson, and possibly even Will Levis.
Yet here we are, three weeks into the 2023 season, and not only is Stroud outperforming his fellow rookies, but he is also outperforming Fields. By at least a country mile.
While his team owns just a 1-2 record, Stroud is making wonderful, delicious lemonade out of shriveled, sour lemons... Despite missing all five of Houston’s projected starters along the offensive line (for the past two games)! This past weekend, he surpassed 900 yards in his first three games, becoming just the third NFL rookie to do so — joining Cam Newton and Justin Herbert, a couple of guys with whom you are likely familiar.
But Stroud is the only one to achieve this milestone without throwing a single interception. And oh by the way, he just earned his first NFL victory over a Jacksonville Jaguars team that many expected to run away with the AFC South.
Unfortunately for Fields, his third season has gone in the opposite direction. If the most fun and accurate comp for Stroud is a rocket ship blasting off, then an appropriate and mildly depressing one for Fields is a piece of satellite shrapnel plummeting back to Earth and inducing panic. Simply put, the latter has played awful. Which is different from actually being awful.
However, it is becoming more and more difficult to defend Fields’ on-field performance. Which I find sad, really. Because I, like many others, loved watching him at OSU, as well as during his first few seasons in the NFL. And I truly believed that he would be a megastar in Chicago. I still do, deep in the cavernous recesses of my brain. Against my better judgment. But I must admit that the past three weeks have been incredibly painful to watch.
Fields has seemingly regressed as a QB in every way imaginable. He is holding onto the ball for far too long, which is especially frustrating because holding it and taking hits or sacks has long been viewed as his kryptonite. Not only that, but he is also struggling to process what is going on in front of him, refusing to let it rip even though we all know he has arm talent and appears hesitant to even pull the ball down and run. And that is just not the Justin Fields I know. Or thought I knew... Perhaps his deficiencies and weaknesses were masked by playing in a loaded Ohio State offense, only to be exposed at the next level.
But I just don’t believe that to be true. I can’t get there. Maybe it is because I am struggling to see or comprehend the obvious through my scarlet and gray-tinted glasses, but I still have (some) faith that Fields can and will become at least an above-average NFL starter. However, in order to do so, he desperately needs a one-way ticket out of Chicago.
Because in my opinion, the Bears – and inept franchise – have stunted and potentially ruined Fields’ development in the worst ways possible. Prior to this season, they made several poor draft decisions, failed to acquire any offensive weapons for their young QB, signed approximately zero free agents of note or quality, trotted out the league’s worst offensive line (it still sucks), and to top it all off, hired a defensive-minded head coach and an offensive coordinator whose resume should read something like this:
Skills — I know ball
Qualifications — spent time with Aaron Rodgers, Hall of Fame quarterback, who rarely sought my input
Fields looks, sounds, and gives off the general vibe of someone who is confused, defeated, depressed (professionally speaking), lost, and/or without the teeniest, tiniest bit of confidence. However, I am willing to blame about 70% of his struggles on the once proud organization that selected him 11th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft.
But I don’t want to make this all about Fields. The headline does read ‘A tale of two former Buckeye quarterbacks’ after all. So where do these former teammates go from here?
Right now, I think it is too hard to say. Too difficult to predict. While time certainly seems to be running out for one former Buckeye – and the clock just starting for his successor in Columbus – we have seen ‘reclamation project’ QBs find success later in life. Geno Smith is the best current example, although I hope Fields becomes a high-end starter before the age of 30. At the same time, we have also seen QBs find success early, only to fizzle out later or in the end. This may not be the best example, but there’s a tie-in coming, so follow me...
Remember Mike Glennon? Yeah, most people don’t. Anyway, he started 13 games as a rookie for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. He was not a high draft pick, and he did not have the pedigree or talent of a C.J. Stroud, but he threw for 2,600 yards and 19 TDs (to only 9 INTs) as a rookie. Pretty solid, all things considered. Yet he was benched to begin the following season. In favor of Josh McCown, a journeyman. And then he (Glennon) was never really heard from again...
Except for when he signed a three-year, $45 million dollar contract with the Chicago Bears (in 2017) despite passing for only 1,500 yards during his previous three seasons combined. So this is what the Bears do! They make terrible decisions and ruin talented players! It’s a curse, really. However, I can’t imagine a scenario in which Stroud (like Glennon) is benched in 2024 and finds himself on Chicago’s roster in 2027. I just wanted to bash the Bears one more time for potentially ruining my guy (Fields).
Both Fields and Stroud are still very young, so their respective careers could go any which way. And while they are currently trending in opposite directions, I think that both will ultimately experience great (and prolonged) success. That is how much I believe in the resiliency of Fields, as well as the sustainability of what we are currently seeing from Stroud. Here’s hoping these former Buckeyes find and/or maintain their footing at the highest level, as I would love to see them dispel any false narratives regarding Ohio State signal callers.