Emma’s Tailgater: Do Bears or Vikings have a better long-term future?
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — On a frigid late January day, Ryan Poles had a flight to catch from Chicago to Minneapolis. More than just travel logistics, there was a life-changing decision to be made. Would he benefit from a future leading the Bears or Vikings?
Poles never boarded that flight to Minneapolis. He was hired by the Bears as their new general manager, turning down the chance to be brought in by the Vikings for that same position. While there would’ve been great opportunity presented in both organizations, Poles chose the chance in Chicago.
As the Bears (2-2) travel to Minnesota to take on the Vikings (3-1) on Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, this matchup between NFC North rivals calls to question: Which franchise is better positioned for success in the coming years?
Part of the appeal for Poles to lead the Bears forward was the opportunity to reboot the organization. He was granted the chance to tear down the core built by the previous regime and start anew in forming his own blueprint to success. The Vikings, on the other hand, face the pressure to win now with their core led by star receiver Justin Jefferson, running back Dalvin Cook and quarterback Kirk Cousins.
The Vikings are the better team in 2022, without any doubt. But the Bears hope to emerge as the team with the best chance at sustained success.
Poles saw greater potential at the quarterback position in Chicago compared to Minnesota. Justin Fields, the No. 11 overall pick in 2021, carried hope to become the franchise quarterback long missing from the Bears. He has struggled to make strides during his second season. However, the 34-year-old Cousins has been inconsistent with a far better supporting cast.
If Fields continues to scuffle during his second season and it’s clear he’s not the Bears’ answer, transitioning to a new quarterback becomes more simple. Chicago would be set with a top draft pick and the chance for Poles to identify what he covets at quarterback. The 2023 NFL Draft class includes some dynamic talents at quarterback.
For Poles, leading the Bears meant developing a quarterback – whether that’s Fields or his own quarterback – while also watching his hand-picked head coach Matt Eberflus develop a new culture. Poles saw a place in which he could build a team from the foundation. The Vikings have had an open competitive window for the last decade but failed to capitalize with championship success.
So, did Poles make the right decision in picking a future with the Bears over the Vikings? The answer to that won’t be clear for several more years, with his own influence defining what occurs in Chicago. At the very least, there are now fascinating parallels between these two division rivals.
If Poles has his way and is able to create what he hopes in Chicago, it will be the Bears becoming that team enjoying sustained success.
1. ‘I deserve to be here’
The age-old NFL expression of “next man up” can be cruel to players, especially when it’s a player like Bears captain Cody Whitehair going down.
Whitehair was placed on injured reserve this week after suffering a knee injury. The Bears do not believe it’s a season-ending injury, but Whitehair has a recovery ahead of him and there’s a void to fill on the offensive line. For second-year lineman Teven Jenkins, there’s an opportunity.
Jenkins endured a challenging training camp that included another injury setback, trade discussions involving his name, a shift from tackle to guard and constant uncertainty. He played the first four games this season rotating with veteran Lucas Patrick at right guard before the injury to Whitehair forced a chance.
The Bears are sliding Patrick into Whitehair’s place at left guard, leaving Jenkins as the starter at right guard without any rotation in play.
“It means a lot to me,” Jenkins said. “Obviously I wouldn’t wish injury upon anybody, especially what happened to Cody. But in these circumstances, it’s a good thing for me to be out there now, getting 100% of reps. Hopefully I can show that I deserve to be here and deserve to be at right guard and be part of the starting line.”
A 2nd-round pick to the Bears in 2021, Jenkins underwent back surgery last year and played in just the final six games of his rookie season. Without much game tape to showcase, Jenkins had to prove himself to the Bears’ new regime.
Jenkins has put in the work to find consistency with his game, specifically in pass protection. He is working on forming a level base in his sets after catching himself leaning forward during last Sunday’s game in New York, part of why he twice was beat by rushers.
But Jenkins has proven himself as a strong asset as a run blocker, which best suits his physical style of play.
“It’s a lot more fun than pass (protection) because you get to be the nail and not the hammer,” Jenkins said. “I mean, there are going to be some times when someone gets the best of you. But that’s the NFL. Being able to be the aggressor instead of the aggresse in the run game, it’s a lot more fun than sitting back and waiting for someone to do something. It’s definitely a lot more fun.”
2. Mind in the moment
When David Montgomery went down with a gruesome ankle injury during the Sept. 25 game against the Texans, there were not only concerns for his status this season but also justified concerns for his future.
Montgomery is playing out the final season of a contract year with the Bears and faced great uncertainty after going down with the injury. It turned out to be a good prognosis for Montgomery, who avoided a stint on injured reserve and could even play Sunday’s game.
For Montgomery, he didn’t let his mind go towards what an injury could mean as he seeks contract stability after this season.
“I just want to get healthy and go out and play with the guys, honestly,” Montgomery said. “I’m not really into the whole contract talk thing because I’m a firm believer in whatever works out, and that’s how I see things. I’m just super excited to be able to go back out with the guys and run around.”
Montgomery declined details on the specifics of his injury and said he’s uncertain about playing Sunday’s game, though returning to practice Thursday in a limited fashion is indeed a positive step forward.
Montgomery has carried 35 times for 159 yards this season. The Bears have turned to second-year running back Khalil Herbert, who has rushed 52 times for 317 yards and 3 scores this season.
3. Getsy stands by Fields’ growth
Though Justin Fields ranks near the bottom of the NFL in most key categories, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy believes there’s progress.
Getsy offered his support of Fields, stating that there’s more to his performance than the numbers would indicate.
“I think he’s gotten better each week,” Getsy said on Thursday. “I think he’s grown tremendously.
“It’s not easy to become the level of quarterback that he wants to become and I know he can become.”
Whether Getsy truly sees growth from Fields — or if he’s just having his quarterback’s back — is up for interpretation.
Fields has completed 50.7% of his passes for 471 yards, 2 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. The Bears rank 32nd in passing offense, plus 31st in scoring and total yardage.
4. Pick your poison
A Bears defense that has struggled to find its footing early this season faces its toughest test yet. The Vikings present game-changing threats in both running back Dalvin Cook and wide receiver Justin Jefferson.
More specifically, the Bears will be forced to account for Jefferson in coverage while likely playing without top cornerback Jaylon Johnson (quad) and must contain Cook with the league’s 32nd-ranked run defense.
“You have both,” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “And so that’s really what creates the problem. They can beat you in two ways. They can beat you on the ground, they can beat you up in the air. So, you have to pick and choose how you call it, what you do and where you put guys and what you focus on.
“We are going to have our plate full.”
Quote to note
“The guy started 99 games and has missed two during that career, so you talk about tough. And a guy that really shows Chicago Bear toughness. That’s Cody Whitehair.”
—Bears coach Matt Eberflus
RB David Montgomery (ankle) — Montgomery is still working his way back from this injury. Another week of rest could serve as benefit for him.
CB Jaylon Johnson (quad) — Johnson prides himself as a top cornerback and hopes for a matchup against Justin Jefferson. It’s possible he plays but the Bears might lean towards the side of caution.
DL Justin Jones (hip) — Jones was limited in practice on Thursday after first appearing on the injury report, an indication he suffered the injury in practice. It’s not clear how severe the injury is.
S Dane Cruikshank (hamstring) — This has been a slow road back for Cruikshank, a key player on special teams.
LB Matt Adams (hamstring) — Adams was back to practice this week and could offer depth at linebacker for the Bears.
TE Ryan Griffin (Achilles) — Griffin is trending towards playing after missing the last two games.
Emma’s Prediction (4-0): Vikings 31, Bears 16
The Bears have matchup problems defensively, with Justin Jefferson going against a banged-up secondary and Dalvin Cook meeting the NFL’s last-ranked run defense. Can Justin Fields and the offense keep pace? It doesn’t seem likely.