The Chicago Bears are on their bye week, but that didn’t stop the questions from arriving in Brad Biggs’ weekly Bears mailbag. With the team on a six-game losing streak and currently in the No. 2 draft position, fans understandably are looking ahead to what the Bears might do in April.
Will we see real evidence that Ryan Poles’ rebuilding project is working and the coaching staff is the right one to direct it next season? — Curtis, Normal, Ill.
That would be the hope, and a lot of the team’s success in 2023 will be based on quarterback Justin Fields’ ability to take a significant step forward as a passer. He did a better job in Sunday’s 28-19 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field, but there remains a ton of room for growth. The Bears need Fields to take a giant leap forward like Josh Allen did in his third year in Buffalo and as Jalen Hurts has done this season, his third in Philadelphia. But it’s a long climb from what looks like a last-place finish in the NFC North. The roster has a critical lack of difference makers, and the process of building a depth chart usually takes a lot longer than it does to clear the deck, straighten out the salary cap and identify needs.
General manager Ryan Poles needs to resist the urge to look for shortcuts, even as that doesn’t satiate those seeking quick results or who want to be able to declare quickly whether this thing is working. The Bears have tried building the right way. They’ve tried patches and quick fixes but none of it has stuck. They have not had consecutive winning seasons since 2005-06. Only three other teams have had longer stretches without back-to-back winning seasons. The Carolina Panthers, who came into existence in 1995, never have been above .500 in consecutive seasons. The Jacksonville Jaguars have not had consecutive winning seasons since 2004-05. The Cleveland Browns, who were not a team from 1996-98, have not had a winning record in back-to-back years since a four-year run from 1986-89. That is the company the Bears are keeping when it comes to never sustaining momentum as an organization.
Certainly the Bears will aim for a winning season in 2023. Poles has talked about making decisions that are best for the franchise and is taking a long view to what will be best. It’s going to take three drafts, at minimum, for the Bears to really stock the roster with young players who fit what they want to do and can become impact players.
The Bears should have more success as they go. The offense has shown the ability to score and Fields is getting better. Even though there are only four games remaining, these will be big opportunities for him to continue to gain experience and comfort in what he’s doing. He’s trending in the right direction, and that adds optimism to the idea the Bears are on the right track.
I am curious where you stand on the popular idea of the Bears winning the race to the bottom … and improving their draft position so that they can select a player who is more highly rated entering the draft. Some fans express this position every year. In the long run, is quality front office/coaching (see New England) going to prove more important than being as bad as possible to be in line to select the player with the best pre-draft grade (see Cleveland)? — Tom N., Dayton, Ohio
There’s no question Theo Epstein and the Cubs popularized the idea of bottoming out — and that was for multiple seasons — and rising again. Most tend to believe that doesn’t work in the NFL, but I understand where folks are coming from when they discuss the possibility of the Bears picking, say, second in April versus owning the No. 7 pick. None of the arguments for losing that I have heard consider the possibility the Bears don’t get the pick right either. It seems to be a foregone conclusion Ryan Poles will add a player who is a slam-dunk superstar or be able to turn the pick into a bounty of picks via trade.
The Bears very well could win a couple of games down the stretch. They should be in the Week 17 game in Detroit, and there is a real possibility the Minnesota Vikings will be in a position to consider resting some of their top players for the Week 18 game at Soldier Field. Plus, Soldier Field has been a house of horrors for the Vikings even at full strength for most of the past two decades.
I think the front office and coaching staff feel pretty good about some of the young players making strides this season. They would feel even better if they were making game-changing plays at defining moments to win some of these close games in the fourth quarter. It’s easy to come up with reasons the Bears are losing. The pass rush is nonexistent. The run defense is poor. The offensive line needs improvement. There isn’t a legitimate No. 1 receiver. The Bears will make a roster for 2023 that includes roughly 30 players currently on the team, maybe a few more. I can promise you there is no consideration of tanking within the building, and the Bears don’t see a 3-14 season as a means to a grand prize.
The Bears are on a six-game losing streak, the seventh time they’ve lost that many consecutive games. The longest losing streak in club history is eight games, which happened in 2002 and 1978. If the “lose for a higher pick crowd” gets its wish, this team will close out 2022 on a 10-game losing streak. That would provide the Bears with a very high pick — possibly No. 2 — and signal that the roster was very bad. But the Bears still would have a bad roster if they finish 5-12. I can’t argue that, but I can say players want to believe that what the coaches are doing works and coaches want to believe the players can perform in the clutch. They have to win to do that. Energy remains strong in the building, but it would really be strengthened moving into the offseason with even a little success.
What are the chances of the Bears taking a quarterback with their first pick in the 2023 draft? While Justin Fields has been very entertaining to watch this year, he (has) not been effective in the fourth quarter. If you take away his rushing stats and look at him as a drop-back quarterback, he doesn’t have very impressive numbers. I know there is no sure thing in first-round quarterbacks, as Fields proves, but is there any hope that the new GM wants to tie his future to a quarterback that he drafts rather than one he inherited? Fields is one play away from getting blown up as a runner, and relying on him as a pocket quarterback is a losing proposition. — Dan M.
The beauty of the situation, Dan, is we don’t have to discount Fields’ rushing production. That is part of the package and a big reason he’s such a special and entertaining player. There is zero chance Poles considers drafting a quarterback in the first round. The Bears don’t know if Fields ultimately will become the guy, but they have every reason to give him that opportunity. Yes, he has to improve as a passer, but he has shown signs of growth and 2023 will be a pivotal season. If Fields does blossom and become the guy, the biggest part of the equation is solved for Poles.
Why did the Bears scale back the designed QB runs for Justin Fields on Sunday against Green Bay? — Chris O., New York
A few people wondered the same thing after Fields ran six times for 71 yards, with 55 coming on the zone-read keeper for a touchdown. There wasn’t a single designed run in the second half, and this is a balancing act for the crowd that wants to see Fields improve as a passer and those who want to see as many electric Fields plays as possible.
A couple of things stand out: Fields was throwing the ball well and I don’t think you can argue against offensive coordinator Luke Getsy ramping up the passing volume a little bit. Second, the Bears probably were trying to ensure he didn’t take too many hits with his left shoulder banged up.
“The way the game was going, we were passing it so good,” coach Matt Eberflus said Monday. “We were just going with that more. I think that was the right thing to do. … No other reason than that. We ended up using a couple wildcat plays because we are trying to go with that in the future to take some hits off of Justin.”
Why did the Bears call timeout in the second quarter with 23 seconds left and the Packers facing a fourth down? — Tim S.
Matt Eberflus was asked about that decision. The Packers had fourth-and-4 from the Bears 14-yard line.
“Just to force their hand,” he said. “Just trying to force their hand and make them make a decision. It gives us another opportunity for our defense to get set up and what we want to call.”
Aaron Rodgers wound up finding Christian Watson in the end zone for a touchdown. What Eberflus did doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, but I also don’t think it made a difference. If the Bears don’t use the timeout there, I think the Packers would have used theirs.
Do you think the players are “with” Matt Eberflus and Ryan Poles in believing in the rebuild process? — @fgrunder3
While the Bears rebuilding process is talked about in a lot of places outside the locker room, that is not something players spend any time wondering about. It’s a week-to-week business for many of them. Perform in practice and in the games or risk being let go. Players aren’t thinking about what could lie ahead in free agency or which draft pick the team will have.
Here is something Cole Kmet said after Sunday’s game:
“Don’t really care what (others) are thinking about the situation. I’m frustrated because at the moment we have three wins. I don’t really look at it as rebuild or whatever. I want to win and I want to win now. (Fans) have their expectations, but at the end of the day, we have our expectations here in the locker room. That’s what we hold ourselves to. Everyone here is disappointed where we’re at. We could have been way better up to this point in the year. We’ve got four games left to show what we can do. We’re going to take that head on.
“It’s tough. You try and keep that perspective (of a rebuilding effort) maybe a little bit … keep your spirits up and guys’ spirits around you, but it’s tough, man. This is such a week-to-week, year-to-year league where things are changing constantly. You can call this a rebuild, but some guys aren’t here for that, you know. You’ve got guys who are in their 10th or 11th year, they’re not here for a rebuild. They want to win. You just have to look inward, take it for what it is, and like I said, we have these last four (games) to show what we can do.”
Can an argument be made that if we review just since he’s been a starter that Jack Sanborn has been the Bears’ best defensive rookie this year? Maybe even best overall rookie for the team? — @hoplegion
Sanborn has really impressed since stepping into the starting lineup after the Roquan Smith trade. He has 52 tackles (42 solos) the last five weeks with five tackles for a loss and three quarterback hits. He has shown excellent instincts and looks like a part of the front seven for next season. You can make a case he has been the best defensive rookie, but I don’t want to take away from what safety Jaquan Brisker has done. He has been solid and there aren’t many instances where you look back and say, “Brisker really blew that play.” Braxton Jones is playing left tackle, the position with the highest degree of difficulty for rookies, and has held his own. Stack them up however you like. All look like they will be part of the future.