Emma’s Tailgater: Bears facing ‘adversity’ as Poles, Eberflus battle toughest test
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Through the upbringing of 13 years with the Chiefs, through four different promotions up the ranks, through a 2-14 season and a Super Bowl championship, Ryan Poles was prepared for his place as the Bears’ general manager. But he has never been through something like this.
The Bears have opened a season with renewed hopes at 0-2, losers of 12 straight games dating back to last October. This franchise is 3-16 under his leadership and showing little sign of improvement. Quarterback Justin Fields called upon – or called out? – his coaches for a more fitting scheme to his talents, then worked to walk back those comments.
Alan Williams, the second-year defensive coordinator and a trusted lieutenant to Matt Eberflus, abruptly resigned this week and the Bears were left to handle the suddenness and uncertainty of his departure. And this team must prepare for the reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes and the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs (1-1) on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
“First and foremost, to hit it straight on, we have adversity right now,” Poles said on Thursday in a press conference that wasn’t previously scheduled. “Slow start, 0-2, not where we want to be. We’ve dealt with life issues. We’ve dealt with injuries. And that’s all real and that’s a part of what we do and what we got to deal with.
“To make it really, really clear, I know there’s outside noise, but nobody in our building is panicking. Nobody is flinching at any situations. Not our owner, not our president, not our head coach, not myself, none of our players. Everyone is focusing on solving the issues that we have so we can become a better football team.”
The Bears have dealt with their share of struggles, controversies and storylines in the past. Though the regimes have changed over the years, these tests have persisted for this franchise. To Poles, Eberflus and their brass at Halas Hall, this is all new. These are perhaps the greatest and most defining challenges of their tenures.
When the Bears kicked off this new season on Sept. 10, there was a new hope at Soldier Field. The team had endured a 3-14 campaign last year but returned with a stronger supporting cast around third-year quarterback Justin Fields, made investments into Eberflus’ defensive identity and set its sights on emerging as a true contender. The Packers crushed the optimism in Chicago with their 9th straight win in this rivalry, then the Buccaneers beat the Bears in another discouraging performance last Sunday.
Eberflus sounded like many Bears head coaches before him in pointing to his belief of growth despite what the results say.
“We’re moving forward to Week 3 and we’re going to keep stacking improvements up as we go,” Eberflus said. “If we seize those opportunities at the end of the game, the outcome will swing the other way.”
What has followed since then is a critical assessment from the 24-year-old Fields in which he expressed his desire to “just out there free and being myself.” It seemed to be an authentic and frustrated account from Fields, one he later walked back while claiming to be mischaracterized.
Fields approached offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and clarified his remarks, which created headlines and narratives across the sports media landscape. Inside Halas Hall, it was a story that quickly landed to the side as Williams submitted his resignation as defensive coordinator.
Williams in a statement said he resigned to “take care of my health and my family.” The Bears issued a separate statement of their own.
“Alan Williams submitted his resignation as the team’s defensive coordinator this afternoon,” the Bears wrote in their statement.
Eberflus has been left to adjust without Williams, temporarily filling the role as defensive coordinator and play-caller himself – all while there are greater demands for the offense to emerge for Fields. Eberflus is dealing with the struggles of his football team while Poles and the Bears’ executives address the fires inside Halas Hall.
The Bears are just two-plus week into their second season of a grand plan led by Poles and Eberflus. Where they go from here seems impossible to imagine at this point.
There’s great adversity this team must fight through.
“We’re doing things the right way,” Poles said. “And unfortunately, sometimes the right way is the hardest way.”
Fields hopes to be ‘free’
The first question Fields faced during his regular Wednesday press conference was a simple inquiry on how he reviewed his performance from Sunday’s 27-17 loss to the Buccaneers, one in which he produced mixed results individually.
Fields seemed to have his own thoughts prepared to share for the public.
“I felt like I wasn’t necessarily playing my game,” Fields said. “I felt like I was robotic and not playing like myself. So, my goal this week is to say, ‘F it’ and just go out there and play football how I know how to play football. That includes thinking less and going out there and playing off of instincts rather than just off so much info in my head, data in my head.
“Going back to (how) it’s a game and that’s it. Because that’s when I play my best, is when I’m just out there free and being myself. Just kind of bump all (of) what I should do, this and that, pocket stuff. I’m going to go out there and be me.
Fields was then asked about why he feels overloaded with his role, struggling to process from the pocket and unleash his talents as a playmaker. “Could be coaching,” he started before expounding on other aspects of his game, but it was too late. Coaching was the word that sparked the latest firestorm for the Bears.
After walking off the practice field on Wednesday afternoon, Fields became aware of the narrative that had emerged from his earlier comments. He called reporters over to his locker and explained that he felt mischaracterized through the media.
Fields, who met with Getsy earlier in the week to explain his feelings for the offense, went back to the coaches on Wednesday and apologized for his comments to the media.
“He’s so passionate and he wants to win as much as anybody in the building,” Getsy said. “But it’s more important for him to be a man of character.
“Our relationship, our partnership, is outstanding. I think that part of it, we’re going to continue to grow.”
Ryan Poles reiterated the support that the Bears feel for Fields.
“I can’t be more clear than this,” Poles said. “No one in our entire building, none of our coaches, see Justin as a finger-pointer at all.”
That is how the Bears were able to extinguish at least this one problem. But how will they address it in the game plan?
Fields may have felt his comments were taken out of context in the media. However, he expressed clearly what he hopes to find from Getsy when they sat down together earlier this week. These were important points that Fields made – how he believes that this offense can ascend with his leadership.
The Bears must take the guard rails off Fields, allow him more freedom with his progressions and see if he can take off and run with this.
“He wants to be able to let it flow, let it go, let him be himself and play free,” Eberflus said. “I think that’s where he’s at right now. And that’s what we want. We want him to do that. He feels that presence in the pocket where he’s got pressure and he sees a place where he can work to either do a scramble drill, throw the ball down the field or take off and go.
“It’s the partnership. He respects that partnership and so do we. So, we want him to play free. I think it’s very important that as we work through this making sure that he does play free, that we coach him that way.”
Fields has completed 60.6% of his passes for 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions this season. He has been limited as a rusher – both by design from the game plan and focused schemes on defense – with just 13 carries for 62 yards and a touchdown. During Sunday’s loss to the Buccaneers, Fields rushed 4 times for 3 yards. Last season, he ran for 8 scores and 1,143 yards, the second most ever by a quarterback in a single season.
Through two games this season, the Bears’ goals to shape Fields into a more prolific pocket passer seem to have conflated with his playmaking abilities.
“He might’ve been speaking his mind,” said DJ Moore, Fields’ top target. “I don’t know. But at the end of the day, we still got a job to do, from the top down with the coaches to us. We (aren’t) robots and we’re going to go out and play the game we’ve been playing since we were kids and make it that way the best way we can.”
Fields certainly never intended to create a controversy for the Bears, but this will prove to be a lesson in his young career. Whether it will also be marked as the turning point for this offense remains to be seen.
Filling the void on defense?
Last week, when Williams left Halas Hall and never returned, the Bears were left without a defensive coordinator.
It puts more on the plate of Eberflus, who has assumed that role for the Bears. On Wednesday, prior to Williams’ resignation being announced, Eberflus was asked if it would be difficult stepping into the role leading this defense.
“No,” Eberflus said. “I think with the experience we have on defense, I don’t think that’s an issue.”
Late Thursday afternoon, members of the Bears’ defensive coaching staff declined to speak on the sudden departure of Williams. Instead, they turned their focus to Sunday’s game with the Chiefs.
The Bears are confident in the leadership of this defense remaining the same despite the departure of Williams.
“I’ve been with Coach Flus for a long time and he’s a really good defensive coordinator,” Bears linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said. “We got a ton of confidence in him.
“We just divvy up the work like we always do, and everybody does their part.”
The Bears have not addressed how they will adjust roles for their defensive staff, and Eberflus could still name the title of interim defensive coordinator to one of his assistants.
Eberflus could also call upon outside help to fill the void left on this defensive coaching staff. His mentor Rod Marinelli, who retired after 2021, would certainly be a logical fit to help guide this transition for the remainder of the season.
Eberflus worked under Marinelli during their time together with the Cowboys, while Borgonzi, cornerbacks coach Jon Hoke and defensive line coach Travis Smith have each worked for him as well.
For now, the Bears have their attention turned to facing Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Chiefs.
“I mean, they’ve won two Super Bowls,” Borgonzi said. “They have one of the best quarterbacks. He’s heading to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time in this league. They’re really talented. They have a Hall of Fame tight end. They got good running backs. They have good receivers. The offensive line is playing really well. So, it’s a good offense.”
Jones lands on IR
Braxton Jones was the lone Bears player to work every single snap on his side of the ball last season. Now, there’s concern for whether he will return in 2023.
Jones was placed on injured reserve Wednesday morning due to a neck injury, which he reported to the Bears’ medical staff early this week. Jones is required to miss a minimum of four games on injured reserve.
The hope is that Jones could return to the Bears after just that four-game absence, a source said. For however long Jones is out, there’s yet another challenge Fields and this offense must manage.
The Bears are likely to count on third-year tackle Larry Borom to block Fields’ blindside. Eberflus said the team has not considered shifting rookie Darnell Wright from right tackle in order to not risk stunting his development.
“When you’re working with a first-year player, a lot of times you like to leave them in the same spot,” Eberflus said.
A fifth-round pick to the Bears in the 2022 NFL Draft, Jones has served as the team’s starting left tackle ever since OTAs last year. Eberflus and this staff have remained confident in his development track in this key position.
Jones started all 17 games last season and there was a strong belief he could make a significant leap in performance ahead. This is a setback for Jones, and the Bears hope it doesn’t stunt the hopes for growth as an offense.
Quote to note
“The guys have done a great job sticking together through all of this stuff. I’m not saying any of this stuff is easy for these guys to be able to deal with. They’ve been pros. They’ve been doing a great job.”
—Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, on how the team has handled a difficult week
S Eddie Jackson (left foot) — The Bears were pleased to report that Jackson’s injury is not serious, though his status for Sunday’s game is in question. Elijah Hicks, the second-year player who was a seventh-round pick to Chicago, would make his third career start in place of Jackson.
WR Darnell Mooney (knee) — Mooney said his knee issue was just a bruise. The Bears are taking the side of caution in working him back, though he should be ready for Sunday’s game.
CB Josh Blackwell (hamstring) — Should Blackwell be able to play Sunday, he would likely step into the nickel cornerback role, which was occupied by Greg Stroman Jr. last week in place of the injured Kyler Gordon.
Emma’s Prediction (1-1): Chiefs 34, Bears 20
After all the turmoil this week at Halas Hall, the Bears need nothing more than a win. It won’t come on Sunday against the reigning champion Chiefs.