Emma’s Tailgater: Embattled Poles, Eberflus still confident in Bears’ direction
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Winning, general manager Ryan Poles said, was how the Bears will ultimately be judged in this second season of his rebuilding plan.
Whether or not that is a fair standard for the Bears was a narrative Poles could either invite into this season or downplay with more reasonable expectations. But speaking back in early September ahead of kickoff on this new campaign, he made it clear that this was a fair expectation.
Poles expected the Bears would mark progress this season as they continue to turn over this roster, develop young players and work towards the greater goal of sustained success. This team has fallen well shy of that standard, now with a 2-6 record ahead of Sunday’s game against the Saints (4-4) at the Caesars Superdome.
Coach Matt Eberflus, whom Poles tabbed to lead this team, now has a record of 5-20 overall. The Bears have encountered not just great struggles on the field but constant issues off the field too. On Wednesday, running backs coach David Walker was fired due to personal misconduct. He is the second assistant coach to suddenly depart the staff this season, along with former defensive coordinator Alan Williams forced into a resignation back in September.
The Bears have also dealt with starting quarterback Justin Fields calling upon the coaching staff for changes in the scheme, then former wide receiver Chase Claypool clearly pointing to his coaches for his lacking role in the offense. The Bears traded Claypool days later, cutting ties with a player who was more divisive than productive.
Poles and Eberflus are each embattled men in their respective roles, this as poor performance and disruptive distractions affect the type of culture that they covet for the Bears.
Both Poles and Eberflus denied that the Bears are dealing with a rotten culture.
“Absolutely not. Absolutely not,” Eberflus said. “The culture in our building is outstanding. The guys work hard every single day. The relationship piece is there. We care about each other. We’re working diligently to get this thing turned. We’re 2-2 in our last four. One game was real close; we had a chance at that one. We really feel we’re turning the corner there, and we are excited about this week.
“Our culture is awesome.”
In assessing the struggles of this football team, Poles offered his support behind Eberflus and his leadership. It was a notable statement backing a head coach with a .200 winning percentage, the lowest in franchise history.
“What I see every day, where I see him address the team and I see his approach through adversity, it is stable,” Poles said. “I know in the outside world it doesn’t look like that, and I know it looks like we’re far away, but this dude comes in every day and just keeps chipping away. He has high integrity.
“The way he holds everything down here is incredible – for how loud it is, how tough it is. I mean, this team, you watch them, they fight. I know (the 30-13 loss to the Chargers on Sunday night) wasn’t great, but you can’t watch that team and be like, ‘Oh, they’re going to fold.’ Most teams fold, and they’re not folding. It’s been hard. It’s been really hard, especially from where we started last year, trying to build this and do it the right way.
“To me, I see a grown man that has leadership skills to get this thing out of the hole and into where it needs to be.”
But Poles stopped short of endorsing Eberflus as a head coach and whether he will be retained for 2024. It’s uncertain which direction the Bears will move once they reach early January and the start of this offseason.
Kevin Warren, who officially began as Bears president & CEO in April, has worked diligently to evaluate the entire organization. He met with each employee, checking off his list in alphabetical order, asking key questions for how the Bears can become better.
Warren has full autonomy over Poles, Eberflus and the Bears’ football operations, which was not so when Ted Phillips previously served in that role. Then, the general manager and head coach reported to chairman George McCaskey as their superior.
Poles and Eberflus must prove to Warren why they still deserve his trust as the Bears’ leaders moving into next season. Without results to show for their work to this point – and with continued crisis management inside of Halas Hall – it has become an increasingly difficult task.
There is still confidence between Poles, Eberflus and this team that progress is being made. Despite the losses and struggles through parts of two seasons, the Bears are still on track in this rebuilding plan – this in the minds of their leaders.
As Poles himself said, winning is the way that the Bears should ultimately be judged.
Shortly after Montez Sweat said he hopes to “consider everything” before making a decision on his contract future, Poles seemed to accelerate the apparent timeline for an extension.
“We’re currently working on getting a contract done now,” Poles said Wednesday afternoon, shortly after Sweat’s arrival to Halas Hall.
Poles and the Bears made a bold move on Tuesday as they acquired Sweat from the Commanders in exchange for a second-round pick, this as part of a trade deadline day deal. Though the Bears are 2-6 on the season and continuing forward in their rebuild, Poles made a major splash in Sweat.
Sweat has 35.5 career sacks over parts of five seasons and 6.5 sacks through eight games this year. But he is playing through an expiring contract and set to become a free agent in the offseason. It makes the Bears’ move for Sweat all that more curious, if not entirely precarious.
After dealing a second-round pick to the Commanders – a selection that should be near the top of the second round – the Bears simply have to sign Sweat on a long-term contract extension or else this was a significant failure by Poles.
“I just want to consider everything around me before I make a decision,” Sweat said on Wednesday after passing his physical.
“I’m not really into the contract talks, so I don’t really know too much about leverage and all that type of stuff.”
All Sweat needs to know about leverage is that he has it. Like, all of it. Those are the circumstances through which he was acquired by the Bears.
League sources familiar with these negotiations recognize Sweat is in the position to benefit off this desperation deal from the Bears, estimating a contract could make rank him among the top 10 – or even top five – players at his position. Assuming a four-year deal for Sweat at the age of 27, an average of $21 million annually would place him inside the top 10 while $25 million annually would move him into the top five. Multiple sources believe Sweat will seek more than $25 million per year.
Poles was willing to make this move because of how he and the Bears have forecasted the market for pass rushers this offseason. Rarely do top players at premium positions – pass rusher, quarterback, wide receiver, tackle and cornerback – become available in free agency.
The Bears paid a second-round premium for the rights to Sweat for what he can bring to their defense this season along with the rights to negotiate for that coveted contract extension.
Poles is optimistic a deal can be reached and Sweat will be secured with the Bears.
“We expect him to come here and help our entire team get better,” Poles said. “We see him as a long, fast, explosive, relentless defensive end that can help us both in the run and in the pass game. Really, I see him as a multiplier. He’s going to allow everyone to play better, our entire defensive front, our corners, our safeties. Hopefully – we talk about it all the time – creating turnovers and stops.
“That’s short term, but also for long term.”
Deal or no deal?
Before the Bears took the field last Sunday night at SoFi Stadium, Poles sent a text message to members of his front office brass. He had just finished negotiations with representatives for Jaylon Johnson in Los Angeles and was confident a contract was near completion.
“We’ll be able to get this done in a matter of days,” Poles messaged his group.
One night later, Johnson’s representatives requested Poles and the Bears allow their client to seek a trade.
It was a turn in these negotiations that Poles didn’t expect. What the Bears believed was progress in these negotiations, Johnson viewed as an impasse.
“There’s a difference between talking and trying to work things out versus trying to get things done,” Johnson said. “Up until this weekend, nothing was done. I figured I wanted some different opportunities to see what else was out there for me.”
Poles granted the trade request for Johnson but with the only terms for a deal being a first- or early second-round pick being the return for the Bears. This would also allow Johnson’s party to realize his market value from other teams.
But a trade of Johnson was certainly not the option Poles preferred.
“I don’t want to lose Jaylon Johnson,” Poles said. “If I were to lose Jaylon Johnson, I would like to have a high percentage on hitting on another Jaylon Johnson.
“We are still open to getting a contract done.”
Tuesday was truly no hard deadline for the Bears and Johnson to reach a deal. After a trade was not reached, the 24-year-old Johnson remains with Chicago into next March with the opportunity to continue these negotiations.
But Johnson has only increased his market value this season. He is rated the third-best cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus grading. Johnson hauled in a pair of interceptions during an Oct. 22 win against the Raiders at Soldier Field, including a pick-six – after which, he flashed the money sign to broadcast cameras in the end zone.
The Bears could utilize the franchise tag to secure Johnson’s contract rights through the 2024 season. Of course, that’s an option they must maintain at their disposal until Sweat’s future is determined.
Johnson is still with the Bears and hopeful his time is coming.
“I mean, arguably I feel like I’m the best corner in the game right now,” Johnson said.
“I’m not asking to just change the market or break records. I’m not asking for any of that. But I’m also not just going to take anything.”
Still Tyson’s time
During his five seasons at Division-II Shepherd, Tyson Bagent never had to lead his team on a silent snap count. Crowds at those games didn’t compare to what he has faced in the NFL.
On Sunday, Bagent will take the field at the hostile Caesars SuperDome, which is one of the loudest venues in the league. For Bagent, this third straight game starting for the Bears marks another opportunity to prove himself as an undrafted rookie quarterback in this league.
“I don’t want to do anything else other than do my job at the highest level possible,” Bagent said. “That’s been the extent of it since I got here and that’s what I’ll continue to try to get done.”
Bagent has completed 70% of his passes for 477 yards, 1 touchdown and 3 interceptions over parts of three games at quarterback. He produced a strong showing during the Oct. 22 win over the Raiders at Soldier Field, then struggled last Sunday night during a loss to the Chargers at SoFi Stadium.
The 23-year-old Bagent must bounce back after a loss for the first time this week.
“He does a great job of taking the coaching,” said offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. “He does a great job of trying to get better so he doesn’t make the same mistake twice. All that stuff. This guy’s a competitive guy. He’s all about what’s best for the team. He’s all about, ‘How do I get better?’ All that stuff about feeling sad or feeling high, just not one of those guys. He’s pretty consistent.”
The Bears are planning to return with Fields as their starting quarterback once he’s medically cleared. That has not occurred just yet as he continues to manage the recovery from a dislocated right thumb suffered during the Oct. 15 game against the Vikings at Soldier Field.
Fields has not returned to practice yet and is still managing the injury, including the key factor of grip strength. The Bears were hopeful his recovery time wouldn’t linger. Sunday will mark his third straight game missed, and there’s the looming challenge of a short next week ahead of a Thursday night game with the Panthers at Soldier Field.
Bagent will get a third NFL start on Sunday as he seeks to prove that he belongs once again.
Veteran pass rusher DeMarcus Walker learned days earlier that the Bears had reached an agreement for a two-year contract extension with nose tackle Andrew Billings.
When that deal for Billings was signed and made official on Thursday, Walker was thrilled to celebrate with his teammate.
“Dinner is on him tonight,” Walker said.
The Bears rewarded the 28-year-old Billings with a two-year contract extension that runs through 2025. Terms of the deal were not immediately clear, though it represents security for a player in Billings who has had to fight for his place in the NFL.
A fourth-round pick to the Bengals in 2016, Billings suffered a knee injury and missed his entire rookie season. He spent four years in Cincinnati, then bounced from the Browns (2020-’21) to the Dolphins (2021), Chiefs (2021) and Raiders (2022).
Billings signed a one-year deal with the Bears this offseason, prepared for the possibility of more moving around. But he has earned a place in Chicago as a stout nose tackle for this defensive identity.
The Bears have allowed just 3.3 yards per carry, the lowest mark in the league. Chicago boasts the third-best run defense through eight games.
“It’s really special,” Billings said of this deal. “This is Year 8 for me. Just being able to settle down, it feels great. It’s something I’ve been working for my whole career.”
Throughout the course of this rebuilding plan, the Bears have been searching for players to stick in key roles. On defense, Poles has sought players who fit this budding identity.
Playing nose tackle is often a thankless job. What Billings brings is not lost on the Bears.
“He’s the anchor of the defense,” Walker said.
QB Justin Fields (right thumb) — It will be at least one more game missed for Fields, who has still not yet been cleared to even practice. A short next week provides another challenge for his return.
OL Nate Davis (ankle sprain) — The veteran right guard Davis will miss Sunday’s game and also faces a difficult task returning for next Thursday night against the Panthers.
LB Tremaine Edmunds (knee) — Edmunds and the Bears avoided a serious knee injury. The hope is he won’t have to miss considerable time, as the team sees him as day-to-day.
S Jaquan Brisker (concussion) — After being cleared from the concussion protocol last week, Brisker reported illness and discomfort. He remains in the concussion protocol heading towards Sunday in New Orleans.
S Eddie Jackson (foot) — Jackson is trending towards better health with this lingering injury, and seems to have avoided a shutdown.
CB Terell Smith (mono) — Smith remains unable to return while he recovers from a bout with mono.
Quote to note
“When we’ve played clean football this year, we’ve won games. When it gets sloppy, we haven’t. So, we’ve just got to continue to clean it up and fix the execution.”
Emma’s Prediction (5-3): Saints 27, Bears 13
The third start for Bagent will bring a difficult defense and imposing environment. This is a daunting test for the Bears, who will come up short against the Saints.