Bears News

Emma’s Tailgater: Bears have hopes for great turnaround in 2023

10 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Back in the spring, as the Bears gathered together during the offseason program, head coach Matt Eberflus set the standard for his team to strive for this season. 

Eberflus pointed to the opportunity in place for the Bears to claim the NFC North crown this season.  

“That’s the No. 1 goal, is to win the division,” Eberflus said. “And then win the conference and then go to the Super Bowl and have a chance to win that.” 

The beauty of this league, which carries such inherent parity and constant change, is that Eberflus’ goal is realistic for the Bears to reach – even after finishing 3-14 and with the NFL’s worst record in 2022. There’s no division quite so wide open like the NFC North. 

On Sunday afternoon, when the Bears kick off the regular season with the Packers at Soldier Field, the most fascinating division battle in football will begin.  

The Bears boast legitimate hopes to go from worst to first – a feat accomplished in 18 of the last 20 seasons – thanks to an improved roster in Year 2 of general manager Ryan Poles’ plan. Chicago acquired dynamic wide receiver DJ Moore, solidified the offensive line with No. 10 overall draft pick Darnell Wright, and bolstered Eberflus’ defense with linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards. If quarterback Justin Fields can enjoy a breakthrough season, the Bears have a chance. 

Like Eberflus, Poles hasn’t shied away from setting high expectations – “Win more games,” he said – and that message resonates with the players. 

“The goal every year for us is to win the division,” said safety Eddie Jackson. “So, that’s about what we’re doing here, how we focus, how we prepare and how we go out there and execute. That’s what it’s really about.” 

There’s opportunity in the NFC North this season. The Packers parted ways with four-time MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and turned to fourth-year arm Jordan Love. The Vikings, who were 13-4 with a negative point differential last season, are expected to come back down to earth. The Lions are a popular playoff pick but deserve skepticism. The Bears should certainly feel like they have a chance in the division. 

In 2021, the Jaguars finished with a 3-14 record and a place as the worst team in the NFL. They enjoyed a dramatic turnaround in 2022, finishing with a 9-8 record – including a five-game winning streak to end the regular season – and won the division title in a weak AFC South field. Jacksonville won a playoff game in the wild-card round and enters this season as the favorite to win the division once again. 

That is the shining example for the Bears, who can draw belief from what the Jaguars pulled off just last season. 

“I’ve been a part of those teams and I understand it’s a journey,” said Edmunds, who has played in the playoffs the last four seasons with the Bills. “It’s a process. You can’t get to that year goal without taking care of one week at a time.  

“That’s what the main message is – not looking too far in advance but seeing what’s in the present time right now. All we can control is today and the work we put in today.” 

The Bears could very well still be one year away from emerging as true contenders through Poles’ rebuilding blueprint – better positioned to make that jump in 2024 thanks to more time for scouting and development at Halas Hall. But with the arrival of this new season, Eberflus and his team can sense there’s opportunity before them. 

There’s growing belief that the Bears hope can become a reality. 

“We like where we are in our division,” Eberflus said. “That’s why we play the games.” 

High stakes for Fields in Year 3 

After two years of uncertainty and wonders, debate and deliberation, hopes and doubt, it’s time for the revealing third season of Justin Fields’ career.  

From the front office at Halas Hall to the festival of intrigue in Chicago, there’s great fascination as to whether Fields will take that great leap and emerge as a franchise quarterback – or become the latest Bears quarterback to flounder and set course on an offseason of transition at that position. 

Fields has no excuses this season after the Bears invested around him. He must now go out and prove it. 

“I just try to be the best version of myself, try to get better each and every day,” Fields said of those grand hopes. “So, whatever that may look like, that’s what it is.” 

The No. 11 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Fields has become one of the most polarizing players in the league over his first two seasons. He has struggled as a passer – in large part due to a poor supporting cast around him – while producing flashes of brilliance as a rusher. 

Fields shattered rushing records in 2022 as the Bears catered their scheme around his strengths. This season, he has made it a goal to become the first 4,000-yard passer in franchise history. 

As the Bears set their sights on a significant jump as a team this season, they are counting on Fields to lead the way. 

“All the weapons that are here, to get this going and rolling with Justin, it’s just going to be one to watch,” said Moore. 

“I know he’s locked in.” 

There are greater personal implications for Fields, who is eligible for a contract extension after this season. He and the Bears can hope for a Jalen Hurts-type breakthrough season. 

After inconsistent play his first two seasons, Hurts threw for 3,701 yards, 22 touchdowns and just 6 interceptions last year, leading the Eagles to the brink of a Super Bowl victory. Philadelphia rewarded Hurts as its new franchise quarterback with a five-year, $255-million contract extension in April. 

The fear for Chicago is that Fields produces a third season that resembles what Mitch Trubisky produced in 2019, throwing for 3,138 yards, 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as part of a .500 campaign. It became clear then that Trubisky, the No. 2 overall pick in 2017, wasn’t cut out to become a franchise quarterback. 

Ryan Poles and the Bears aren’t setting specific boxes for Fields to check this season – but they will know whether he has earned a long-term future in Chicago. 

“You’re looking for progress to feel good about,” Poles said. 

Chicago hopes that Fields can be the elite quarterback that it hasn’t seen before, the player to shatter pedestrian passing records owned by Jay Cutler and Sid Luckman. For his part, Fields embraces that. 

A prized recruit from Georgia who had a Netflix documentary featuring him as a high school senior, Fields shined as a Heisman Trophy finalist at Ohio State and has taken ownership of his place as a bright young player in the NFL.  

Fields acts and carries himself as if he’s a superstar in the making. 

“He’s made tremendous growth,” veteran center Lucas Patrick said. “I mean, you come from a college program and you’re like a kid, and then all of a sudden, you’re just chasing your dream. The next thing you know, a city with a couple million people is like, ‘Hey, go win us a Super Bowl.’ There’s a lot of pressure.  

“It’s not easy.” 

When Fields lines the Bears up for their first play from scrimmage on Sunday at Soldier Field, it will mark the beginning of a pivotal season ahead. No longer can he be considered an enigma at quarterback, that talented but perplexing player under center.  

Fields needs to go out and solidify his future – both for himself and this franchise. 

“I’m ready,” Fields said. “Ready to go.” 

‘Tough’ Love meets Bears 

On the April night in 2020 when the Packers set course on a dramatic change for their franchise, Luke Getsy understood the significance of what was coming. 

The Packers had traded up to the 26th overall pick in the draft and selected Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. He was brought to Green Bay with hopes of becoming the next great player at that position – and to eventually succeed future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers. 

Love was forced to wait three years as Rodgers continued to thrive, in part because of the inherent challenge from Packers management to hold down his place as the starter. But three years later, the decision to draft Love forced an ultimatum as Rodgers requested a trade to the Jets and started this transition. 

Love will make just his second career start – and his first as the Packers’ bonafide QB1 – when he takes the field against the Bears on Sunday at Soldier Field. Just as there’s intrigue surrounding the future of Fields in Chicago, Green Bay is wondering whether Love can carry the torch handed from Rodgers. 

“He handled the situation really well,” said Getsy, now in his second season as the Bears’ offensive coordinator. “When you have a player the caliber that he had ahead of him, he did a great job of taking notes, studying and watching the best dude do his job. I think that’s all part of that process and he handled it really well.” 

Since a 1992 trade with the Falcons for Brett Favre, the Packers have enjoyed three decades of prominence at quarterback. Rodgers took over as Green Bay’s starter in 2008, earning 10 Pro Bowl appearances and leading a Super Bowl victory. 

Love, 24, is under contract with the Packers through the 2024 season. But given the structure of his extension signed in May, he is facing pressure to perform and earn his future with the Packers. 

“He’s a tough kid, resilient kid, smart, clearly talented,” said Patrick, who played with Love in Green Bay from 2020-21. “I mean, we saw where that organization took him in the draft. He was also willing to learn. Nothing but good things to say about the kid.” 

The Bears are facing the unknown as they line up against Love in the season opener. He has thrown just 83 career passes in regular-season games, plus played in limited preseason action. There is very limited sampling of what type of challenge Love poses to the Bears. 

Whether this is the first of a few matchups between Love and Chicago or perhaps the start of a long era ahead, the Bears are up for the task. 

“What we’re trying not to do is hunt up too many ghosts and say we think he’s going to do this, we think this going to happen, we think they are going to do these things,” defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “What we have to focus on is what Green Bay has done up until this point and then see what they’ve done, and then look at Love in the preseason and see what he does well.  

“He gets the ball out of his hand, he throws a phenomenal deep ball, outside he has great touch, it seems like he makes good decisions, fast decisions, fast processor. So, we’re just trying to look at what they’ve done in the past, what they have done in the preseason and just go from there.  

“At the end of the day, it’s still more about us than it is about who they have, who they have at receiver, who they have at running back, who they have on the (offensive) line. It’s still about the Chicago Bears.” 

‘Gratitude’ in fresh start for Patrick 

Veteran Lucas Patrick understands the nature of this cruel business in the NFL. Despite an injury-plagued last season with the Bears, he could’ve been cast aside this offseason. 

The Bears stood by the 30-year-old Patrick, whom they signed to a two-year, $10-million deal last year. He is likely shifting back to center for Sunday’s season opener against his former team, which gave him a chance as an undrafted free agent in 2017.  

After playing just seven games last season – missing the final 10 contests due to a season-ending toe injury – Patrick is back with the Bears on a second chance. 

“A lot of gratitude,” Patrick said. “I mean, last season didn’t go as well as (hoped). But I think one of the coolest things is this organization changed my family’s life. Even from the onset everything happening, George (McCaskey) rushed down immediately the night my injury happened. Ryan (Poles) has had my back). (Eberflus) has had my back. (Chris Morgan) has had my back. So, I have nothing but gratitude for an organization that has stood by me. 

“I can do what you brought me in to do. Gratitude. They changed my family’s life. Like, I just had a daughter recently and her experience in this world will be significantly better because of the Chicago Bears. So, like, it’s beyond playing football for me. I feel like I owe them something greater than just play.” 

Patrick suffered a fracture to his hand on the first practice of training camp in 2022. He opened the regular season playing through the injury – sliding over to guard because of his inability to effectively snap the football. But Patrick was limited by his injury and struggled to perform at a high level. Then came the season-ending injury in late October, a frustrating setback for a player who had something he hoped to prove. 

Patrick was initially left out of the Bears’ plan for their starting offensive line after the team signed veteran right guard Nate Davis. Cody Whitehair was shifting to center from left guard, where Teven Jenkins was slated to start this season.  

Jenkins is starting the regular season on injured reserve, which will require a minimum four-game absence. Whitehair moved back to left guard and the Bears turned to Patrick at center, the position he was initially signed to play. 

“He has the most experience of anybody up there and doing what we’re doing on offense,” Getsy said. “And so, it’s good to have him back in that leadership role and kind of taking control of the guys. We’re excited to see him get to go at it again.” 

Go, DJ 

When Moore heard his name announced as one of the four team captains this season, he struggled to contain his excitement. 

The 26-year-old Moore was never named a captain over five seasons with the Panthers, but he understood that this recognition from the Bears meant more. It was a reflection of how he has been viewed since arriving to Halas Hall in March. 

The key acquisition for the Bears in their blockbuster trade with the Panthers, Moore has become an instrumental leader to his new teammates. He prefers to lead by example. 

“He doesn’t talk much,” said Eddie Jackson, who is also a captain this season. “I call him ‘The Silent Assassin.’ He kind of lets his game do the talking.  

“He goes out there and he busts his tail in the weight room, on the field. We see the things he’s capable of doing.” 

Moore was prioritized by the Bears rather than receiving a 2025 first-round pick in their haul from the Panthers in exchange for the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. The addition of a playmaking wide receiver would significantly reshape the offense around Justin Fields. 

Moore was touted as the Bears’ new true No. 1 target, but he doesn’t carry himself with the ego of a star wide receiver. That has resonated with this team. 

“The guy is a competitive animal,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “He’s quiet but he plays hard, practices hard. He’s a great teammate. He holds himself accountable. When he makes a mistake, he’s the first person to go into that huddle and say, ‘That’s my bad. I was wrong.’ I think all that stuff it stands out for the kind of man that he is.” 

Quote to note 

“As soon as he goes, you smile, ‘Good luck in New York. Hope you enjoy Broadway and enjoy all the stuff they have out there.’ And then you go, hey, let’s move on. A new chapter.” 

—Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams, on the departure of former Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. 

Injury report 

Right guard Nate Davis (personal) — Davis has been impacted both by an undisclosed injury and some personal matters this preseason. Given his frequent absences, his status is one to watch for Sunday. 

Safety Eddie Jackson (ankle) — Three weeks after suffering an ankle injury during joint practices with the Colts, Jackson said he feels 100% and ready to go. 

Safety Jaquan Brisker (groin) — Brisker needed to clear some hurdles physically but is in line to play Sunday. 

Pass rusher DeMarcus Walker (calf) — The Bears missed Walker for much of the preseason. His presence will be welcomed back on Sunday as he is expected to play. 

Linebacker Dylan Cole (hamstring) — The veteran linebacker and special-teams contributor missed nearly the entire preseason. His status is uncertain for Sunday. 

Emma’s Prediction: Bears 20, Packers 17 

The 205th regular-season meeting between the Bears and the Packers will come down to the final play, a game-winning field goal by Cairo Santos, opening with a win for Chicago in this new season filled with hope. 

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