The Atlanta Falcons – and their fans – are about to get an intimate look at what might have been.
Sunday afternoon, Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields – he’s from suburban Atlanta, grew up a Falcons fan and began his college career at the University of Georgia – will take the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It could have been a weekly occurrence … had the Falcons taken Fields, whose family had season tickets, with the fourth overall pick of the 2021 NFL draft.
Alas, they chose tight end Kyle Pitts instead. And here we are.
Fields has begun to emerge as the crown jewel of what was a highly regarded 2021 quarterback crop – headlined by Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence going into the draft – and is already etching his name into the record book. The Bears just became the first team in league history to rush for at least 225 yards in five consecutive games. Fields has 555 yards on the ground during this stretch, 82 more than any other quarterback over a five-game period in the Super Bowl era (since 1966). In that same span, he’s thrown for 810 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions and has a 96.3 passer rating.
Imagine how that would translate to what’s currently a run-heavy Atlanta attack that doesn’t seem to know what to do with Pitts, the highest-drafted tight end in league history.
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And imagine how Fields might have electrified this fan base. Matt Ryan was nice for 14 seasons, the 2016 league MVP nearly leading the Falcons to their first Super Bowl win. But he never truly filled the civic void created after Michael Vick’s disgraceful departure following the 2006 season.
Fields could have … even if he’s just trying to keep the main thing the main thing this week.
“It’s exciting for sure,” he said of his impending homecoming. “My goal really is just to go 1-0 this week and win the game down there.”
In fairness to the Falcons, Ryan was coming off a solid 2020 season … even though he was 36 by the time Fields’ rookie year commenced. Ryan also had a virtually untradeable contract in 2021 – his move to the Indianapolis Colts this year caused a record dead money hit to Atlanta’s cap – though his deal wouldn’t have prohibited him from playing and showcasing himself (as he essentially did for Indy) while allowing Fields a season-long apprenticeship.
“You can go down that rabbit hole a lot of different ways,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said this week.
In further fairness to the Falcons, the Jacksonville Jaguars (Lawrence), New York Jets (Zach Wilson) and San Francisco 49ers (Trey Lance) may have also goofed given they all passed on Fields for other quarterbacks in the 2021 draft.
But in fairness to the Falcons’ fans, the team squandered a golden opportunity to create a perfect post-Ryan succession plan. Instead, they began courting Deshaun Watson following the 2021 campaign – a failed gambit that also led to Ryan’s trade to the Colts – which left Atlanta scrambling to fill its depth chart with veteran Marcus Mariota and third-rounder Desmond Ridder, who has yet to play for the 4-6 team.
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How’s it going? Atlanta has probably been better than expected overall, remaining on the fringe of the NFC wild-card chase. But on the Falcons’ last meaningful drive of Week 10’s 25-15 loss to the Carolina Panthers, they lost 15 yards on four plays. Mariota, among the league’s least prolific passers, was sacked twice. Pitts couldn’t contribute.
You have to wonder about the quarterback not taken.
Already a high school legend in the Peach State, Fields may not quite be the electric athlete Vick was – who is? – but he seems to be on his way to being a far more polished passer and, by extension, a more dangerous quarterback than No. 7. But, man, can Fields run – averaging 7.2 yards per carry this season, two of his six TD runs covering more than 60 yards.
“Everybody is raving about what this young man has done over the last three or four weeks. And the biggest part is obviously the playmaking – when things are breaking down, his ability to create with his legs,” said NFL Network analyst and two-time league MVP Kurt Warner, who praised the Bears for modifying their offense to accommodate more run options for Fields – a development that also opens up passing lanes.
“(He’s) still got room to grow as a pocket passer, but I like the way that they’ve employed their offense the last few weeks.”
Chicago’s new regime, which isn’t the one that moved up in the draft to select Fields 11th overall last year, also seems to be buying in. Rookie GM Ryan Poles didn’t do much in free agency and invested most of his high 2022 draft picks into the defense. However he did acquire receiver Chase Claypool from the Pittsburgh Steelers at the trade deadline, and the Bears are projected – by far – to have the most salary cap space when free agency arrives in 2023.
“When you’re looking at different types of places to go, you take spots for that reason,” rookie head coach Matt Eberflus said this week when talking about his decision to come to Chicago. “The No. 1 spot you look at is quarterback. You study and look at that and I loved what I saw.
“I’m loving what I’m seeing even more since I’ve been here.”
Falcons fans may soon feel similarly to Eberflus … if only for three fleeting hours this weekend.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.