Bears News

Emma’s Tailgater: Eagles setting blueprint for Bears’ rebuild

1 year agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill.  As the Bears look across Soldier Field on this frigid Sunday afternoon, they will be staring at the example of what they hope to become. 


The Eagles land in Chicago with a 12-1 record, hoping to be the first team to clinch a playoff berth with a win over the Bears (3-10), and the best team in the NFL this season. Beyond just the opportunity in store to win a Super Bowl this February, Philadelphia seems set for sustained success perhaps better than any other team in the league. 


The blueprint set by the Eagles’ brass to reach this point is one the Bears seem to be following in stride. While first-year head coach Matt Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles have refrained from calling this a “rebuild,” there’s now acknowledgement of the plan in place. The Eagles’ plan is one the Bears are well positioned to replicate. 


“I think it’s important to look back at history,” Eberflus said. “Not only recent history but history a ways back. You can look at a lot of different teams that struggled and then had success. Dallas Cowboys when they were 1-15. The Oakland Raiders way back. I mean, you can look and see all the teams being able to flip the script and do that. Philadelphia has certainly done that. 


“You can always look at that. You always have to go through some adversity. Obviously, you got to have schemes that are good, that are simple, that you can repeat. And then, obviously, the addition of players. You got to have good coaching, good players to be able to win at a high rate. They’ve certainly done that.” 


There are common ties between the Bears and the Eagles, including assistant general manager Ian Cunningham, who was hired away by Poles after five years in Philadelphia. Eberflus worked for three years in Indianapolis with Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni, previously the Colts’ offensive coordinator. But the most important connection between Philadelphia and Chicago comes at the position of quarterback. 


Jalen Hurts has produced underwhelming play during his first two years in the NFL (including 2021 as a full-time starter) and there were questions as to whether he could become a franchise quarterback in Philadelphia. Rather than searching for a new player at that position, the Eagles chose to invest in Hurts. They used one of their two first-round picks to trade for star wide receiver A.J. Brown, the dynamic weapon that has allowed Hurts to take off this season. Brown joined a supporting cast that included wide receiver Devonta Smith, running back Miles Sanders and tight end Dallas Goedert, plus the top offensive line in the league — all fitting to the scheme of Sirianni. 


The Eagles boast a dynamic scoring offense that’s averaging 29.7 points per game and Hurts is the NFL’s leading MVP candidate. 


“Being in Philly, that’s a city where they have passionate fans as well, so just hearing all of that and the stuff he had to go through in Year 1 and 2 where some people didn’t believe in him and he just stayed down, believed in himself, and that’s really all you have to do,” Justin Fields said of Hurts when addressing reporters Thursday. “And just keep working, his work ethic. And you see what happened.” 


The Bears can execute the same type of plan this offseason, this with more than $125 million in projected salary cap space and eight draft picks at their disposal, including a likely top-five selection. There’s faith in Chicago’s future because Fields appears to be an ascending star at quarterback and positioned as Hurts was before this season. Like the Eagles, the Bears can hope to build a championship-caliber core around Fields. 


Two years ago, the Eagles finished 4-11-1 and were a struggling team that had bottomed out. Philadelphia fired Super Bowl-winning head coach Doug Pederson, parted ways with former Pro Bowl quarterback Carson Wentz and began this careful plan towards the present. 


The Eagles were 9-8 last season and reached the postseason as a wild-card seed, revealing growth from Hurts despite an unproven supporting cast. Now, there have been meaningful breakthroughs that have changed the course of that franchise for 2022 and beyond. It came with Hurts’ stellar play and also some key investments into this championship chance. 


Eagles general manager Howie Roseman struck the key trade for Brown, this after signing pass rusher Haason Reddick and cornerback James Bradberry in free agency. He dealt for cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson just prior to the regular season, landed defensive end Robert Quinn from the Bears in late October, and signed defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Linval Joseph during the season to bolster defensive front. 


What the Eagles have accomplished this regular season, emerging as a dominant force, is no coincidence. It’s the product of several years to this point and properly building around a rising star at quarterback. More so, it’s executing a bold and aggressive plan. 


The Bears have a model they can follow with hopes of their own sustained success. 


4-down territory 


1. Johnson looks to lock up with Bears 


Jaylon Johnson believes he’s a shutdown cornerback deserving of such respect, carrying himself with the type of confidence his position commands. He’s starting to earn such attention. 


“Jaylon is a premier player,” Aaron Rodgers said after the Packers’ 28-19 win over the Bears this month. 


Those words meant a lot to Johnson, who recognizes that Pro Bowl votes are gained through wins and individual statistics. Johnson hasn’t garnered enough of either this season but he takes pride in performing against the best wide receivers in the NFL. 


Johnson’s final four games include matchups with Brown (Eagles), Smith (Eagles), Stefon Diggs (Bills), Amon-Ra St. Brown (Lions) and Justin Jefferson — first up with Sunday’s game against the Eagles’ league-leading offense. 


“Every time I go out, I want to lock the person up in front of me,” Johnson said. “It’s really no different this week. I just have another opportunity to display that against great talent and a great offense.” 


A 2nd-round pick to the Bears in the 2020 NFL Draft, Johnson has played at a high level over 38 games. The lack of production from his position is part of the respect earned for Johnson, who quarterbacks like Rodgers work to avoid in coverage. 


Johnson has allowed a 62.6% completion percentage against and just 1 touchdown over 10 games this season. He allowed just 5 touchdowns against in each of his first two seasons, proving to be a tough matchup for top targets. 


With Johnson set to enter a contract year in 2023, the Bears must evaluate his worth for their future. For his part, Johnson is eager to start up those negotiations — and hopeful he can stay in Chicago for the long term. 


“Oh, 100%,” Johnson said. “I hope they feel the same way about me. We’ll see. It will be a crazy situation to be in different colors than orange and blue. I’m just looking forward to hopefully having that extension and carrying something on and continuing to be a Bear throughout my career.” 


2. Fields running for history 


Fields could join elite company as soon as Sunday, becoming just the third quarterback to rush for 1,000 yards in a season. The only others to accomplish this feat are Michael Vick (2006) and Lamar Jackson (2019, 2020).  


Fields is at 905 rushing yards through just 12 games this season, averaging 75.4 yards on the ground each game in 2022. He’s just shy of Jackson’s 80.4 rushing yards per game over 15 contests in 2019. But Fields does have Jackson’s record of 1,206 rushing yards in sight. That’s the most ever by a quarterback in a single season. 


“That would be crazy with Michael Vick,” Fields said. “Me growing up in Atlanta. I remember I was 8, 9 years old. I had his cleats. So, that would just be crazy kind of just full circle. I mean, it would be awesome. And Lamar, everybody knows he’s a great quarterback, a dynamic playmaker. Having my name with those two guys would be great, for sure.” 


Fields has already shattered several records this season, including the most ever rushing yards in a single regular-season game by a quarterback with 178 yards against the Dolphins on Nov. 6 at Soldier Field.  


For Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, the performance of Fields this season goes well beyond what he has shown on the field. 


“You saw the type of guy he was, the type of competitor he was, what type of a teammate he is,” Getsy said. “He’s a fighter. He wants to win and he’ll do whatever it takes to win. I think that speaks to the type of teammate he is and what he’ll do for this organization more than anything else. Yes, he’s a phenomenal athlete, the things we’ve seen him do on the field have been awesome, they’ve been really cool to watch and be a part of. But I think for me, the bigger thing is how do we grow him to be the leader that he wants to become and the player that he wants to become. I think all that stuff is based on the type of person that he is and the type of work ethic that he has.” 


3. Sanborn setting up for future with Bears? 


When Jack Sanborn first strapped on the navy blue helmet of his hometown team back in May, he was simply fighting to stay around. That was rookie minicamp and the 22-year-old Sanborn, a native of Lake Zurich, had arrived to the Bears as an undrafted free agent offered nothing more than a chance. 


Sanborn has thrived in his rookie year by maintaining the same mindset, recognizing nothing is guaranteed for him. He’s taking each day in stride and not looking ahead — even with the potential in place that he could be the Bears’ starting middle linebacker for the future. 


“Right now, I’m focused on this week and right now,” Sanborn said this week. “My job is to play linebacker this week against the Eagles and that’s what I’m focused on.  


“I came in with the mindset of doing anything I can for the team and it just so happened that now this is my job and I’m going to try to do it to the best of my ability.” 


Sanborn stepped in as a starter with the Bears’ defense following the trade of star linebacker Roquan Smith to the Ravens prior to the NFL’s Nov. 1 trade deadline. With that, Sanborn moved in as the middle linebacker and has made a strong impression on this team. 


Since becoming a starter, Sanborn has 54 combined tackles, 43 solo tackles, 5 tackles for a loss and 2 interceptions. With many voids to fill on defense, the Bears are becoming confident in Sanborn’s fit. 


“He’s got really good instincts,” Bears linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi said. “I mean, you can tell he’s played linebacker his whole life. He sees the game really well, he’s smart, he studies, he asks a lot of good questions. He prepares really well. So, it’s not like he has good instincts and he just shows up on Sunday. He works at it. He’s tough, he’s smart. I’m really happy with Jack’s performance thus far.” 


4. Eberflus reflects on the late Leach 


There was a great sense of loss and sadness felt in the football community with the passing of Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, who died Monday night at the age of 61.  


Leach’s impact is felt all around college football and the NFL, with a coaching tree that includes the likes of Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals), Lincoln Riley (USC), Josh Heupel (Tennessee), Sonny Dykes (TCU), Dave Aranda (Baylor) and many more. But there’s also a connection through the Air Raid offense that he helped pioneer at Texas Tech an offense that has continued to evolve in football. 


During his time as Missouri’s defensive coordinator, Matt Eberflus encountered Leach’s famed Air Raid offense as it was being pioneered into the college game. This scheme evolved into the modern spread offense, which is still ever present in today’s game.  


As Eberflus reflected on the loss of Leach, he recalled the great challenge of matching up against him.  


“I just want to first say to his family, my deepest sympathies,” Eberflus said Wednesday. “For such a young age, but to lose a legend like that. And he made me better. The first time we played him, he beat us pretty good. We got a chance to play him three or four more times after that during the course of my career there. What did I learn from that? How to defend the spread. How to defend that tempo style. I became a better coach by going against him. I really appreciate him for that.” 


Leach’s Texas Tech team earned a 52-38 win over Missouri in 2002, but the Tigers claimed the next three games as Eberflus’ defenses adjusted to the Red Raiders’ high-octane attack. 


Missouri allowed 31, 21 and 10 points to Texas Tech in those following three games. Leach went on to coach at Washington State (2012-19) and Mississippi State (2020-22). 


Walter Payton Man of the Year 


The Bears have nominated Jaylon Johnson as their candidate for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which recognizes outstanding community service as well as excellence on the field. It is considered one of the most prominent individual honors in the league. 


Johnson started Kevvy’s Vision Project foundation, which was named after his childhood friend Kev’Vion Schrubb, who lost his life to gun violence in August 2021. Kevvy’s Vision “strives to empower and motivate underprivileged communities while giving them equal opportunities to succeed,” the foundation writes. 


“It’s something that I would say shocked me,” Johnson said of the nomination. “It’s not like I do a lot of the things that I do out of really seeking attention or anything. I don’t feel like I’m obligated like I have to because I’m in the NFL. I have a genuine heart for the things I’m doing and everything I’m doing is dear to me, dear to my heart.” 


Quote to note 


“We look at it as opportunity, and a great challenge. To be able to see our guys match up individually and also as units, to be able to match up against these guys. We’re going to play two of the best defenses in the league over the next couple weeks, and obviously the two best offenses. Both very really good quarterbacks. Both are really good and solid on special teams. So, it’s going to be a big challenge for our football team.” 


—Coach Matt Eberflus, on the Bears’ looming evaluations against the Eagles and Bills. 


Injury report 


QB Justin Fields (illness) — The Bears anticipate Fields will be able to play Sunday’s game, this despite being set back by an illness this week. 


RB David Montgomery (illness) — Illnesses are going around this time of year. Montgomery’s status is one to monitor heading into Sunday. 


WR Chase Claypool (knee) — Claypool got his leg rolled up in what appeared to be a gruesome injury during the Bears’ game against the Packers. He managed to return later that game, but has been dealing with it since. His status seems up in the air for Sunday. 


OT Larry Borom (ankle) — It seems Borom has fallen out of the Bears’ plans for their starting line, but he needs to get healthy first to step back into a reserve role. 


Emma’s Prediction (9-4): Eagles 34, Bears 27 


How about a fun and exciting game here? Yes, the Eagles are an absolute force this season and the best team in the league. But Justin Fields will elevate this offense and nearly keep pace.  

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