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5 Takeaways: Justin Fields, Bears face uncertainty ahead in franchise-altering offseason

2 months agoChris Emma

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Silence filled each corner of the visitors’ locker room Sunday evening at Lambeau Field, surrounding the Bears at the end of this journey. The feeling of dejection and disappointment gripped this team, which realizes uncertainty looms ahead.

The Bears hoped to storm into Lambeau Field on Sunday and make a galvanizing statement with a victory over the Packers, keeping their rivals out of the postseason. In doing so, Chicago would feel a measure of pride and see a clear picture of progress heading into this pivotal offseason.

However, that familiar feeling met the Bears as they walked up the east tunnel of Lambeau Field and through the open doors of their locker room. They had lost again to the Packers, 17-9.

Here are the five takeaways from Lambeau Field.

1. Fields ‘gave it my all’

Justin Fields has been preparing himself for the decision that will come early this offseason, as the Bears choose to either invest in him as their franchise quarterback or select his replacement in the NFL Draft.

All Fields could do is go out and perform to the best of his abilities with hopes of making this decision difficult on the Bears. At the end of this pivotal third season of his NFL career, the 24-year-old Fields is simply proud.

“I gave it my all,” he said. “Whether (the future is) here or not, I have no regrets.”

But Sunday’s loss at Lambeau Field underscored why general manager Ryan Poles and the Bears are more likely to select their next quarterback in the draft than build around Fields. He finished 11-of-16 for 148 yards as the Bears failed to reach the end zone.

The Bears struggled around Fields, but Poles is also of the belief that a great quarterback elevates his team. His job this offseason will be determining Fields’ true potential entering his fourth season in 2024 and measuring that with the alternatives like Caleb Williams (USC) and Drake Maye (North Carolina). Chicago once again holds the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

Last January, Poles said he would have to be “blown away” to select a quarterback with the first overall pick and part ways with Fields. When Poles addresses reporters at his year-end press conference, he will likely reiterate that same phrase as it relates to the looming decision at quarterback.

This time around, Poles may well just be blown away by the prospects available. Williams is considered a generational quarterback prospect whose place as the consensus top pick in this draft has been clear for more than a calendar year. Maye has drawn comparisons to former Steelers star Ben Roethlisberger. J.J. McCarthy (Michigan), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), Jayden Daniels (LSU) and Bo Nix (Oregon) are also among the leading arms available.

If Poles truly believes in Fields, he can create a bidding war for the first overall pick and again land a haul in return. Even if the Bears trade down just one spot, they could still command a return that features three top picks – then Poles would likely select prized wide receiver prospect Marvin Harrison Jr. There’s great appeal to that option, which would be a clear investment in Fields’ future.

“It would mean a lot,” Fields said. “I have a pretty good relationship with Ryan (Poles) and the guys upstairs. But at the end of the day, this is a business. They have to make the tough decision. My job is just to go out there and play my best. But it would mean a lot to get that confirmation from them and just really send a message that they trust me to lead this team and be the quarterback for the Bears.”

But Poles cannot come away without a franchise quarterback after holding the first overall pick two years in a row. It would be a grand indictment on him as general manager. The Bears could’ve selected C.J. Stroud (Texans), who is almost certainly the Offensive Rookie of the Year in the NFL. If Chicago moves forward with Fields and he fails to become a star, hopes for the future of this franchise would be crushed.

If the Bears elect to move on from Fields, they will land a quality return in a trade. He has proven himself as a starter in this league and will warrant great interest in a trade.
Fields recognizes that his future will once again be at the center of national narratives and local interest. There will be great speculation about Poles’ convictions until the Bears emerge with a decision. That’s when the offseason will truly take shape.

At the end of this season, Fields is holding his head high in looking to what’s next.

“I think I’m headed up,” Fields said. “I felt growth this year, each and every game. Really since I’ve gotten back from injury. I think I’ve gotten better tremendously when I came back from injury. Only getting better.”

2. Will Eberflus return?

Entering Sunday at Lambeau Field, Bears management seems to have been undecided on whether Matt Eberflus would be retained for a third season as head coach.

President Kevin Warren declined to give a vote of confidence behind Eberflus last Friday when addressing reporters. The team has not made a public statement that be will be back, nor have team officials leaked that information through the media. Eberflus arrived in Green Bay coaching for his job.

Sunday marked a missed opportunity for Eberflus, who could’ve made a statement with a defining win over the rival Packers that truly puts a stamp on progress this season. He had the chance to walk into the visiting locker room of Lambeau Field and be greeted by hugs and handshakes from Warren and team chairman George McCaskey.

A win over the Packers would’ve been Eberflus’ final case to remain in his job for a third season. But the Bears played so poorly in this loss, uncertainty was welcomed back into the fold at Halas Hall.

Eberflus did not say whether he has been given assurances that he will return to the Bears next season. He is planning to conduct hours of exit interviews with players on Monday morning at Halas Hall. As for when clarity would come on his own future, Eberflus said he wasn’t aware – and even acknowledged it may not be revealed until midweek.

“I got to be right here, right now,” Eberflus said. “I have those (exit interviews) tomorrow, and then I’ll have meetings after that later in the week with ownership and everybody else. And we’ll figure it out from there.”

Black Monday in the NFL is sure to bring plenty of coaching changes. The Bears’ decision may take a little longer to be revealed.

Without this triumphant victory under his belt, Eberflus is left only with his words to make a final case for staying with the Bears.

“I do know this – The foundation has been set,” Eberflus said. “The standards have been set for how we operate. I do know that. I do know the locker room. I do know that for sure. We’re standing on solid ground – on hard work, on passion for the game, enthusiasm for the game and we’re just going to keep working together to build this thing.”

3. Love Actually

In his first full season as the Packers’ starting quarterback – next in the line of great Green Bay quarterbacks – Jordan Love surpassed the 4,000-yard mark in passing. Never in the Bears’ 104-year history has a quarterback reached that milestone.

Love’s 32 passing touchdowns this season tied Lynn Dickey and two Brett Favre seasons for 11th-most in a season by the Packers. The other 10 quarterbacks in front of him are Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Thirty-two touchdown passes in a season would be a record for a Bears quarterback.

Over the 207 meetings between the Bears and the Packers in this longstanding rivalry, never have quarterbacks from both teams thrown for 300 yards in the same game. Love finished Sunday 27-of-32 for 316 yards and two scores, continuing on the legacy of Favre and Rodgers in tormenting the Bears.

The Bears’ leader in passing yards in a game against the Packers is Matt Barkley, who threw for 362 yards during a game at Lambeau Field in 2016.

Chicago has found its worst fear to be true: Love looks like he’s the next great Packers quarterback, and he’s already 2-0 against the Bears.

4. Johnson’s case from the sidelines

Without Pro Bowl cornerback Jaylon Johnson (shoulder), the Bears turned to a pair of rookies in Terell Smith and Tyrique Stevenson. The Packers were ready to take advantage.

While Stevenson has played well this season – and produced a strong performance Sunday night – Smith struggled in coverage while Matt LaFleur seemed to design plays his way. The Bears felt Johnson’s absence in this loss.

“I’ll tell you what,” DeMarcus Walker said. “Got to pay Jaylon Johnson.”

The 24-year-old Johnson finished this season with four interceptions over 14 games and was the top-ranked cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. This strong year for Johnson comes as he’s set to become an unrestricted free agent.

Contract talks between the Bears and Johnson stalled late in the season. The two sides will head into this offseason with hopes of reaching a long-term extension, though the franchise tag may be the immediate solution to keep Johnson with the Bears.

The Bears know how important Johnson is to their defense. On Sunday night, they really missed his presence.

“We felt it,” said cornerback Jaquan Brisker. “We felt it. A lot of those throws would be picked by Jaylon. Especially the way he reads through, that’s an All-Pro corner right there. We definitely felt it.”

5. Tough season for ‘team-first’ Whitehair

Before the start of this regular season, Cody Whitehair acknowledged he was fortunate to be back with the Bears for an eighth year.

Whitehair understood that his contract was one that could’ve been cut last offseason and he had to perform at a high level to remain in Chicago. After starting 117 consecutive games, Whitehair was benched in November.

“I’m a team-first guy and whatever is better for the team, that’s what I’m going to do,” Whitehair said. “I served as a backup the rest of the year and made the best of it.

“There were some ups and downs, obviously. Was asked to go in the backup role and that’s tough. As a starter here for seven years, it’s tough. But I made the best of it and going to continue to play, for sure.”

Whitehair stepped in Sunday night at right guard after starter Nate Davis left the game with a foot injury.

The 31-year-old Whitehair is a likely salary cap casualty, a move that would save the Bears up to $10.3 million if done with a post-June 1 designation. Whitehair seems to understand that his time in Chicago may be coming to an end.

“This team is going to be great next year,” Whitehair said. “A lot of momentum going into next year. Obviously, this one is tough. We wanted to get this one going into next year. But this team’s definitely on the rise. They’re heading in the right direction.

“You can just see everybody playing for each other. Offense, defense and special teams are just heading in the right direction. This team is on the rise and going to be good next year.”

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