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Emma’s Tailgater: Matt Eberflus’ plan is starting to take shape with Bears

1 year agoChris Emma

LAKE FOREST, Ill. When Matt Eberflus gathered the Bears together this offseason for the first time as head coach, he was clear and decisive on a message that hasn’t changed since. He outlined the plan and principles in place to build the culture he covets. 

At the end of a season filled with challenges, with the Bears (3-11) having lost seven straight games entering Saturday’s game with the Bills (11-3) at Soldier Field, what Eberflus brought before them in that first team meeting still resonates.

Despite the results of this season, they believe in what’s to come. 

“We think we got something special that we’re building,” Bears tight end Cole Kmet said. 

Eberflus was entering his first opportunity as a head coach at any level when new Bears general manager Ryan Poles hired him to Chicago. But with this opportunity came the task of guiding a difficult rebuilding process forward. It required a change in perspective for Eberflus, who recognized he would need patience this first season. 

Ultimately, to achieve Poles’ goal and “take the (NFC) North and never give it back,” they would need to start anew this season. The Bears went into 2022 with the future in mind.  

The Bears are 1-7 in one-score games this season, a mark that’s disappointing to those players and coaches inside Halas Hall. But it hasn’t diminished the confidence towards the future.  

“You have to have perspective,” Eberflus said. “When you’re in the game, I think it’s obviously 100% getting after it by any means necessary. And then after the game, you have to evaluate the performance. The game is the game now – if we win by five or you lose by five, then you have to have that perspective. How do you get better next week? Each individual and each unit.  

“You can look at different teams in the past. Everybody has to go through this. We’re in the process of doing that right now. It’s more about the work habits of each guy and the work habits of the units and having those championship work habits. That to me is the most important thing, because that’s what you can stand on.  

“It’s always going to be there and it’s never going anywhere. As you get going, as you start executing better, finishing games better, wins will start to stack. You always have to have that. If you don’t have that, it’s not going to work. But we do have that. We have it and our guys are working their tails off. We have that foundation that we’re building right now.  

“We’re heading in the right direction.” 

The great reward for the Bears has been the ascension of second-year quarterback Justin Fields, who entered this season an uncertain, incomplete product and appears to be a rising star.  

The 23-year-old Fields has completed 62% of his passes for 2,048 yards, 15 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, adding 144 carries for 1,000 yards and 8 rushing scores. Last Sunday during the Bears’ 25-20 loss to the Eagles at Soldier Field, Fields became just the third quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He’s now in pursuit of Lamar Jackson’s record 1,206 rushing yards in 2019, the most ever by a quarterback. 

But beyond just the individual accolades and flares for the spectacular, Fields has established himself as the most influential leader in the Bears’ locker room. He has become the cornerstone of a bright future building in Chicago. 

“To have a front row seat to Justin’s growth and development as a player, as a quarterback, as a leader has been really cool,” Bears center Sam Mustipher said. “Just his development from Year 1 to Year 2 and then game by game. On the field, you see how he builds his confidence, you see the level that he’s playing at right now. 

“There’s been a lot of quarterback instability since I’ve been here. The guy is awesome. I mean, he’s one of the most dynamic, electric players in the NFL. It’s very cool for that to be in the city of Chicago.” 

Now, the Bears must properly build around Fields. They enter this offseason with eight draft picks – including a likely top-five selection in the first round – plus more than $125 million in projected salary cap space. Poles can prepare to make key investments to shore up the offensive line, add talent at wide receiver and continue to overhaul a defense that was gutted last offseason. 

But with the growth from Fields this season has come hope, because the Bears have solidified the most important position in sports. They have set a foundation with Fields. 

“We’re establishing our style of play,” Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “We’re establishing the type of team that we want to be. The leadership is starting to go to the top of this football team. It’s important that you have growth from your young quarterback. And I think all of that stuff is trending positively.” 

Of course, this first phase is the easiest. But many rebuilds before this have failed. There’s nothing definitive about potential and no guarantees for the future. It’s why Eberflus wants the Bears to set a foundation they can stand on for these coming years. 

Though the Bears haven’t yet found proof to Eberflus’ plan, they stand confident that the work put in this season will pay off. 

“I think we got some good foundation pieces,” Kmet said. “So, heading into next year, it’s just about continuing to build that culture and keep progressing here as players.”

4-down territory

1. Bear Weather

Eberflus has experienced the type of extreme cold that is forecasted for Saturday afternoon in Chicago. In fact, those frigid memories came at Soldier Field. 

Eberflus was linebackers coach for the Cowboys on Dec. 9, 2013, when they came to Chicago and played one of the coldest games in Soldier Field history. The Bears earned a 45-28 victory, with Josh McCown throwing for 348 yards and 4 touchdowns and the great Mike Ditka being honored at halftime. The temperature at kickoff was 8 degrees and the wind chill was minus-9. 

For Eberflus, the lasting memory of that game was just how cold he was the entire time. 

“Just bitter cold,” Eberflus said. “It was bitter cold. You had to really make sure all your skin was covered, because you would potentially get frostbite and all that, so you had to make sure you used Vaseline on your face to make sure everything’s covered up right. It was cold and the helmets sound weird when they hit. It was cold.” 

Saturday’s game at Soldier Field is expected to be even colder – perhaps the coldest game on record in the stadium’s history. Forecasts are calling a high temperature of 9 degrees, with wind chills 20 degrees below zero. Winds are expected to sustain at 20 to 30 miles per hour, with gusts occasionally over 40 miles per hour.  

All of this follows up to a foot of snow falling on Thursday and Friday, part of a blizzard-like storm system set to rock the region through the holidays. So, who’s ready for some football? 

“I am excited,” Fields said as he deadpanned. “It’s going to be my first time playing in that weather. It’s going to be fun.” 

The coldest game on record at Soldier Field for temperature was 2 degrees on Dec. 22, 2008, as Brian Urlacher went sleeveless in a 20-17 win over the Packers. The coldest wind chill ever for a game at Soldier Field was minus-15 on Dec. 18, 1983, also in a win over the Packers.

2. Fields’ focused mindset

Before the hype train began down the tracks and the city of Chicago began to believe Fields could become a franchise quarterback, there were plenty of questions. After all, the Bears have seen many promising quarterbacks before him come and go without fulfilling their promise.  

Fields was an incomplete product as a rookie in 2021, let down by the Bears’ instability around him and struggling to find his form. That carried over early into this season as he settled in with a new regime and scheme. But the 23-year-old Fields has thrived throughout the course of this season and proven himself as a rising star the Bears can build around. 

Though there’s greater hope for Fields, his mindset remains the same as when he was being doubted.  

“I’m not going to take somebody’s opinions to heart (if) I wouldn’t take advice from you,” Fields said. “No offense to people out there – everybody’s entitled to their own opinion – but if I’m not looking to take advice from you, I’m not going to care about your opinion or what you have to say. 

“I always knew what I could do on the field, my talent and what I’m capable of. I think it definitely took me some time to get to the point to where I am now to where I don’t take (criticism) into account.” 

3. Change in the backfield?

Ryan Poles was hired by the Bears in part because of the vision he helped bring to the Chiefs, the gold standard in the NFL for the last several seasons. For Poles, a great influence in his philosophy leading a franchise in Chicago was developed in Kansas City. 

That likely includes how Poles values the position of running back, which simply is not a priority in developing a roster for modern-day general managers. They have come to realize that starting-caliber running backs can be selected late in a draft and emerge to the top of a depth chart. The Chiefs have enjoyed a run of 10 straight winning seasons, including a Super Bowl championship in February of 2020. During that time, Kansas City has seen seven different leading rushers. 

It’s why the Bears seem unlikely to offer a lucrative long-term extension to David Montgomery when he hits the open market in March. Montgomery, 25, is set to become an unrestricted free agent and (rightfully) will hope for a rewarding deal on the open market. But Montgomery hasn’t been focused on his contract future this season. 

“I’m not really into the whole contract talk thing because I’m a firm believer in whatever works out,” Montgomery said earlier this season. “And that’s how I see things.” 

Meanwhile, the Bears may have their future at running back squared away with second-year rusher Khalil Herbert. He’s an example of finding value late in the draft, a sixth-round pick in 2021 to Chicago’s previous regime.  

Herbert has carried 211 times for 1,076 yards and 6 touchdowns over parts of two seasons with the Bears. He has averaged an impressive 5.1 yards per attempt and made a strong impression on his team. 

“Unique style of running,” Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said. “The cool patience that he has. The way that guys can kind of naturally bounce off him, I think is really cool.  

“He has the opportunity to take what could be a seven-yard run and turn it into a big one because he has the speed to do that.” 

The Bears are expected to activate Herbert from injured reserve before Saturday’s game, this following a four-game absence on injured reserve due to a hip injury suffered in November. The return of Herbert will realign the Bears’ dynamic rushing trio as he rejoins Montgomery and Fields in the offense. 

As for the future, Herbert seems to be set in the Bears’ plans and Montgomery may be moving on.

4. No surprise with Sanborn

Jack Sanborn, the undrafted rookie linebacker who became one of the best stories for the Bears in 2022, has been shut down for the remainder of the regular season after suffering an ankle injury during Sunday’s game at Soldier Field. 

Sanborn was signed by the Bears in early May after going undrafted out of Wisconsin. A Lake Zurich native, he found the right fit by staying home and working for his place with the Bears. In the end, he may have earned a place in Chicago’s future at middle linebacker. 

The 22-year-old Sanborn stepped in as a starter after the Bears traded star linebacker Roquan Smith prior to the trade deadline. He posted 59 combined tackles, 5 tackles for a loss and 2 sacks over 6 starts. 

But while Sanborn’s rise might be considered a surprise to some, Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams sees it differently. 

“Why put a ceiling on a guy?” Williams said. “Sometimes a guy like Jack doesn’t get drafted because you go, ‘Hey, he didn’t put up some of the numbers and the other guys get drafted sooner because they can run.’ (Poles and his scouting team) do a phenomenal job. 

“Jack just doesn’t run a 4.4. But he is a football player. So, no, I was not surprised.” 

Quote to note 

“He’s made some incredible plays, and I think I’ve gone to (Eberflus) every single time and I’m like, ‘That was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen.’ To be able to say that multiple times is pretty cool.” 

Bears offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, on whether he has a favorite play by Justin Fields 

Injury report 

CB Jaylon Johnson (ribs) Johnson intends to play Saturday’s game as long as he gets through the week feeling like he can play at a high level.  

WR Chase Claypool (knee) After missing last Sunday’s game with a knee injury, Claypool returned to practice this week and is trending towards taking the field. 

RG Teven Jenkins (neck) It was great to see Jenkins back with the Bears this week after being stabilized on a stretcher for his neck injury. There’s of course still maintenance to handle this week but he’s considered day-to-day. 

LG Cody Whitehair (knee) Whitehair has been a model of consistency during his seven seasons with the Bears, missing only 6 of a possible 111 games. This injury setback could hold him out for Saturday. 

WR N’Keal Harry (back) Harry practiced in full all last week before being held out of action against the Eagles. Let’s see if he’s able to get back out there against the Bills. 

CB Kindle Vildor (ankle) This ankle injury has been a nagging issue this season for Vildor.  

WR Equanimeous St. Brown (concussion) St. Brown suffered the concussion on the Bears’ first drive of last Sunday’s game and has not yet been cleared. 

TE Trevon Wesco (calf) The Bears could be down a depth piece at tight end once again if Wesco is unable to play. 

Emma’s Prediction (10-4): Bills 24, Bears 20 

A cold, entertaining, very cold game will come down to the wire, with Josh Allen and the Bills having more firepower than Justin Fields and the Bears.  

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