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AUSTIN, Texas — Justin Fields cycles through his throwing session, moving swiftly through off-platform throws and cross-body heaves while clicking through a mental checklist.
Keep eyes in the right place. Weight back. Maintain consistency across throws regardless of the direction, distance and situation.
The Chicago Bears rookie quarterback is training with fellow clients of NFL agent David Mulugheta at a Central Texas high school fieldhouse, Fields tuned in for veteran tips from Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson and Green Bay’s Jordan Love beside him. The workout, guided by private quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery, aims to ensure each player’s mechanics are crisp when he reports to training camp later this month. But Fields’ athleticism and dual-threat capabilities are far from the only strengths the 11th overall selection of the 2021 draft aims to deliver to Chicago.
Fields’ intellect—and, more specifically, a keen memory with a knack for processing play calls—should excite Chicago’s offensive staff, Avery says. He rebukes any remnants of a pre-draft narrative questioning Fields' demonstrated proficiency in processing.
“His ability to transpose things and flip them in his mind, like the mental rotation? Not a lot of people have that,” Avery, who has worked with Fields since the quarterback was in ninth grade, told USA TODAY Sports. “That’s going to give his coaches a distinct advantage as they want to expand the playbook.
"If someone says he can't grasp the offense, that's probably one of the most false things I've ever heard about Justin. His memory, and it's not just me saying that: We've tested those things and Justin's memory is off the charts."
The assertion, sports psychologist Scott Goldman says, isn’t grossly hyperbolic. Fields was one of 387 NFL prospects this year who took the Athletic Intelligence Quotient (AIQ) test Goldman co-created. The test’s aim: capture a player’s intellectual capacity in areas including learning efficiency, visual-spatial processing, decision-making and reaction time. In the 16-question learning efficiency section—think: 16 paired concepts that athletes needed to absorb and then reiterate—Fields identified all 16 responses correctly, Goldman confirmed to USA TODAY Sports.
Of 125 professional quarterbacks who have tested (not all are currently on active rosters) in the last decade, only four other quarterbacks hit all 16. Goldman said Fields’ results mark an outlier among 6,500 total professional athletes whose ability to download and recall he has gauged.
“It happens less than 1% of the time. It’s super rare,” Goldman said Wednesday night by phone. “What it means is we actually didn’t capture his ceiling. We don’t know, (given) he got 16 out of 16 right, is it possible he could have gotten 20 out of 20? 25? 30?”
Goldman is careful to note: He and colleagues intend their mental analytics tool to be descriptive, not predictive. But the descriptor of Fields’ ability to process should aid his transition from running Ohio State’s offense with sideline play cues to processing Bears calls through a headset and then efficiently delivering instructions to teammates in real time.
Fields has immersed himself in the study of the Bears' playbook since early May, the 22-year-old comfortable spouting off calls a dozen words long with the same ease in which he acknowledges the latest Twitter buzz. Fields has taken to reciting play-call scripts aloud at home and on the sideline of Bears practices, initially seeking to memorize head coach Matt Nagy’s playbook before he gradually integrated a deeper understanding of concepts.
“Shifts, formations, protections,” Fields told USA TODAY Sports of how he organizes the intricacies in his head. “You’ve kind of just got to break that play down, picture it out and picture the play before you say it.
“Now since I know it, I actually can see the play before I call it, and it’s easier.”
Caught up with Bears rookie QB Justin Fields last week in Austin. His throwing was crisp. But perhaps most impressive? His playbook recall. Story publishing soon on @usatodaysports. pic.twitter.com/MJzHxYZ6LV
— Jori Epstein (@JoriEpstein) July 16, 2021
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who entered the league in 2017 when Nagy was Kansas City's offensive coordinator, relates. As a rookie, Mahomes devised mental techniques to learn “super long” play calls, he said.
“I remember saying the plays into a little voice recording and then playing it back to myself,” Mahomes told USA TODAY Sports by phone on Tuesday. “I remember me and my girlfriend at the time – now my fiancée – I’d get her to look at the plays, and I’d read them out like I was talking in the huddle. There’s all different techniques. I’d write 'em down a million times until I was finally comfortable to say them on Sundays.”
But as Mahomes’ familiarity grew, so too did his appreciation of their precision. Every player on the field will receive clear instructions on their role and location, Mahomes said. Quarterback comprehension will overtake any delay.
“Once you’re comfortable enough to say it, it’s kind of like a machine to get it out,” Mahomes said. “Guys know where to go. You can get out there and play fast when you’re on the field.”
Fields covets that fluidity.
He’s realistic about the situation into which he was drafted, less anxious to start immediately than he is to earn longevity in the league. And Fields is eager to rebrand a Bears franchise known for its defensive prowess. Chicago’s offense has ranked in the top half of the league just twice in the last 12 seasons, while the team's defense has met that mark eight times during that stretch – including each of the last six years.
“We’re trying to change the culture of the Bears offense,” Fields said. “The Bears’ story has been the defense for I don’t know how long. So we’re trying to get some firepower on the offensive side of the ball.”
Sure, that firepower will include the athleticism that propelled Fields to amass 6,240 yards and 78 touchdowns from scrimmage in two seasons at Ohio State. But Fields is also eager to display the intellectual firepower that limited his gaffes to a mere nine interceptions in that stretch—to show his knack for cycling through his reads and extending plays in ways the Buckeyes might not have requested from him.
Nagy saw Fields’ intense mindset in offseason practices, a successful aggressive deep ball prompting the coach to say his rookie quarterback “has the mentality (to) rip your heart out.”
Avery concurs. Bears fans can expect a quarterback capable of impressive throws, Avery says. But don’t let his composure underscore the ferocity with which Fields is calculating his next move.
“He’s like a silent competitor,” Avery said. “He’s not going to say much, but he’s trying to take your throat out.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justin Fields: How 'off-the-charts' memory is helping Bears' rookie QB