Justin Fields saw Green Bay Packers nose tackle Kenny Clark jump before the ball was snapped late in the first quarter Sunday at Soldier Field and prepared to take a shot on what he assumed was a free play.
Fields moved to his right and ripped a deep pass well over Allen Robinson and into the end zone, where Packers safety Darnell Savage wrapped his arms around the football as he tumbled to the ground.
The play would have been no big deal if officials had penalized Clark for jumping offside — except a penalty wasn’t called. Savage had intercepted Fields.
“When he picked it off, I was confused on why there weren’t any flags on the ground,” Fields said. “So I don’t know if the refs just missed that or he didn’t jump offside or what.”
Center Sam Mustipher was among the many who believed it was a free play.
“He came across the football,” Mustipher said. “I thought it was a free play. I snapped the football. That’s why Justin threw it up.”
Instead of the Bears getting a 5-yard penalty in their favor, the interception swung momentum away from the Bears in the 24-14 loss to the Packers.
Rather than the Bears continuing their second drive farther into Packers territory, the Packers took over at their 20-yard line and marched 80 yards to tie the game at 7-7. The Bears didn’t score again in the first half and went into halftime down 10-7.
“He was shocked like all of us, wondering where the flag was,” wide receiver Darnell Mooney said. “That play took a little bit of momentum from us because we were rolling. We don’t know if we would have scored on that drive, but we were rolling.”
Bears coach Matt Nagy said officials told him Clark wasn’t in the neutral zone, and Nagy called it a learning moment for Fields — one of many he will have in his rookie season.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is better than most at taking advantage of such moments, said he tries to check for flags before taking a shot on what he thinks is a free play.
“You have to time it perfectly where the guy’s offside and the snap happens before the tackle or the guard of that side moved,” Rodgers said. “It looked like that could have been blown dead possibly. But most times, including 12 (players) on the field, I’ll peek to the line judge to the side of the foul and just make sure that there’s a flag coming out.
“Now, I think there’s been a couple times over the years where we think we’ve got them and we didn’t, maybe we didn’t check, but because of those reasons, I usually like to check and make sure that flag’s in the air.”
Fields had good and bad moments as he completed 16 of 27 passes for 174 yards with a touchdown and the interception and rushed for 43 yards on six carries. He was sacked four times.
The rookie acknowledged he needed to be better to help his team score more than 14 points, including during an ugly sequence at the end of the first half as the Bears tried to tie the game.
On second-and-8 from the Packers 33, Fields threw a near interception to safety Adrian Amos in the end zone. The Bears then got a delay-of-game penalty after Fields tried to call a timeout and the official didn’t acknowledge it. And Fields was sacked for a loss of 10 yards to push the Bears out of field-goal range.
“I should have played better,” Fields said. “I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. The drive before the second half ended, we should’ve got points right there, so that’s on me. And I mean, I’ve just got to play better for my teammates.
“I think Bill (Lazor) was calling a great game. We were doing good things on offense. So I’ll take the blame. I’ll take the credit for that one right there because unfortunately I just didn’t play how I needed to play for us to get the win. Again, I just need to be better.”
Fields got the passing game going on the Bears’ third drive of the second half, finding Robinson for gains of 20 and 8 yards and Cole Kmet with a 21-yarder and a 10-yarder. He then hit Mooney for a 5-yard touchdown pass to cut the Packers’ lead to 17-14.
But after the Packers quickly made it a 10-point game again, the Bears couldn’t respond, with Fields taking two sacks in the Bears offense’s final four plays.
In the leadup to the game, Fields deftly handled questions about matching up against Rodgers, noting he didn’t care which quarterback performed better as long as the Bears won. He had the chance to speak briefly with Rodgers after the game.
“He just said enjoy this rivalry and just keep working and keep getting better,” Fields said.
Whether or not the officials blew the call on the interception, Fields knows one way he can get better is by learning how to move past such moments quickly.
“Just forgetting about it, just moving on,” he said. “Just moving to the next drive.”