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Emma’s Tailgater: Fascinating possibilities await Bears for pivotal offseason

2 months agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — In the early hours of Monday morning at Halas Hall, key decisions loom inside Halas Hall that will set course on a franchise-altering offseason for the Chicago Bears.

President & CEO Kevin Warren must first sign off on the job performance of Ryan Poles, the 38-year-old general manager who has overhauled football operations for the Bears. That much is considered a formality given the work put forth by Poles and his brass that has put this franchise in position for sustained success.

From there, Warren and Poles must elect on whether to retain head coach Matt Eberflus. It’s a decision that while complicated, has become more clear throughout a season revealing progress. After an 0-4 start to this season – and an abysmal 3-18 mark to open his coaching career – Eberflus has the Bears improving towards the potential Poles envisioned.

Though the Bears have not publicly supported Eberflus, the belief is that he will return for a third season as head coach in 2024, multiple sources have indicated. First comes the season finale Sunday at Lambeau Field as the Bears (7-9) take on the rival Packers (8-8), looking to keep Green Bay out of the postseason.

But the decision on Eberflus’ future isn’t just a simple evaluation of whether he deserves to keep his job or be fired. It’s a complex analysis on if he’s the right man to oversee hopes of winning a Super Bowl championship – with those goals now firmly set in 2024.

Warren and Poles must also identify whether Eberflus and his coaching staff can develop the Bears’ quarterback into a franchise player. That of course is also a monumental decision looming, one over whether the Bears should invest around 24-year-old Justin Fields or select Caleb Williams (USC) as his replacement with the first overall pick.

The Bears will select one of four scenarios in play this offseason, choosing for continuity between Eberflus and Fields, a change of head coach, a move at quarterback or two new leaders in those respective roles.

There are unique possibilities behind each of these four doors.

Scenario 1: Continuity – Matt Eberflus, Justin Fields return in 2024

Throughout much of this regular season, it was hard to imagine either Eberflus or Fields returning to the Bears. Now, it’s an option that has become increasingly more attractive.

Eberflus has made his mark on the Bears’ entire roster, taking pride in his place as the CEO-style head coach. The collective improvement of this team is a credit to Eberflus and his coaches, who were able to weather the storms of adversity and keep their players focused. Meanwhile, the evolution of Fields in his third NFL season has been evident.

Fields has thrown for 2,414 yards, 16 touchdowns and 9 interceptions over 12 starts this season, this while rushing for 630 yards and 4 scores. He has appeared comfortable operating the scheme of offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who is embattled in his own right.

Warren and Poles could see that promising trajectory from the end of this season as difficult to ignore, and that there may be greater possibilities ahead by granting Eberflus a third year as head coach and Fields a future in Chicago.

Eberflus and Fields have made this a more plausible possibility for 2024.

Scenario 2. – Quarterback Change: Eberflus’ staff develops a new franchise arm

Landing the No. 1 overall pick in the draft is a rare feat in football. The Bears are set to do so two years in a row, and with the favorable circumstances of this top pick coming from the Panthers. It would be inexcusable for them to emerge from these two drafts without the quarterback position set for the future.

Poles and his brass appear correct in their decision to pass on Bryce Young (Panthers), though they certainly missed on the upside of C.J. Stroud (Texans), the favorite to win Offensive Rookie of the Year. This year’s draft features more promising quarterback prospects in Williams, Drake Maye (North Carolina), Jayden Daniels (LSU), Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) and Bo Nix (Oregon). This is a tremendously deep class, one the Bears have carefully scouted throughout the fall.

Poles is expected to meet with the media next week, with Eberflus sitting to his side, and will likely repeat the same phrase he offered last January – that he will have to be “blown away” by a quarterback in this draft to select one. This time around, that may be the case.

Fields has emerged as a promising starter in this league, though he has also shown flaws in his game that the Bears must consider. He still struggles with processing in the pocket and ball security has been a consistent concern. Both of those can be the difference in Chicago seeing through Super Bowl hopes or falling short.

The Bears will likely land a second-round pick and more in a deal of Fields, and could potentially create bidding for a first-round pick if Poles plays his cards right. Fields has proven himself as a starter in this league and there will be a robust market if he’s available for trade.

But in bringing Eberflus back and preparing for another quarterback to enter the fold, the Bears would be repeating their own past mistakes. They did so in 2017 by selecting Mitchell Trubisky to a coaching staff led by John Fox, who was fired after the season, then again in 2021 with Fields landing in the hands of Matt Nagy, who like Fox was fired after the season. The development tracks of Trubisky and Fields were each put in harm’s way by instability from the organization. Eberflus wouldn’t enter the season as a lame duck like Fox and Nagy, but he would face increased demands to reach the playoffs.

If the Bears are set on retaining Eberflus this offseason and parting ways with Fields, they must also determine whether Getsy is the right man to lead this offense and develop the team’s next quarterback. That decision could also come as soon as next Monday.

Scenario 3: Coaching Change – Justin Fields returns to new regime

After securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2024 NFL Draft last Sunday, this being sent from the Panthers, perhaps Warren and Poles see opportunity. The Bears find themselves as a budding franchise and one that would be the most coveted opening for a coaching search.

The Bears could dismiss Eberflus after two seasons with the intention of using their positive trajectory as leverage to hire the best candidate available.

Chicago saw it play out similarly in early November when the Cubs fired David Ross and hired Craig Counsell as their new manager. Ross’ body of work didn’t necessarily deserve being let go, but president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer believed he could upgrade with Counsell as manager.

If that were the route taken by the Bears, they must allow that new head coach to have a say in the decision at quarterback – just as Eberflus must be a voice in these evaluations if he’s retained.

But the Bears would be doing Fields a disservice by pairing him to a third coaching staff in four years. He would be required to learn a new offense and master another playbook.

This scenario seems to be the least likely in play. 

Scenario 4: Start Anew – Eberflus, Fields not retained

What once seemed to be the most likely option for the Bears seems to be increasingly less plausible. But Warren and Poles may still have a wild card in their hand and believe change is necessary.

The Bears have formed an offensive identity, even with Fields often inconsistent at quarterback, and seen their defense take shape despite instability under Eberflus’ watch. Maybe the belief in the front office of Halas Hall is that the Bears can find that elusive sustained success with a new pairing between head coach and quarterback.

Poles may covet a fresh voice for his head coach, an innovative offensive mind who can take charge of developing the team’s rookie quarterback. The Bears will be a very attractive option for coaching candidates like Jim Harbaugh (Michigan head coach), Ben Johnson (Lions offensive coordinator), Lou Anarumo (Bengals defensive coordinator), Bobby Slowik (Texans offensive coordinator) and others who are set to enter this cycle.

Any prospective coaching candidate will see appeal in being part of drafting and developing a young quarterback and leading this promising roster in place.

By Monday morning at Halas Hall, the Bears’ vision for the future will begin to seem more clear.

Progress by Poles

Two years ago this month when Ryan Poles was introduced as the Bears’ new general manager, he stated the goal to “take the (NFC) North and never give it back.” There was never a deadline placed on those aspirations.

However, it has been clear throughout the course of this drastic rebuilding plan for the Bears that Poles intended to contend by 2024. He needed two years to tear down the roster inherited, leading difficult decisions forward and rebuild these football operations. The Bears lost 18 of their first 21 games with this regime, and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon.

At the end of this second year led by Poles’ brass, hope has finally arrived. The Bears are set up for sustained success thanks to the shrewd vision and actions of their general manager.

Poles is proving himself as one of the brightest young executives in the NFL after what he led the Bears to in two years. He has twice positioned this team with the No. 1 overall pick – first by virtue of a 3-14 record in 2022, then again thanks to the trade last March with the Panthers. That deal could ultimately be remembered as one of the great heists in league history, and one that will be celebrated in Chicago sports lore. It also may be a gift that keeps on giving if Poles elects to deal the first overall pick again this year, landing another significant haul in return.

In two years leading the Bears’ front office, Poles has drafted promising young players like Kyler Gordon, Jaquan Brisker, Braxton Jones, Darnell Wright, Gervon Dexter and more. He has acquired stars like DJ Moore and Montez Sweat, each part of the team’s long-term plan, and signed key veterans like Tremaine Edmunds, T.J. Edwards to bolster this defense. Only 10 players remain from Ryan Pace’s tenure, which ended two years ago this month.

Poles’ tenure as general manager will ultimately be defined by the decisions ahead this offseason. He must be correct on whether to retain Eberflus or hire his replacement, and if it’s wise to invest in Fields or select Chicago’s next quarterback.

But through these challenging two years of rebuilding, Poles has proven that his vision and purpose can bring the Bears the type of lasting success he billed when hired.

Poles has earned full belief in leading the Bears into this period of great promise.

Moore’s stellar first season

DJ Moore is already one of the best wide receivers in Bears history, at least statistically speaking.

Moore’s 92 receptions over 16 games in a Bears uniform puts him 64th on the team’s all-time receptions leaderboard. He personally took notice of Brandon Marshall’s single-season record of 1,508 receiving yards in 2012. Moore is at 1,300 yards on the season.

“I didn’t care about it until I was this close to breaking Brandon Marshall’s record for a single season,” Moore said. “So, maybe a 209-yard game that’s coming. You never know.”

Acquired by the Bears back last March, Moore has been everything Chicago hoped for and then some. He is the dynamic No. 1 target guiding Justin Fields to growth in his third season, the star that an opposing defense must account for on every snap, and the multiplying force that has allowed the entire offense to benefit.

Beyond that, Moore has been a tone setter for the Bears as a leader and captain. They appreciate his performance because of the work they watch him put forth to be great.

“I’ll just talk about how smart he is, how he understands leverages, coverages, has tempo in and out of his routes,” Fields said. “Of course, he’s just a great player and playmaker. So, it’s great having him on the team. He makes my job easier like I always say. He’s pretty much always open unless they double-team him.

“Any time you can get the ball in his hands, you’re most likely going to get an explosive play. He’s hard to tackle. He’s like a running back once he gets the ball in his hands.
“He’s been making my job easier and been a great asset to the team.”

The Bears landed Moore as part of their blockbuster deal involving the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. In negotiating with the Panthers, Ryan Poles wouldn’t settle for a package that didn’t include an impactful player like Moore. The deal sent two first-round picks (No. 9 overall in 2023 and No. 1 overall in 2024), a pair of second-round slots and Moore, whom Poles coveted instead of a top pick in 2025.

Once again, the Bears are positioned with the first overall pick in the draft – this coming thanks to the Panthers (2-14) and their directionless rebuilding plan. Carolina made a significant move to land Bryce Young, but in doing so moved a player in Moore who could’ve helped his rookie season. Now, the Panthers are desperately seeking talent but doing so without a first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Moore’s performance alongside Fields and the Bears’ offense has inspired hope for what’s to come in the future. If Poles decides to again deal the first overall pick in the draft, he may again seek a star player to be included as part of this package.

Pro Bowl performances

At the beginning of this contract year, Jaylon Johnson set his sights on a lofty goal. He hoped to earn All-Pro honors for the first time in his career.

Those could still be coming, but it wasn’t lost on Johnson that he was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his four-year career. He along with Montez Sweat will be representing the Bears in Orlando as their two players honored for their play this season.

“Hopefully I got one more award left in me,” Johnson said. “I think that is very tangible and I believe it’s on its way.”

Johnson has four interceptions on the season and is ranked as the top cornerback in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. He has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign during which negotiations have taken place on a contract extension.

The 24-year-old Johnson is set to become an unrestricted free agent this offseason. It remains likely that the Bears will tender the franchise tag on Johnson if a long-term deal is not reached by March. That would allow him to remain under contract in Chicago for 2024 – albeit at a projected price north of $18 million – and extend the window for negotiations on a new deal.

Sweat, 27, has proven to be everything the Bears hoped when they sent a second-round pick to the Commanders in a deal just prior to the Oct. 31 trade deadline. He has six sacks over eight games with the Bears and 6.5 sacks through eight games with the Commanders – making him the leader in sacks for two different teams.

The Bears signed Sweat to a four-year, $98.5-million contract extension in early November. Now, he’s capping this whirlwind season with Pro Bowl recognition.

“It means a lot,” Sweat said. “My fifth year in the league, something that every player aspires to get. I’ve been working a long time to get to this point where I am, and I’m still not satisfied.”

Injury report

CB Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) — After leaving last Sunday’s game, Johnson has to work back from the injury this week. He expects to play in the finale with the Packers.

TE Cole Kmet (knee) — Kmet played in just 18% of the Bears’ offensive snaps last Sunday, but pushed his ironman streak to 66 games. He should play once again in this one.

WR Darnell Mooney (concussion) — Mooney remains in the concussion protocol early this week. He’ll need to be cleared before the team travels Saturday.

LS Patrick Scales (foot) — The Bears’ long snapper since 2015, Scales is dealing with an injury suffered last Sunday. Veteran long snapper Matt Overton was signed to the practice squad.

RB Khalil Herbert (back) — A new injury popped onto the injury report as Herbert is managing a back issue. He has rushed for more than 100 yards over the last two games.

Quote to note

“It’s an exciting time to be a Chicago Bear, and to be a Chicago Bears fan. There’s a lot of bright things that are coming ahead of us in the future.”
–Coach Matt Eberflus

Emma’s Prediction (11-5): Bears 24, Packers 21

The Bears will finish their season with a victory and keep the rival Packers out of the playoffs.

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