Emma’s Tailgater: Rebuilding Bears find delicate balance towards future
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Before the Bears took the field this summer for their first practice of training camp, first-year general manager Ryan Poles scoffed at the notion that his team would be the worst in football. But he also recognized this wouldn’t be a Super Bowl contender — not during a Year 1 of a rebuild and with the focus keenly on development.
Poles positioned the Bears during his first year leading the front office to be an ascending team building for the future, taking some lumps along the way in 2022 and emerging ready to contend. His goal was for sustained success in Chicago. In many ways, this campaign has lived up to its billing and Poles’ vision.
The Bears (3-7) have endured growing pains during their first season with head coach Matt Eberflus but enjoyed some breakthroughs, none more important than what second-year quarterback Justin Fields has showcased in a record run of recent performances. With seven games left for the Bears in this regular season — next up being a Sunday showdown with the Falcons (4-6) in Atlanta — the focus now has shifted to what’s more important for the franchise’s future: winning games or improving draft position.
As the losses pile up for the Bears this season, they’ll move up in the 2023 NFL Draft order — set well to select an asset around Fields or perhaps for Poles to trade down with a quarterback-needy team and stockpile more picks. However, those losses take a toll on the 23-year-old Fields and the young building blocks on this team.
Inside the Bears’ locker room, the concept of tanking is quickly disregarded as a misguided notion. Players know well how much time they commit to preparing for each game and what their bodies endure along the way. But many others know the importance of what winning can do for a budding culture.
“It’s a huge stepping stone,” said Bears guard Michael Schofield, who won a Super Bowl as a rookie with the Broncos in 2015. “If we finish strong this year, it only takes us a step forward for next year. Then we have a good, solid building block and we know how to win. We know what it takes to win.
“That’s a huge way to build momentum going into next season.”
Bears backup quarterback Trevor Siemian was teammates with Schofield on that Broncos championship team in 2015, a rookie who watched the example set by the great Peyton Manning.
“Winning ultimately is the sugar on top,” Siemian said. “It’s necessary if you want to create something sustainable.
Bears tackle Riley Reiff spent last season with the Bengals, playing for a team that had few expectations entering its 2021 campaign. Cincinnati had second-year quarterback Joe Burrow emerge as its franchise star and lead an unlikely run to the AFC Championship game, coming just shy of beating the Rams and hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.
The Bengals were 4-11-1 before their breakthrough last season. Burrow played in just 10 games as a rookie in 2020 before suffering a torn ACL. A young roster developed around Burrow and produced a special run.
The 11-year veteran Reiff sees similarities between what the Bengals were and these Bears can become.
“The results aren’t what we want,” Reiff said. “But I feel like we’re making some progress. It’s going to crack here soon.
“It all starts with a good quarterback. To have Joey and Justin, they’re both amazing athletes, amazing competitors. I see a lot of the same competitive traits in the two. They’re both really special guys.”
Of course, one could argue that the Bengals don’t enjoy their success in 2021 without selecting Ja’Marr Chase with the fifth overall pick after that 4-11-1 season. In Cincinnati, there’s a reminder to Chicago that turnarounds can occur rapidly in the NFL.
But creating a lasting culture is a vastly different goal, one that Poles has his sights set on. It’s why the Bears have emphasized using this season as a springboard for greater heights.
“I think it’s hard for a guy to buy into something when they don’t think it’s successful,” Bears linebacker Nick Morrow said. “If you’re going out there and just tanking games and losing and not being competitive, who wants to buy into that?
“The more success that is had, the more wins we have, the easier it will be for other guys to come in, buy into it and allow the culture to grow. Success kind of helps build that morale, that credibility. I think that’s important. We definitely want to finish strong. The urgency is there.”
The reality is that rebuilding is a delicate balance. A young roster needs to enjoy victories to build a winning culture, all while a forward-focused football operations has its sights set on the future. Winning can cost pivotal draft position. Losing can crush a team’s hopes before that competitive window truly opens.
What Poles and Eberflus hope for the Bears comes with great risk. Many have failed before with their efforts to rebuild a team. However, the truth is that Chicago will likely find more losses than wins in these final seven games. It’s a test in this foundational season for the franchise.
There’s belief that this season carries greater purpose for the Bears.
“I’ll tell you what they are getting, is perseverance. Determination,” Eberflus said. “That’s what they will get. Everybody is going to look at this and say, ‘Hey, you’ve lost six out of seven,’ and all the things the outside noise will be. Well, let’s have winning habits. Make sure we have winning habits every single day.
“Which, they do. They’ve practiced hard, doing the right thing. It’s about determination, perseverance and staying the course. That’s what they’re going to learn. That’s what they are learning.
“It will eventually crack. If we keep having winning habits, doing things the right way and executing in the critical moments, it will crack.”
1. Fields focuses on preserving his health
Justin Fields walked slowly through the bowels of Soldier Field on Sunday afternoon following his team’s 31-30 loss to the Lions. He had just received stitches behind his right ear, his legs were sore and he felt the brunt of this game.
Over the course of these last four games, the 23-year-old Fields has broken several records for rushing performances by a quarterback and displayed tremendous growth that is inspiring confidence in the Bears’ future. But there’s also the reality that carrying the football with such a frequency can take a toll on health.
Fields is quite aware of the risk that comes for a dual-threat quarterback. He has worked to minimize that by carefully managing his recovery and maintaining his body.
“Just making sure I’m getting as much treatment as I can during the week,” Fields said. “Doing whatever I can.”
Fields believes the greatest challenges he faces in health come as a result of increased movement on the field rather than the accumulation of hits. He has leaned on his baseball past with slides to avoid major hits. But there’s a natural soreness that comes with the rushing workload Fields has taken. He has carried for 749 yards this season, including 325 rushing yards the last two games — the most ever by an NFL quarterback over a two-game span. It’s why his legs were sore as preparation for the Falcons began this week at Halas Hall.
For Fields, maintaining his physical condition is a careful process planned with the Bears’ reshaped sports science department. Through this new emphasis led by Ryan Poles, the Bears are able to better understand the physical conditioning for a player like Fields and identify the stresses of a 17-game season.
Poles created the new position of director of high performance for the Bears, tabbing Brent Salazar into that role. Salazar, who most previously was a performance strategist with Kitman Labs, was tasked with leading a modernized approach to strength and conditioning.
The Bears are able to utilize these tools to design a proper recovery program for Fields during the course of each week. Given the additional mileage Fields’ legs have taken on with Chicago’s evolving offense, this becomes a necessary task leading into each game.
Fields dealt with a ribs fracture and ankle injury during his rookie campaign in 2021. He has managed aches and pains throughout this season. With that has come a greater understanding for Fields in how he must take care of his body.
Now, Fields producing record performances and inspiring hope for the Bears’ future.
“I would say it’s pretty amazing,” Matt Eberflus said. “The numbers and the ability to run. And then see his growth in the passing game.”
2. Kyler’s ‘growth’
As the first pick of this regime led by Ryan Poles, rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon was supposed to represent instant impact for the Bears. Instead, he showed some concerning struggles.
Gordon dealt with growing pains during his first games in the NFL and there was doubt cast upon what he could be for the Bears. But it was simply part of the acclimation for the 22-year-old Gordon, who was being thrust into an unfamiliar role as Chicago’s nickel cornerback.
“Definitely since game one, an increase in comfortability,” Gordon said. “Just sitting there and seeing everything that comes to me and really being able to take in all the information every game. Every game, I feel better and better, honestly.
“I’m just ready to go make a play. I’m just really locked in. Honestly, I’m just locking it. I’m falling in love with it.”
During his second career game, Gordon was picked apart by Packers star quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The two-time reigning MVP took note of where the rookie Gordon was on each play and went at him, completing 10 passes and a touchdown on 13 targets against him.
There have been highs and lows for Gordon this season, but there’s also been continued development.
“I do see growth,” Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams said. “I see growth every day. I see growth in the meeting rooms. I see growth in the kind of questions he asks. I see growth in terms of how comfortable he’s getting with each ballgame. It’s a little bit faster. When he’s recognizing different plays, he’s been a little bit faster there. So, each week it’s a little bit better.”
With seven games left in his rookie season, Gordon is comfortable and confident. He hopes to turn that into production from his role.
Gordon is setting the bar high for himself.
“I’m trying to go out and play perfect the rest of the seven games, honestly,” Gordon said. “Just really show my full display of whatever I can do, my skill set. Having clean games, A-graded games and be a player that has impact. That’s really just my goal.”
3. Velus vying for an opportunity
A third-round pick to the Bears in April’s NFL draft, wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. has found himself without a role for his team.
Jones has struggled to get acclimated with his role as a wide receiver, failing to inspire hope in the Bears during practices. And he was removed as the team’s punt returner following a pair of costly muffs during his first three games in October. Injuries have also played a part for Jones falling behind in his rookie season. Chicago has found stability at wide receiver and solidified its special teams without him.
As a result, Jones has been a healthy inactive during the Bears’ last two games.
“Control what you can control at this moment and grind,” Jones said last week. “Push yourself, extra work, whatever it takes. But I know my time is coming.
“You got to take everything one day at a time. What can I do now to get better? How can I help my team by creating value? That’s my main focus right now.”
Jones was selected by the Bears with the No. 71 overall pick in the draft, brought to Chicago with hopes that he could be a dynamic weapon in this offense and special teams. He has just 3 receptions for 24 yards and a touchdown, which came against the Vikings on a jet sweep play Oct. 9 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
But the Bears have since acquired Chase Claypool in a deal with the Steelers and activated Byron Pringle off injured reserve. N’Keal Harry found himself alongside Jones last Sunday as a healthy scratch. Chicago is suiting up five wide receivers on game day for its 46-man roster. Last Sunday, those players were Claypool, Pringle, Darnell Mooney, Equanimeous St. Brown and Dante Pettis. It was the veteran Pettis who took over for Jones as the team’s punt returner.
For now, Jones is the odd man out and left to fight for the Bears’ faith.
4. Ace in the Cole
Cole Kmet was almost too wide open as he waited for the deep ball from Justin Fields. The glare from an early setting sun blocked his view of the football in what could’ve turned into a football tragedy, the breakdown of a sure touchdown connection.
“My baseball days playing center field probably helped out in that situation,” Kmet said.
Kmet found the football, caught it and ran for a 50-yard touchdown. It marked his fifth score in the span of three games, the continued breakthrough of a player who is becoming a key building block in the Bears’ future.
A second-round pick to the Bears in 2020, Kmet has found his form in Luke Getsy’s system. He has been a beneficiary of Fields’ dual-threat abilities by taking advantage of defenses cheating against the run. Both of Kmet’s touchdowns last Sunday against the Lions came because of safety Kerby Joseph cheating in towards Fields’ scramble.
Getsy has leaned on Fields as a key in-line blocker as the Bears’ ‘Y’ tight end, but that role has also come with chances to create a mismatch in coverage.
Kmet had just 2 touchdowns in his first two seasons, both coming as a rookie in 2020. His role with the Bears was lacking production, largely in part due to poor scheme set by the previous regime.
The Bears are watching Kmet ascend as a key player in their offense, and perhaps for the long term.
“Cole is a special guy,” Eberflus said. “He’s energy, he’s enthusiasm. He brings light into a room.
“He’s everything we stand for.”
Quote to note
“He’s commanding everybody around him to take their game, their level of play, how they practice, to his level. That’s what you need in a quarterback. He’s doing a really great job. I’m lucky to have him as my quarterback.”
—David Montgomery, on Justin Fields
TE Cole Kmet (thigh) — Kmet went down with this injury late in the game last Sunday at Soldier Field, the product of an awkward collision with a Lions defender. He doesn’t seem too concerned and should be in line to play in Atlanta.
RG Teven Jenkins (hip) — Jenkins suffered this injury during practice last week and it cost him Sunday’s game against the Lions. His status will be one to monitor with concerns he could miss a second straight game.
DE Al-Quadin Muhammad (knee) — The Bears need every bit of help available on their defensive line. Muhammad could also miss a second straight game.
CB Kindle Vildor (ankle) — Without Vildor, the Bears were forced to shuffle their secondary. This could be a multi-game absence.
Emma’s Prediction (7-3): Bears 31, Falcons 28
Finally, the type of breakthrough victory that the Bears needed amid a tough stretch for Justin Fields and this team.