Justin Fields panic? Before you write him off, remember that Week 1 in the NFL is a fantastic liar

CHICAGO — Justin Fields struggled and apologized to teammates and fans. The Chicago Bears' offense looked poor in Sunday's 38-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Some Bears fans are panicking.

But let’s hit pause for a second and flip the pages of the calendar back one year because Week 1 of the NFL season can sometimes be a fantastic liar, especially for the young quarterbacks who have so much riding on a season’s first impression.

Let’s go back one year ago for another highly acclaimed quarterback, one who badly needed to take a good, healthy step forward out of the gate in 2022. After a disappointing 2021, he floated into 2022 with an offseason of hopeful rejuvenation. Training camp was hyped as a corner-turning event after months of box-checking: The offense had more weapons to work with; the coaching staff was more in tune with the roster; and the fan base was assured that another offseason would translate into progression for a superstar-in-waiting. And to top it all off, the season-opener was against a seemingly beatable opponent — providing a chance to get the season off on the right foot.

Despite all of that going for him, this acclaimed quarterback — Trevor Lawrence — stalled out of the gate.

Justin Fields has to get off the canvas after a miserable Week 1 loss. Other promising young quarterbacks have done the same. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Justin Fields has to get off the canvas after a miserable Week 1 loss. Other promising young quarterbacks have done the same. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

Of course, we forget about that now. The memory of that 2022 season opener has long since faded for Lawrence and the Jaguars, when they faced a beatable Washington Commanders team and muddled their way to a frustrating and familiar 28-22 loss. That defeat has gotten lost in the expanse of Lawrence’s blossoming last season and the Jaguars’ eventual playoff berth. But if you pull up that game, you’ll be reminded that the winning quarterback in Jacksonville’s 2022 season opener was Carson Wentz, the guy who threw for 313 yards and four touchdowns while leading the Commanders to a stunning fourth-quarter comeback win. Wentz had his own problems that afternoon, but he erased them down the stretch and shifted the spotlight back onto Lawrence, who completed 57 percent of his passes with one touchdown and one interception, while also badly overthrowing two-wide open receivers in the end zone.

The snap judgement afterward: A lot of changes for the Jaguars and Lawrence … same old results.

This is what the NFL’s Week 1 does to us. We expect developing franchises to instantly operate like they’ve gotten a new engine under the hood, then complain that it looks like only a new paint job. And we do this with the full knowledge that almost every change or upgrade from the previous several months is just now getting its first real test drive.

This is what I think of when I see Joe Burrow and the Cincinnati Bengals' offense sputter out of the gate. Or Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts look something less than his Super Bowl self from the 2022 season. And Lamar Jackson? Thank goodness the Baltimore Ravens easily won their opener, or there would be far more focus on his mediocre start amid a retooled depth chart.

Of course, the aforementioned players get a grace period. Burrow is Burrow. Hurts is coming off a revelatory season. And Jackson, despite the roller-coaster ride over the past few years, is still a former MVP with unicorn skills. But there is no honeymoon for Fields, following an offseason that was universally geared toward boosting his next big step as a franchise cornerstone. Much like Lawrence entering the 2022 season-opener a year ago, the jury remains out of what Fields is ultimately going to be.

And yet, it’s hard not to feel like everyone is going overboard after one (admittedly bad) loss. Especially if you watched the totality of Chicago’s offensive unraveling against a Packers defense that is going to be very, very good this season. Two spots played into Fields’ weaknesses: a secondary with an elite cornerback who can scheme to take away the No. 1 receiving option, which the Packers did by strapping cornerback Jaire Alexander onto DJ Moore, and a front seven (including linebackers) that can rush the passer and effectively drop into zone coverage.

Part of Fields’ development will have to be overcoming when a deck like that is stacked against him, particularly when the Bears can’t scheme to get Moore free and the offensive line is having pass protection issues. None of this is meant to excuse Fields’ blind spots, which were on display repeatedly Sunday, including holding onto the ball a beat too long, taking underneath options rather than throwing with anticipation into space in downfield opportunities, and staring down his first read to the point of creating a pick 6 by Packers linebacker Quay Walker.

That’s a laundry list of issues to clean up. And a lot of it is connected to what one pro personnel scout once told me of Fields, calling him a “one and run” quarterback in 2022. As in, he reads his first option and if it’s not there, he takes the first available running lane or slips into a scramble drill. Some of that we saw again on Sunday.

But not all of this is on Fields. The coaching staff has to figure out if it has the personnel to hold up against pressure or needs to lean into scheme to give Fields time to make decisions. The running game outside of Fields didn’t look particularly impressive, and the set of wideouts appears to be getting almost nothing from No. 2 Chase Claypool, who had a remarkably bleak set of cutups from the loss.

The film isn’t going to lie. It’s going to show plenty of shared blame in this loss. Much like one year ago, when the Jaguars looked at their offensive woes against Washington and dialed up a full slate of corrections that took nearly two months to iron out. That Jacksonville team started the season 2-6 and looking every bit like one of the most disappointing storylines of 2022. It finished on a 7-2 run and then won a playoff game before falling 27-20 to the eventual Super Bowl winner Kansas City Chiefs. Along the way, Lawrence steadied himself and showcased why his considerable upside was worth waiting for.

Fields can still be that player in Chicago. All it takes is recognizing that NFL teams and their quarterbacks can get exponentially better over the course of a season. And that the only real consistency about Week 1 is that it will always perpetuate lies that we can’t see until months later.