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Rookie QB Justin Fields is key to Bears mirroring Browns’ resurgence

If Fields reaches his potential, he can offset the Bears’ numerous blunders. | Getty

The Browns were 0-16 a few seasons ago but now stand among the best teams in the AFC. The Bears are just trying to break free from mediocrity, and Fields could fast-track that quest.

Not too long ago, losing to the Browns was considered one of the greatest sins in the NFL. Now, for many opponents, it’s inevitable. The Browns have vaulted from 0-16 to Super Bowl-contender status.

Unlike the Bears, who visit Cleveland on Sunday, the Browns have climbed steadily from 2017 — when they were as forlorn as an expansion team. That was the year they drafted All-Pro defensive end Myles Garrett first overall and Bears general manager Ryan Pace traded three mid-round picks for the right to move from No. 3 to 2 to take quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

Garrett, with 42œ sacks his first four seasons, became a franchise pillar and signed a nine-figure deal through 2026. Trubisky flopped, leaving the team in its current mess. The Bears have to pay significant money to Andy Dalton and Nick Foles as they eagerly wait for rookie Justin Fields to take the wheel.

Only when Dalton was forced to step aside because of a bone bruise in his left knee did coach Matt Nagy relent and make Fields the starter against the Browns.

The Browns’ rapid rise magnifies Pace’s mismanagement. The teams have the same number of winning seasons since 2017, and the Browns beat their archrivals, the Steelers, in the playoffs last season. The Bears haven’t won a playoff game since 2010 and don’t even want to talk about their recent postseason embarrassments.

Consider where they stand as they head into this game. The Browns have Garrett leading the defense, quarterback Baker Mayfield spearheading the offense and a coach they’re sure of in Kevin Stefanski. They’re good at the three most important spots — coach, quarterback, pass rusher — and they’re looking forward.

The Bears, meanwhile, have been stuck in the past for three decades, and now the fixation is on recapturing the magic of 2018. They’ve gone 17-17 since then.

They’ve got Fields, but Nagy’s preference was to start Dalton for the entire season, and he said this week that he intends to reinstate Dalton as the starter once he recovers. No one ever seems to have an explanation for why the pass rush has been so inconsistent with Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn.

And Nagy? Every play call and news conference have limitless potential to go haywire.

The Browns pulled off their turnaround despite changing their general manager and coach in January 2020. Bears chairman George McCaskey, as everyone knows, has prioritized continuity and collaboration as Pace and Nagy seem to get endless opportunities to get it right despite the team having the 10th-worst record in the NFL under Pace and scoring the 11th-fewest points under Nagy.

Pace took over in 2015 as part of a house-cleaning to rebuild the Bears after they went 5-11 with general manager Phil Emery (never held that position before or after his time in Chicago) and coach Marc Trestman (out of the NFL since 2016).

Since then, aside from the short-lived ecstasy of 2018, the outlook has remained bleak. The Bears have one winning season under Pace — something every team in the NFL has managed during that span — and they are one of only seven teams that haven’t won a playoff game.

They’ve meandered through mediocrity, going the opposite route of the Browns. The Browns stockpiled draft picks — a process the Bears should’ve started after the failed 2019 season by trading away valuable players for future assets — and nailed their high selections.

The Browns had 13 first-round picks from 2017 through ’21; 10 are still on the team. Of those 10, seven are starters. And 2017 first-round safety Jabrill Peppers was traded to acquire wide receiver Odell Beckham.

In that same period, the Bears had only nine picks in the first two rounds — they gave up two first-rounders for Mack — and have four starters from that group (five if Fields counts). None of the post-2017 picks has made a Pro Bowl, and Fields and Roquan Smith are Pace’s only first-round picks who are still on the roster.

The Browns’ biggest recent free-agent splurges were for right tackle Jack Conklin, an All-Pro last season, and essentially a sign-and-trade for wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who averaged nearly 1,000 yards his first three seasons in Cleveland.

Pace signed Quinn for five years and $70 million, picked up tight end Jimmy Graham for two years and $16 million and took on a three-year, $24 million deal to bring in Foles — a backup half of last season and now a third-stringer. And even with Mack still playing at a high level, his production hasn’t matched his six-year, $141 million contract.

With the Bears still trying to fight off decline defensively and potentially looking at another tight salary-cap situation next year, everything rides on how good Fields is and how quickly he gets there. He’s the lottery ticket, the shortcut, to make up the ground the Bears have been losing to teams such as the Browns that were behind them a few seasons ago but are now racing ahead.

One of the greatest benefits that comes with striking gold on a rookie quarterback who catches on immediately is that the team gets a window in which it can save money at the most expensive position and spend it on other needs. Mayfield is taking up 5% of the Browns’ cap space this season, for example. Fields’ hit barely registers at 1.8% this season and is projected to stay around that level through 2024.

If he’s good, it’ll change everything — just like Garrett and Mayfield have done for their team. Imagine that: The Bears looking to the once-lowly Browns for inspiration and a blueprint.

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