Bears consulted Pat Fitzgerald before drafting Fields originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
As Pat Fitzgerald and Kurt Anderson sat with Rashawn Slater and his family at the NFL Draft in Cleveland Thursday night, they couldn’t help but notice Justin Fields falling out of the top 10.
“Kurt and I were talking on the way over about how it's going to be really interesting to see what happens with the quarterbacks because Kurt's from Glenview, I'm from Orland, there's no more die hard Bear fans than the two of us,” Fitzgerald told NBC Sports Chicago Friday.
The Northwestern head coach and his offensive line coach were in Cleveland to celebrate Slater’s eventual selection at No. 13 to the Los Angeles Chargers, but they were also keeping an eye on the Bears. Slater ending up in Chicago would have been great, but Fitzgerald was well aware of the Bears’ interest in Fields. As soon as he saw the Bears trade up to No. 11, he knew what was happening.
“I will tell you there were a number of NFL head coaches and GMs that reached out to me about Justin Fields this year and I’m not surprised that he went to the Bears,” Fitzgerald said. “There were a couple other teams I thought might jump up to take him but I think the Bears did what they had to do to go get the quarterback they wanted.”
Fitzgerald has developed a close relationship with Bears head coach Matt Nagy, so it’s not surprising that Nagy and Bears general manager Ryan Pace picked Fitzgerald’s brain on Fields when they attended Northwestern’s pro day in March. One of the most scrutinized games Fields had in college was the Big Ten Championship Game last December when the Wildcats held the Ohio State quarterback to just 114 passing yards and a 44.4 percent completion rate. But Fitzgerald also saw the other side of Fields in 2019 when the quarterback threw for four touchdowns in a 52-3 rout in Evanston. Pace was in attendance that night.
Fitzgerald also has a relationship with Fields that goes back to when he recruited him in high school. Northwestern was the first school to offer Fields a scholarship.
“We thought we’d take a hard swing and we thought we built a great relationship and then everyone else I think watched the same tape we did and we kind of got back to the back of the line,” Fitzgerald said back in December before the Big Ten Championship Game.
Those comments in December were notable. It’s common for opposing coaches to hype up a star player on the other side of the field (Bill Belichick does it every week) but it was obvious that Fitzgerald meant it.
“I remember our recruiting office showing me his tape and I call him a three-play guy. You pop on three plays and you go, ‘Yeah he can play for us,’” Fitzgerald said. “And then you start to dive in a little more and you’re like, this guy is unbelievable. Then you find out the background of his family and you find out who he was as a student, just all those things -- this is potentially a program-changing type player at the QB position.”
Fitzgerald has kept his relationship with Fields going, even texting him a congratulatory message on his way back to the airport Thursday night. And he’s ready to go to bat for him too, pointing out that the quarterback suffered a thumb injury in the first half of the Big Ten Championship Game.
“He got dinged up early in the game, hurt his hand,” Fitzgerald said. “We thought he was hurt on the play on our discussion on the headsets and then as we came out in the second half, we're like obviously something is not right, but I think he gets a bad rap for that game, maybe because of yards and all that stuff, but I think we got a pretty salty defense too and I thought we played really well in the back half in that game. And then you couple that with the way he responded against Clemson, I think it really speaks to who Justin Fields is and what a response he had in that game.”
He bounced back to throw for 385 yards and six touchdowns against Clemson – a legendary performance considering he took a brutal shot to his ribs and played through it. Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Friday that Fields barely practiced before the National Championship Game against Alabama, but still showed up and operated the offense well in the loss.
“He could barely get out of bed because of the shot he took in the Clemson game, but he still found a way to play in that game and play OK without really practicing,” Day said.
Maybe there’s a coach out there with something bad to say about Justin Fields, but that coach is hard to find.
Back in December, Fitzgerald said: “I’m a huge fan in every game but when we play. You’re cheering for him except for when you need to compete against him.”
That is no longer an issue now that Fields is on the Bears. The quarterback that used to beat him now plays for Fitz’s favorite NFL team.
“Sometimes the opportunity is exactly what it should be and it just seems to me that the quarterback opportunity here in Chicago is exactly what he should be,” Fitzgerald said.