Bears News

Emma’s Tailgater: Amid Bears’ struggles and scrutiny, Matt Eberflus holding onto hope

9 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Forty minutes after Russell Wilson took one final knee in victory formation and Soldier Field rained down with a chorus of boos, Matt Eberflus emerged from his office in the bowels of the stadium’s northwest corner still frazzled by what had just occurred. 

Eberflus struggled to summarize what had just happened, with the Bears blowing a 21-point lead and squandering their chance to stop this franchise-worst losing streak. He is 3-18 as head coach and Chicago has earned a victory just once in the last calendar year. There were difficult questions to answer after a stunning loss like that – and even more so amid this historic skid of losses. 

Meanwhile, the Bears have dealt with constant off-field distractions early this season, including the abrupt resignation of Alan Williams as defensive coordinator, Justin Fields’ critical comments towards the coaches and Chase Claypool’s apparent suspension. 

A tenure that should only be just beginning is facing great pressure. The embattled Eberflus already recognizes his seat grows hotter with each passing loss. 

“I’ve been doing this 32 years, so I understand the business,” Eberflus said. “But I understand that to do it right, you got to focus on your job and you got to focus on right here, right now. So, you can think about a lot of different things that’s going to do nobody good. You can focus on your job and where your feet are right now. Our sole focus is on Washington.  

“It’s part of the business, and you just focus on the job at hand. Focus on the walk-throughs in practice and that’s all we could and coming up with solutions, finding ways to put guys in better positions. That’s what we’re doing.” 

Eberflus was hired by the Bears in late January of 2022 days after Ryan Poles was tabbed as new general manager. Understanding that this team needed a rebuild before it could succeed, Poles made Eberflus his choice as head coach. It was a conviction he felt months before even interviewing at Halas Hall, a match he coveted all along.

Eberflus said he has not spoken with the Bears’ management – chairman George McCaskey, president and CEO Kevin Warren or Poles – to seek assurances about his job security. 

The Bears have never fired a head coach during a season, and especially not just five games in. But ever since Warren took office at Halas Hall and began evaluating every aspect of this organization, it’s worth wondering if he will operate differently from his predecessors.  

“I feel the support,” Eberflus said. “And we’re just focused on Washington.” 

Certainly, it is not too late for Eberflus to turn around this Bears team. It starts with Thursday night in a primetime game with the Commanders (2-2) at FedEx Field. All it takes is that lone victory to stop this miserable losing streak and change the atmosphere within Halas Hall. 

With 13 games remaining in this season, Eberflus’ Bears must prove themselves as a competitive bunch that’s tough to beat. That means executing the HITS Principle – Hustle. Intensity. Forcing Takeaways. And smart, situational football – in a way that hasn’t been seen this season. It’s Luke Getsy continuing to foster an offensive identity that best suits Fields’ skill set. Undoubtedly, it’s a defense that’s allowed at least 25 points in an NFL record 14 straight games showing some form. 

Fields pointed to how the Lions last season started 1-6 before finishing with victories in eight of their final 10 games. Detroit is now the team to beat in the NFC North and has a culture set with Dan Campbell as head coach. The Jaguars were 2-6 last season before winning seven of their final 10 games and claiming the AFC South crown. 

There are plenty of shining examples to inspire hope to Eberflus and the Bears that can emerge from this fire. 

“It will crack,” Eberflus said again, reiterating his optimism for this team. 

Through those 32 years of football upbringing, Eberflus has been preparing himself for an opportunity like this. Despite the challenges that have been presented and loss after loss he has endured, Eberflus has remained firm to his convictions. Even now, he still sees the future as bright. But it’s not as clear how McCaskey, Warren and Poles view the state of this struggling franchise. 

Winning would set a new course for the Bears and lend proof to Eberflus’ belief. It’s the void in a plan that hasn’t come together. 

For Eberflus, victories are his best path forward to the promising future he still sees with the Bears. 

The frustrating Claypool saga nears its ugly conclusion 

Matt Eberflus was intent on concealing the reasons behind the sudden dismissal of Chase Claypool, the talented but embattled wide receiver that the Bears once believed in. As it turned out, Eberflus couldn’t hold out long enough. 

On Monday, Eberflus fielded 20 questions about why the Bears made the 24-year-old Claypool a healthy scratch from Sunday’s game, why he was told to stay away from Soldier Field, why he was not welcomed back at Halas Hall this week, and why it has all come to this. 

Eberflus finally broke from his guarded form. 

“I would say that what we think is best for the team and how we operate here as a football team, the Chicago Bears,” Eberflus said. “When I came here Day 1, I talked about being on time, being respectful and working hard. That to me is important for every individual — if it’s a staff member, a player or a coach. That’s where we are. We feel right now this is the best decision for us.” 

The Bears were willing to bet that they could see through Claypool’s potential, trading a second-round pick to the Steelers on the NFL’s trade deadline day last November. They should’ve trusted Mike Tomlin knew what he was doing when Pittsburgh made Claypool available for a deal. 

Claypool’s tenure with the Bears is almost certainly done. Even Eberflus seemed to indicate that a parting of ways was the next step. 

“Well, he’s not going to be in the building this week, so he’s not playing this week,” Eberflus said. “We’ll see where it goes from there. Ryan (Poles) handles all those trades and transactions, and we’ll see where it goes.  

“All I’m saying right now is he’s not going to be in the building this week.” 

The final straw in Claypool’s brief tenure with the Bears came last Friday when he admitted the coaches were not putting him in the best position for success. Claypool also had a sideline blowup during a game at Ford Field last season and was involved in multiple altercations during training camp.  

In a training camp practice on Aug. 8, Claypool suffered a hamstring injury running a one-on-one drill against rookie Tyrique Stevenson. After grabbing at his hamstring, Claypool verbally confronted Stevenson before he left the field.  

Claypool’s performance in the Bears’ season opener was called into question for a lack of effort. A montage of his poor blocking attempts went viral on social media, which reached Claypool himself. He apologized to those inside Halas Hall and vowed to be better. He never acted on that. 

Claypool arrived to the Bears with the reputation of being an emotional player. Instead, he was more of a volatile presence. 

“I’m just going to be there for him as a friend,” said Cole Kmet, who was teammates with Claypool at Notre Dame. “At the end of the day, we’re all adults here and everyone gets to make their own decisions and can say what they want to say on things, act how they want to act, whatever it may be.  

“It’s on him to do what he’s got to do, and just as a friend, I’m going to be there for him.” 

The Bears are expected to shop Claypool for a potential trade, desperately hoping to land a late-round pick. Given how this saga has unfolded, it’s unlikely any team would be willing to part with draft capital for Claypool. Many teams may have no interest in signing him at all. He had just 19 receptions for 191 yards and a touchdown in 10 games with the Bears. The distractions far outweighed the minimal production. 

Claypool was playing the final season of his rookie contract in 2023. A second-round pick to the Steelers, he broke into the NFL in 2020 with 9 touchdown catches and appeared to be a star in the making. But over the next two years, Claypool fell out of favor with Tomlin and Pittsburgh’s coaching staff.  

At the start of training camp, Claypool said he recognized the importance of this season. He was being touted by the Bears as a breakout player and fighting for his contract future.  

“It’s the biggest year of my life, and I understand that,” Claypool said in July, pointing to his contract desires. 

Claypool already seems to have thrown away his chance with the Bears. Given how this disheartening story has unfolded, there may not be another team willing to take Claypool in this time. 

Fields finds a breakthrough 

Through all that unfolded as the Bears blew a three-score lead on Sunday, the shining performance of Justin Fields became an afterthought. 

It was as well for Fields himself.  

“To be honest, I’d rather throw for 50 yards and 3 picks and go win the game than what happened on Sunday,” Fields said. “At this point, winning is just the No. 1 thing on my mind. I’d rather do that than accomplish any individual goal or individual statistic that there is.” 

Regardless of the outcome on the scoreboard, Fields’ play was notable in its own right. He finished 28-of-35 for 335 yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception. Fields was part of the Bears squandering their lead as he fumbled in the fourth quarter on a scoop-and-score touchdown for the Broncos. He also threw an interception on a potential tying or winning drive in the final minute. But what Fields displayed on the field was something significant. 

Fields thrived with a moving pocket and enjoyed a game plan from Luke Getsy that best fit his skill set. That included several designed plays in which Fields’ running threat set up passing opportunities. He opened the game with a franchise record 16 consecutive completions and was dialed in.  

The 24-year-old Fields set a career-high in passing yards and touchdowns on Sunday. He has spoken in the past of his desire to emerge as a passer more than a running threat. This showing was exactly what he meant. 

“It was a good positive reinforcement for him to know what type of player he is and a confidence booster,” said tight end Robert Tonyan. “Momentum to just carry forward in these upcoming games. That’s who Justin is. He’s poised. He’s confident. Getting him in a scheme and a game plan to do so like we did last Sunday was good for him and obviously it showed.” 

Getsy dismissed the fact that the Broncos have a defense that allowed 70 points and 726 yards in their previous game against the Dolphins, and that Denver is ranked dead last in most key defensive categories.  

To a degree, Getsy is right in this claim. Fields’ successes on Sunday were about process more than results. 

“I feel like his comfort level in what we’re doing, knowing what his assignments are, knowing what’s going on around him is much improved,” Getsy said.  

Fields was 11-of-22 for 99 yards, one touchdown and one interception during the Bears’ third loss of the season coming against the Chiefs. It was another game that seemed to underscore a looming change at quarterback for Chicago this offseason. 

Fields understands what’s at stake in Year 3 of his career before this next offseason. He could find the opportunity to land a lucrative long-term contract extension, or the Bears can decline his fifth-year extension and prepare to try again at finding a franchise quarterback. 

For Fields, the focus is on what the Bears from him more what’s next for himself. 

“I think we took a step in the right direction as an offense,” Fields said. “We know we still have some things to work on, but we took a step in finding who we are as an offense, our identity and just really going out there and playing football.” 

Jenkins nears a return 

Shortly after Teven Jenkins last practiced for the Bears in August during joint practices with the Colts, he stood inside a tent and spoke with hope for his health. 

“I mean, it hopefully shows signs of my wanted durability of myself for the rest of the season,” Jenkins said then. “So, as long as I’m staying out here right now through training camp, hopefully it shows positive signs for the rest of the year.” 

Jenkins did not practice again after those comments. He reported pain in his calf to the Bears’ medical staff and was sidelined for six weeks as a result. 

On Monday, the Bears designated Jenkins for a return from injured reserve. That roster move allows Jenkins to practice with the team and opened a 21-day window during which he can be activated. 

It’s possible that Jenkins could be back with the Bears’ active roster for Thursday night at FedEx Field. He had made a transition to left guard this offseason, where the Bears were counting on him as a key piece to their offensive line. 

Jenkins has to pick up where he last left off. 

“Fortunately, he’s not one of the new guys,” Getsy said. “There’s a lot of new guys. It’s (would) be hard for one of those guys to do that. But he’s not one of the new guys, so that should comfort him a little bit more. We got some good work in through camp with him on the left side. We’re excited to see him go. We’ll see how far he can go.” 

A second-round pick to the Bears in the 2021 NFL Draft, Jenkins has had his young career set back by injuries. He underwent back surgery during August of his rookie year and played in just six of a possible 17 games. Last season, he worked in just 13 of a possible 17 games.  

Jenkins is healthy once again and positioned to step back into the Bears’ plans for his future. 

Quote to note 

“We are not running away from it. We are putting our head down. We are going to work. That is just what it is. That is what my message is – to keep one foot in front of the other and everything is going to be alright. There is no need for us to panic. No need for us to point fingers, and no need for us to divide. If anything, we come closer together now, because that is the type of men that we have. And I’m very confident that everyone believes like that.” 

–Veteran linebacker and captain Tremaine Edmunds, on the mindset of his team. 

Injury report 

S Eddie Jackson (foot) — The Bears were pleased they didn’t have to place Jackson on injured reserve when he suffered this injury. But he’s in jeopardy of not playing a third straight game. A stint on injured reserve requires a minimum of four games missed.  

S Jaquan Brisker (hamstring) — During a light practice on Wednesday, Brisker suffered a hamstring strain. He is officially listed as questionable to play, though his status would seem to be in some doubt. 

CB Jaylon Johnson (hamstring) — Johnson is playing through a contract year and has already been set back in his hopes for a big-money extension. He is set to miss a second consecutive game while dealing with this hamstring. 

LG Teven Jenkins (calf) — Jenkins is trending towards a return to action, perhaps by Thursday night. 

WR Chase Claypool (other) — Has a player ever been listed as “other” for an injury designation? That’s the case for Claypool.  

Emma’s Prediction (3-1): Commanders 23, Bears 16 

This is certainly an ideal chance for the Bears to get back in the win column for the first time in nearly a year. Thursday night games tend to have some variance and the Commanders are beatable. But I can’t go as far to pick a win – and this franchise-worst skid will hit 15 in a row. 

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