Emma’s Tailgater: Bears, Packers appear to be heading in opposite directions
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Inside of the Bears’ quarters at Halas Hall, it’s just as much a museum to franchise history as a football training facility. At every turn, there are relics of the past and reminders of tradition.
Synonymous to the Bears’ own history is their rivalry with the Packers. Sunday when the two teams meet, it will mark the 204th all-time regular-season game in the NFL’s longest-standing rivalry. It simply matters to every player, coach and staff member inside of Halas Hall because of the way these stories are passed down over the years.
Bears chairman George McCaskey and his family remind every head coach and general manager hired over the years that beating the Packers is a goal they dearly covet. It simply hasn’t happened for Chicago in recent years. Green Bay has won 23 of the last 28 meetings, including 11 of the last 12. The Bears’ last win against the Packers came in December of 2018, a triumphant victory that clinched the NFC North crown.
The Bears believed they had arrived at sustained success after winning that 2018 game against the Packers. Chicago is 27-39 since that game, including a pair of losses in the wild-card round.
Sunday marks a different game between the Bears (3-9) and Packers (4-8) at Soldier Field. Though their records are both poor and disappointing, these appear to be teams heading in opposite directions.
The Packers are a lost franchise wondering what’s next this offseason, including whether it’s wise to trade future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers and embark on a rebuild. Green Bay has failed to piece together a legitimate contender around Rodgers, who turns 39 on Friday. He has two years remaining on a three-year, $150-million deal signed this past offseason. Meanwhile, 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love is still waiting for his chance as the Packers’ full-time starter.
With a loss on Sunday, the Packers would secure just the fourth losing season since 2008, when Rodgers took over as Green Bay’s starting quarterback for Brett Favre. Rodgers has guided the Packers to 11 playoff appearances, eight division titles and one Super Bowl championship.
It will be a daunting task for the Packers to build around Rodgers. Green Bay’s best course of action might be to move on without him through a deal this offseason. Either way, there’s instability in Titletown for the first time since Brett Favre left town — when Rodgers quickly calmed those unsteady waters in Green Bay.
Now, there’s opportunity for the Bears to take back this rivalry against the Packers. They have hope in the form of second-year quarterback Justin Fields, who has continued to ascend into the type of star Chicago simply hasn’t had. The Bears are prepared to invest around the 23-year-old Fields, boasting more than $125 million in projected cap space for this offseason, a likely top-five draft selection and plenty of opportunity to improve.
When the Bears and Packers take to Soldier Field for the first time in 2023, they will look like very different teams compared to their current forms. Chicago should have put together a stronger supporting cast on offense for Fields and rebuilt its struggling defense. Green Bay could feature Love at quarterback and plenty of uncertainty around him.
As for Sunday, the Bears hope Fields can return healthy and make his mark against this poor Packers team. Then, the focus will turn back towards the future.
Finally, the Bears appear primed and positioned to take back this rivalry with the Packers.
1. Fields seeks to finish strong
When the Bears took to the practice fields behind Halas Hall on Thursday afternoon, there was Fields throwing with a little more velocity and moving with some conviction.
Fields practiced in full Thursday for the first time since suffering a separated left shoulder during the Bears’ game Nov. 20 in Atlanta. It was a positive indication that he can return for Sunday’s game against the Packers.
“If I feel like I can help my team win, help my team score, score points and put points on the board, then I’m going to go out there and play,” Fields said of his status on Wednesday.
Once Fields breaks his first huddle back, the focus will turn back to his continued development. It’s the most important aspect of this foundational season for the Bears.
The 23-year-old Fields has enjoyed a strong second NFL season and first year working with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, leading the Bears with a new offensive identity built around his skill set.
But there’s plenty more to be desired from Fields as he finishes out this season. There have been flashes of spectacular from Fields and the Bears lead the NFL in rushing. However, Chicago’s passing game ranks 32nd in the league and there’s the need to improve moving forward.
For his part, Fields hopes to find success in the passing game more than just gains on the ground.
“All quarterbacks do,” Fields said. “But I’m willing to do whatever to help my team put points on the board. Whatever that is, if it’s throwing, it’s throwing, if it’s running. If we put points on the board ― points equal wins.”
Fields has completed 59.6% of his passes for 1,642 yards, 13 touchdowns and 8 interceptions. His most notable success has come in the running game, with 834 rushing yards and 7 scores this season.
Fields hopes to find greater success in the passing attack, a challenge now greater after wide receiver Darnell Mooney (ankle) was shut down for season-ending surgery. Fields must move forward without his most trusted target.
The Bears hope to see Fields further his connection with new wide receiver Chase Claypool, acquired by the team last month prior to the NFL’s trade deadline.
“Definitely more comfortable and definitely feeling good,” Claypool said of his role.
But it’s not just Claypool the Bears hope to get incorporated into their offense. There are still ongoing evaluations for rookie Velus Jones Jr. plus N’Keal Harry, Equanimeous St. Brown and more. Fields is embracing the idea of enhancing connections with other targets.
“It’s an opportunity,” Fields said. “I’m excited to build that connection more with other receivers on the team. So, I think it’s going to be fun finding out what different guys can do.”
Though the Bears are a scuffling football team vying for a better future, each of these final five games offer the opportunity for continued growth for Fields.
There’s a lot that Fields and the Bears can accomplish with each remaining snap before going into the offseason and seeking continued improvement. So long as Fields is healthy, no opportunity is considered a waste.
As Fields moves past this injury, he’s eager to pick up where he left off.
“He’s locked in again,” Getsy said. “We just got to make sure we continue to progress and he’s got to continue to develop, he’s got to continue to get these experiences so that we can continue to learn from them, he can grow.”
2. Building a foundation
When he was hired as the Bears’ new head coach in late January, Matt Eberflus knew what he was signing up for. The task ahead would be difficult.
Eberflus was brought in by Ryan Poles to establish a new culture for this franchise, bringing the Bears closer to sustained success. With those lofty goals for the future, there were expected to be struggles in the present. Poles tore the roster he inherited down to the studs, gutting much of what former general manager Ryan Pace left for him.
The Bears are struggling through this season while developing a young core. For Eberflus, this team is making strides despite the continued losing.
“Building a foundation for your organization, for your football team is huge,” Eberflus said. “Because you have to lay that foundation of what the standards are, how we operate, how we practice, how we go about our business, how we treat each other in the building, how we respect each other in the building, and that creates high morale.
“That foundation is what you stand on. You stand on the effort, the intensity, the things that we stand on, the principles. And the standard is for everybody. The standard that’s for Justin Fields is the same for the guy on the back end of the roster. It’s the same, how we operate. That to me is important.”
Eberflus introduced his H.I.T.S. Principle — Hustle. Intensity. Takeaways. Smart, situational football. — upon being introduced by the Bears at Halas Hall. It’s more than just an acronym for Eberflus. This is the bedrock of a culture he hoped to create.
The Bears quickly bought in with Eberflus’ style of play. While this team is scuffling along another extended losing streak, he sees a commitment to working the right way.
“That’s about building a foundation,” Eberflus said. “It’s for everybody in the room. All the young players that just started out this year, it’s for Justin (Fields), it’s for all the guys we acquired, I think they’re doing a good job with that.
3. Jones strives for a high standard
During OTAs in May, the Bears made what seemed at the time to be a surprising move as they shifted rookie Braxton Jones in as their first-team left tackle. He never relinquished that opportunity.
Despite plenty of competition, Jones has remained the Bears’ starting at left tackle this entire season. He is the only player on Chicago’s roster to play 100% of the snaps on his side of the football. Jones ranks 24th out of 58 eligible tackles, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Does he need to improve? Sure,” Eberflus said. “All the rookies need to improve. Everyone needs to get better. But he’s improving. He’s getting better. He’s showing his maturity. They always talk about the rookie wall and all those things. I don’t really see our guys hitting that.”
Jones faced a challenging acclimation into the NFL, a fifth-round pick to the Bears selected out of Southern Utah. He made a strong first impression during the Senior Bowl last January, with Chicago’s newly hired scouting staff watching Jones hold his own against stronger competition.
There are plenty of excuses to be made for Jones as a rookie starter at left tackle, but he isn’t willing to hear them. Jones holds himself to a high standard.
“The biggest thing for me right now is trying to put consistent games together where it looks the same,” Jones said. “Obviously, as a rookie, you’re going to make errors. The errors come. But can you consistently be good and get the same product on Sundays.
“I’d say my season has been fairly inconsistent. I would think others might think that. People are being very critical would definitely say that. But that’s how you be very successful in this league. You can’t settle for mediocrity.”
4. Rodgers’ respect for Chicago
The Packers might officially list Rodgers as questionable for Sunday’s game, but the Bears have little doubt who will be starting at quarterback for their rivals.
The Bears are ready to face Rodgers and know well what he brings to these matchups.
“Last time he came here, he was saying he owned us and talking to the fans a certain way,” Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “He’s just a real fierce competitor. At the end of the day, we got to find a way to get that taste out of our mouths. You got to put in action to be able to stop a talker like that.”
Rodgers is 23-5 in his career against the Bears, including those seven straight victories over Chicago. He has completed 67.6% of his passes against Chicago for 6,783 yards, 63 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Rodgers’ passing yards against the Bears would rank 10th on Chicago’s all-time franchise leaderboard, and his 63 touchdowns against the team would tie him for sixth alongside Erik Kramer and Ed Brown.
Last season, Rodgers made it personal as he ran for a touchdown into the southwest end zone of Soldier Field and yelled into the crowd, “I own you. … I still own you.”
Rodgers knows well that Bears fans will voice their displeasure to him again on Sunday.
“I’ve been hearing from fans for 15 years down there,” Rodgers told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Potash on Wednesday. “So, I don’t expect anything to be different. I have a lot of respect for the city of Chicago and the sports fans.
“I’ve been a fan of Chicago sports for a while. I have a lot of respect for the city and the legacy of excellence that the team and the region has. But I always enjoy playing against the Bears.”
Quote to note
“This is the biggest rivalry in the NFL. Most historic. You know obviously this game. I grew up watching this game and this game means a lot to me. So, regardless of where either team is at in the season at this point, this is a big game. You feel that in the locker room regardless of the records of each team. I’m looking forward to it.”
—Bears tight end Cole Kmet
QB Justin Fields (left shoulder) — Fields returned to practice as a full participant, an indication that he will likely play Sunday.
QB Trevor Siemian (oblique) — Siemian suffered this injury during warmups prior to Sunday’s game at MetLife Stadium. He was able to feel healthy enough after taking some pain medications, but the Bears want him to rest this week. Siemian will likely be the backup if Fields cannot play.
WR Chase Claypool (knee) — Despite going down last Sunday, Claypool is good to go and will play.
S Jaquan Brisker (concussion) — It remains to be seen whether Brisker will be cleared from the protocol in time for Sunday.
CB Kyler Gordon (concussion) — Similar to Brisker, Gordon is in a holding pattern while in the protocol.
RT Riley Reiff (back) — The veteran Reiff has brought some stability at right tackle, but now his place moving forward is in question. Alex Leatherwood could start at right tackle Sunday.
RT Larry Borom (ankle/knee) — Borom could be looking at a multi-week injury here.
Emma’s Prediction (8-4): Packers 30, Bears 28
Even with the expected return of Fields, it’s hard to imagine Chicago’s defense doing much to slow down Rodgers and the Packers. Here’s hoping this game brings some entertainment value.