As the Chicago Bears prepare to finish their first swing through division opponents Sunday when they play host to the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field, it’s a good time to look back on general manager Ryan Poles’ bold declaration during his introductory news conference.
“The most important piece is we’re gonna take the (NFC) North and never give it back,” he said in January.
Ultimately, if Poles is going to be the architect Chairman George McCaskey envisioned, success will be judged in the postseason. Dominating the division is the gateway to that goal, and it’s where the Bears have fallen short for too long.
Former coach Matt Nagy was 8-10 in the NFC North his last three seasons, with five of those victories coming against the Lions. The Bears have been above .500 in the division only twice in the last 10 seasons — 5-1 in 2018 and 4-2 in 2019.
Poles and coach Matt Eberflus are 0-2 in the division so far, losing to the Packers 27-10 in Green Bay in Week 2 and to the Minneapolis Vikings 29-22 in Minneapolis in Week 5. At the midpoint of the season, it’s worth noting winds could be changing in the division. The Packers are mired in a five-game losing streak for the first time since 2008, Aaron Rodgers’ first season as a starter.
The Packers have won the division three straight seasons and in eight of the last 11, but there are major questions about the future with Rodgers turning 39 in December. The Packers entered the season with a cast of young wide receivers, and the idea was Rodgers, coming off consecutive MVP seasons, would hold things together with the defense helping carry the way.
The wide receivers have struggled, injuries have decimated the roster and coach Matt LaFleur, who lost 10 regular-season games through his first three seasons, is in the midst of a storm. The Packers are averaging 17.1 points per game, their lowest total through nine games since 1992, Brett Favre’s first season with the franchise.
As appealing as it is for Bears fans to ruminate about an NFC North future not involving Rodgers, he signed a three-year, $150 million contract in March and a fully guaranteed $58.3 million option bonus in 2023 that leaves the Packers with few options to move on from him after this season.
But the end of a combined run by Favre and Rodgers that is in its fourth decade is arriving soon. It’s easy to wonder if problems run so deep at Lambeau Field that it will be challenging for the Packers to return to contention in 2023.
The rest of the division has undergone sweeping change in the last two years. Lions GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell were hired in 2021, and the team hasn’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season or seen results from its latest reboot.
“I know this is difficult, our rebuild is hard, but we really believe in our process,” owner Sheila Ford Hamp told Detroit media late last month. “We really believe we’re going to turn this thing around the right way, through the draft. It requires patience. It’s frustrating. Am I frustrated? Absolutely. Are the fans frustrated? Absolutely.”
A vote of confidence from the owner 1½ seasons into a fresh start never seems like a good thing, but such is life for the Lions, who have yet to win the NFC North since it was established in 2002. They have yet to take a shot with a young quarterback after acquiring Jared Goff in the trade that shipped out Matthew Stafford. That move could happen this offseason.
The Vikings have been one of the bigger surprises at 7-1. They have a 4½-game lead on the Bears and Packers and are one victory shy of matching last season’s total. New GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and coach Kevin O’Connell crafted a plan to rebuild on the fly, and so far it has worked.
Quarterback Kirk Cousins, 34, continues to put himself in lucrative positions, and the Vikings in March signed him to a fully guaranteed one-year, $35 million extension. At worst, he’s a two-year bridge to the future at the position. That’s essentially the plan the Lions adopted with Goff, but the Vikings appear headed to the postseason while the Lions very well could have a top-five pick.
The Bears are confident in their path, having scored 94 points over the last three games, an offensive surge that rarely has been seen in these parts. There is growing belief quarterback Justin Fields can be the centerpiece of a total roster overhaul for Poles, who used this season to straighten out the team’s salary-cap situation.
The remainder of the season will be judged in large part on Fields’ improvement at the position that has been so vexing to the organization. It’s not an oversimplification to suggest the first team in the division to have proof of a young franchise QB will be positioned for success moving forward.
There’s a ton more that goes into it, and the Bears’ position is a great example. Poles will need to overhaul a struggling defense, and questions remain regarding the offensive line and at receiver. Each division rival has its set of problems.
Fields’ ascent over the last three weeks has energized a fan base that was frustrated through a messy offensive start to the season, but the ongoing evaluation at Halas Hall is more measured.
“My proof is different from your guys’ proof and most people’s proof,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said Thursday. “It’s a mindset. It’s the way we go to work every single day and get better every single day. Just because the stats say one thing … you have to avoid that. When you’re in the phase that we’re in, we’re trying to grow and get better every day. To become something special, you have to ignore the good and the bad when you’re talking about stuff that gets reported (and focus on) what is real.”
It’s highly unlikely the Bears take the North this season, but Poles was laying out long-range plans, ones he knew would require patience and a lot of work. The clock on a return to contention is sped up if Fields continues to settle in, and it certainly appears a shift in the division is playing out this season.
Aidan Hutchinson, Lions defensive end
Information for this report was obtained from NFL scouts.
Hutchinson, 6-foot-7, 264 pounds, is a rookie drafted No. 2 overall out of Michigan. He leads the Lions with 4½ sacks with three of them coming in a Week 2 loss to the Washington Commanders.
Hutchinson made his first interception last week in a victory over the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field. He set a Wolverines record with 14 sacks last season when he was the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
“Coming out in the draft he wasn’t given enough credit for how fluid and athletic he is, especially his lower body flexibility,” the scout said. “He can bend on the edge. He’s got good short-area closing speed. His hand usage is starting to improve.
“One of the best traits that’s not talked about is his ability to set the edge as a defensive end in the run game. When you’re drafting a guy at No. 2 overall, you’re looking for a two-way player. He’s a big, powerful, base defensive end. He’s got good pursuit speed. He’s an extremely high-effort player. He’ll become more refined as a pass rusher.
“He makes plays late in the down and those are still impactful, like a Trey Hendrickson, who was paid a bunch of money to leave New Orleans and go to Cincinnati. Hutchinson is relentless. He never stops playing, and that is a special trait to have. Not everyone is like that. That’s the truth. Is he high level and off the charts in terms of pass-rush traits? I don’t think so. But he’s going to be a very good football player for a long time.”