The Philadelphia Eagles will offer a good look at how far the Chicago Bears have to join the small mix of teams in position to compete for a Lombardi Trophy.
You can draw parallels between the organizations. Both have exciting, young, dual-threat quarterbacks with the Eagles’ Jalen Hurts an MVP candidate in his third season and the Bears’ Justin Fields coming along in Year 2. Both have head coaches plucked from the Indianapolis Colts staff.
The Bears hired assistant general manager Ian Cunningham from the Eagles in January, adding a bright mind with a background in two successful organizations — the Eagles and Baltimore Ravens. The Bears lead the NFL in rushing at 189.2 yards per game and the Eagles are tied for second at 162.2.
Don’t get carried away making comparisons, though, because the Eagles (12-1) have the best record in the NFL and the Bears (3-10) have the worst in the NFC, which is why the Eagles are 9-point favorites Sunday at Soldier Field. The last time the Bears were that big of an underdog at home was in 2014. Jimmy Clausen was the starting quarterback, and the visiting Detroit Lions were favored by 10.
“We look at it as an opportunity and a great challenge to be able to see our guys match up individually and also as units to be able to match up against these guys,” Bears coach Matt Eberflus said.
When the Bears and Eagles met in the wild-card round following the 2018 season, both were trending downward. The Bears experienced a breakthrough season with first-year coach Matt Nagy, finishing 12-4, and the Eagles were a year removed from their upset of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
The Eagles were 9-7 in 2018 and 2019 before bottoming out at 4-11-1 in 2010. The Bears are still spiraling, having consecutive 8-8 seasons and a 6-11 finish in 2021. Entering Sunday, they have lost six consecutive games at the beginning of a rebuilding process led by general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus.
The continued development of Fields is key to the Bears rising from the depths. If he can ascend in his third season as Hurts has and become more skilled as a pocket passer, the Bears will be able to declare with confidence their never-ending quest to solve the quarterback riddle will be solved.
Hurts leads the NFL in pocket passing, completing 73% of his attempts, a huge reason why the Eagles have gone from being the league’s most run-heavy offense in 2021 to being a balanced attack that can challenge defenses.
Eagles coach Nick Sirianni is a year ahead of Eberflus in the process. He took over last season, but GM Howie Roseman, who built the Super Bowl team that knocked off the Patriots with Nick Foles filling in for injured quarterback Carson Wentz, remains. If Poles and the Bears can learn anything from the Eagles in a copycat league, it’s how the Eagles have remained nimble.
Only eight players remain on the Eagles roster from the Super Bowl winner. Three are offensive linemen — center Jason Kelce, right tackle Lane Johnson and right guard Isaac Seumalo — and three are defensive linemen — Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Derek Barnett, who is on injured reserve. The other two are specialists — kicker Jake Elliott and long snapper Rick Lovato.
That is the first instructive lesson: Invest in the lines. The Eagles consistently have added to the front on both sides, and when they miss, they keep adding. Andre Dillard, the first-round pick in 2019, is the backup left tackle. Cam Jurgens was chosen with a second-round pick this year as a potential future replacement for Kelce. The Eagles fortified the defensive line with three in-season moves: trading with the Bears for Robert Quinn and signing tackles Linval Joseph and Ndamukong Suh off the street.
When the Eagles make a mistake, they come to a decision quickly and move on. They chose wide receiver Jalen Reagor with the 21st pick in 2020, one spot before the Minnesota Vikings selected Justin Jefferson. When Reagor struggled as a rookie, the Eagles went with a wide receiver in Round 1 the next year, taking DeVonta Smith. Reagor was dumped in a trade to the Vikings in August.
Roseman’s drafts in 2019 and 2020 provided little, but Hurts, running back Miles Sanders and wide receiver Quez Watkins remain. To fill in, Roseman has been a wheeler and dealer, making moves for high-end talent other teams have dumped. He traded for wide receiver A.J. Brown and cornerback Darius Slay and signed edge rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback James Bradberry after they were let go.
Reagor and Dillard were not the only high-profile mistakes. The Eagles traded a bounty of picks, notably two first-round selections and a second-rounder, to move up and draft Wentz in 2016. Roseman doubled-down (triple-downed?) on Wentz when he signed him to a four-year, $128 million extension in 2019. Wentz, who was playing at an MVP level before the Super Bowl, melted down. The massive investment in Wentz is the kind of mistake that would sink a lot of organizations and set them back a half-decade.
The Eagles stunned everyone by drafting Hurts in the second round in 2020. Then-coach Doug Pederson talked about potentially using him as a Taysom Hill-type threat, a gadget player for the offense. Wentz’s struggles deepened, and he was dealt to the Colts. All the while, Roseman has managed to make enough trades to stay ahead of the curve with draft capital. The Eagles own the New Orleans Saints’ first-round pick in April, the result of a multipick swap in April. If the draft were based on the current standings, the Eagles would own the No. 5 pick, a chance for Roseman to add a premier player or do what he does as well as anyone — trade.
Some luck along the way helps. The Eagles could only dream Hurts would advance as quickly as he has, and without his ascension, they would be middle-of-the-pack team. Even the best scouting departments are going to whiff at key moments. Few are able to scout their own talent with transparency, reach a conclusion and move on quickly when they have erred.
As the Bears continue their process-driven development with Fields, those are some key points to keep in mind in the rebuilding process. Focus on the lines, have cat-like reflexes and always have a contingency plan.
Jalen Hurts, Eagles quarterback
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Jalen Hurts, 6-foot-1, 223 pounds, is in his third season after the Eagles drafted him in the second round, 53rd overall, out of Oklahoma. It was an intriguing selection at the time because the Eagles had just invested massively in Carson Wentz and had plenty of other holes on the roster.
Hurts started four games at the end of his rookie season before taking over the job in 2021. He completed 61.3% of his passes last season and has improved to 68% in 2022. Hurts has thrown for 3,157 yards with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions with 10 rushing touchdowns.
“They have one of the best run-pass option games in the NFL, and that allows them to build out from the run game and give the quarterback clear, defined reads to get the ball out of his hands,” the scout said. “Where he has improved the most is in the drop-back passing game where it’s not clear and defined or it’s not a play-action window designed to throw the football, his eye level has dramatically improved where he will move and manipulate the pocket and keep his eyes downfield and find targets. He throws excellent touch passes on second- and third-level throws. He can generate velocity when needed, and having the weapons around him has boosted his profile as a passer. With that, he has some of the best dual-threat traits in the league because he knows when to escape and extend from the pocket. That allows him to make plays.
“His running traits have always been a big part of his game and they will continue to be a part of his game. His development as a thrower has made him this season a top-five quarterback in the NFL. Justin Fields has more of a high-level arm talent. He can attack more vertically down the field and he can attack tighter windows because he’s throwing heaters out there. Hurts is seeing the play develop faster right now, and he’s moving through his reads a little faster.”