Emma’s Tailgater: Will Matt Eberflus make case to save his job as Bears head coach?
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Through all he has endured over the course of these two turbulent years as head coach, Matt Eberflus hasn’t been broken.
Eberflus has remained the same man in these trying tests on the job, never raising his voice, pointing the blame or falling under the burden he’s carrying.
“I don’t know if I would use the word frustration,” Eberflus said Wednesday when reflecting on this rebuilding process. “Obviously, you have to have extreme patience during this time.”
The Bears are 7-22 under his watch and he’s firmly on the hot seat for these final five games of the regular season. On the morning of Jan. 8 – better known as Black Monday in the NFL – new president Kevin Warren must decide on the fates of Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles.
Has the Bears’ rebuilding plan proven the type of meaningful progress that will allow Eberflus and Poles to see through a third season? If Warren decides to move forward with Poles, will they decide Eberflus should be retained to continue developing this roster? How does the looming decision at quarterback impact these calls?
The Bears face franchise-altering decisions this offseason, the first to be led with Warren overseeing football operations. This coincides with the likelihood of multiple high selections in the 2024 NFL Draft, including the potential No. 1 overall pick from the Panthers.
With the Bears coveting sustained success, this offseason could serve as the foundation. But it will start by deciding whether Eberflus is the right man to lead this team forward.
The Bears have endured a campaign filled with on-field struggles and off-field distractions. They entered this season with hopes of rising up in the NFC North and instead started at 0-4. Eberflus lost defensive coordinator Alan Williams to an HR-related resignation and the firing of running backs coach David Walker, whose dismissal was also due to misconduct. Controversial wide receiver Chase Claypool was traded for pennies on the dollar after calling out the coaching staff. Even quarterback Justin Fields expressed his apparent frustration in the offense early this season.
But the waters in Lake Forest have calmed since early October. Eberflus is making a case that he is indeed guiding the Bears through a period of progress, pointing himself to a 4-4 mark after three wins in his first 21 games. Fields has revealed individual growth in his third season, in particular as a passer. Meanwhile, Chicago’s defense – Eberflus’ bread and butter – has made considerable strides this season.
To his credit, Eberflus has kept the Bears committed and believing in their future to come. There hasn’t been a clear breakthrough for the Bears, but their incremental progress is notable.
“Obviously, you want the wins,” Eberflus said. “The wins, that’s the biggest frustration. When are you going to get the wins? You keep doing things right, you keep doing things right, and then all of a sudden, the wins will come.
“I know it’s been slow, and I know the Chicago Bears fans, as we do, want more wins. You can certainly see that momentum start to change. We’re certainly optimistic for that.”
Warren hasn’t addressed the media since he was introduced as the Bears’ new president back in January. Poles hasn’t spoken to reporters since early November after the trade deadline. There hasn’t been a public declaration to support either Eberflus or Poles. Given how this team has struggled to ascend as a contender this season, there is uncertainty as to what type of moves will be made on Black Monday.
Given that the Bears may just be on the upswing, they should be able to attract prized head-coaching candidates such as Jim Harbaugh (University of Michigan head coach), Ben Johnson (Lions offensive coordinator, Brian Johnson (Eagles offensive coordinator) or Lou Anarumo (Bengals defensive coordinator). Chicago has a budding roster and deep draft capital to see through the next phase of this blueprint towards contention.
The Bears elected not to dismiss Eberflus after their early struggles this season, standing by their apparent philosophy to not fire a key leader during the season. In granting him this continued chance, Eberflus has steered this ship back towards its ultimate destination.
Five games are remaining in this regular season – five more times for Eberflus to lead the Bears into action this season and make an impression that supports his faith. The wins are coming, he believes to the core.
Eberflus has held himself together – through the losing, the adversity and the disappointment – with this resolve, and the Bears have followed his lead.
Fields finds peace amid uncertainty
Before Justin Fields could find his career on the rise, he first had to hit rock bottom.
Once a prized recruit to Georgia, Fields fell into the backup role with the Bulldogs. His aspirations were in jeopardy if not for the change he needed. After his freshman year, he transferred to Ohio State, hired a high-powered attorney and sought immediate eligibility.
Fields was granted the opportunity to play immediately at Ohio State, where he was a two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and Heisman Trophy finalist in two prolific seasons. He proved himself as a premier quarterback prospect poised with potential for the NFL.
The 24-year-old Fields knows well that the Bears could move on from him this offseason and select their next quarterback. Following three years of hope and challenges in Chicago, Fields may be traded away and left to start anew with another franchise.
Fields is at peace with the uncertainty that looms.
“I mean, I’ve had moments in my life where I’ve wanted things to happen, it didn’t go that way and it ended up going another way and it worked out better than I ever could’ve imagined,” Fields said. “That’s really why I don’t stress about stuff that happens.”
This season, Fields has completed 64.4% of his passes for 1,587 yards, 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions over eight starts. He endured a four-game absence due to a right thumb injury. In the three games since returning, Fields has continued his progression.
Fields has been improving ever since last season. In his last 17 games played, he has accumulated 2,960 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, this while rushing for 1,261 yards and 8 scores. The addition of top target DJ Moore has allowed Fields to shine as a passer this season.
“He’s a dynamic player, dynamic quarterback,” Moore said. “I mean, we want him here. I’ve been having a great year with him, so that should speak volumes. I just leave what they do (in the front office) upstairs at the end of the day.
“He’s young. He’s going to still continue to grow and be better.”
But as Fields has made an important impression in this pivotal third season of his career, Ryan Poles and his scouting brass have been forming their evaluations on prized quarterback prospects like Caleb Williams (USC) and Drake Maye (North Carolina), preparing for the potential of selecting at the top of next year’s draft.
If the Bears indeed hold the first overall pick in the draft thanks to the Panthers (1-11), they must decide either to invest around Fields — perhaps with a dynamic wide receiver like Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. — or to select their next young quarterback. This is a difficult decision that’s about the alternatives just as much as Fields. It’s also a call that ties in with a potential head-coaching search, or even the pursuit of a new general manager if Kevin Warren decided to clean house.
There’s so little certain for Fields’ future and he doesn’t have a say in that matter.
“Life is unfair,” Fields said. “Personally, I’m just focused on what I can control. The rest is in God’s hands. Really, you just put everything in God’s hands, you know it’s going to turn out good for you. If I’m here next year, if I’m not, football doesn’t define who I am as a person. My happiness will still be in the same place.
“I’m very blessed in the position I am in. A million people would love to be in the position I’m in right now. Really, not taking that for granted. Just taking each and every moment I have every day up here to the fullest.”
Edwards making his mark
Jack Sanborn had an example to follow in May of 2022 as he broke into the NFL looking to make it as an undrafted free agent.
That was T.J. Edwards, who like Sanborn hails from Chicago’s northwest suburbs, became an All-Big Ten linebacker at Wisconsin but was not selected in the draft. Edwards earned his way over four years with the Eagles before signing with the Bears – and now plays alongside Sanborn.
“Definitely somebody that I looked to to try to emulate my game,” Sanborn said. “Just because he understands the game, he has great instincts and he’s always on the ball. Yeah, it definitely motivates me.”
In his first season with the Bears, Edwards has set the tone for this budding defensive identity. He is tied for third in the NFL for solo tackles (73) and combined tackles (127), adding 6 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks and 2 interceptions.
At the start of free agency in March, the Bears signed Edwards on a three-year, $19.5-million deal to work as the weakside linebacker in Matt Eberflus’ defensive identity. That’s the impact position Roquan Smith played in 2022, and one in which Shaquille Leonard thrived during four All-Pro seasons with the Colts and Eberflus’ defense.
Edwards has been the impactful player the Bears coveted for their defense.
“I think linebackers, their No. 1 job is to be around the ball,” Edwards said. “So, whether that’s run or pass, trying to get to the ball as best as we can. I mean, if the tackle’s there that’s awesome. I want to make those impact plays to help the team.”
Late this season, the Bears have seen their defense emerge as a strength. That unit led a 12-10 win over the Vikings last Monday night, with Edwards producing 6 tackles, 1 tackle for a loss and an interception late in the third quarter.
The Bears have put the pieces together for lasting success on defense. The importance of Edwards has been evident in his first season with this group.
Edwards has made his mark without changing a thing.
“He has stayed true to himself,” Sanborn said. “And stayed true to who he is as a ballplayer.
“He knew how to play ball and he’s always trusted that.”
The Bears have named defensive lineman Justin Jones as their nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, which is considered the most prestigious individual honor in the NFL, one that recognizes philanthropy and community service.
Since signing with the Bears in March of 2022, Jones has been an active member in the Chicagoland community while pledging money and support to youth and families in need. He has also been a participant in the Bears’ own charitable work, pledging his time and energy for Bears Care and serving as a captain for the team’s commitment to high school girls’ flag football.
As Jones broke into the NFL in 2018, he realized there was a platform to inspire those in the same challenging place he was growing up. Jones has been particularly moved by his visits with youth on Chicago’s South Side, where he has frequently lent himself.
“Sometimes, you lose sight of where you’re coming from,” Jones said. “For me, a lot of these kids, it reminds me of myself. Like, hearing these kids talk, like, ‘Today was not a good day for me.’ I’m like, ‘What happened? Like, I feel you, bro. I’ve been there. I know exactly what you’re talking about.’ It’s just amazing. I think the biggest thing for me is being able to show kids it’s OK to be upset and it’s OK to cry, it’s OK to be mad, it’s OK to be stressed, it’s OK to have anxiety and be anxious. But it’s all about how you process those emotions and what you do with it.
“When you cry, it just means you’re feeling emotions and you have nowhere else to go with it, so you let tears out. And it’s cool. When I was a kid, they told me to man up and stop crying. Wipe your face. We don’t do that. Get it together.
“I know that particularly on the South Side, there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s not the best situation for a lot of kids. A lot of these kids are really, really good kids. But a lot of these kids are scared, too, just being outside and doing regular kid stuff, because you never know what can happen to you. Hearing them talk about stuff like that, it really hurts my heart.
“The kids do like the fact that we come out and we talk to them. It’s a breath of fresh air to them. It’s refreshing for them to know we all go through the same things.”
Nominees are selected by each NFL team as voted upon by players and coaches. The NFL will unveil its Walter Payton Man of the Year Award winner during its NFL Honors ceremony at the Super Bowl in February.
Cleats for a Cause
The Bears will take part in the NFL’s “My Cause, My Cleats” initiative on Sunday, wearing shoes that proudly support charitable organizations they hope to promote.
Coach Matt Eberflus will be wearing shoes to recognize the Zacharias Sexual Abuse Center, a local organization he has supported since landing in Chicago.
Justin Fields has started the Justin Fields Foundation, which is dedicated to strengthening communities through focused grantmaking and partnerships in youth empowerment. He will represent this cause on his cleats Sunday. pic.twitter.com/6VbXofkJDo— Chris Emma (@CEmma670) December 6, 2023
Ebeflus spoke with survivors of sexual abuse during a fundraiser this summer for the Zacharias Center.
“It’s well needed,” Eberflus said. “And really just want to bring that to light because it’s a subject that no one talks about.”
The Bears will have over 100 members of the organization – from executives, coaches and players to staff members in non-football departments – wearing custom shoes. Many of those individuals will be supporting their own organizations.
President Kevin Warren will be wearing shoes for the Warren Family Foundation, quarterback Justin Fields will be representing the Justin Fields Foundation, and cornerback Jaylon Johnson will be supporting the Kevvy’s Vision Project that he started two years ago.
The NFL started “My Cause, My Cleats” in 2016 as a way for players to showcase their own charitable organizations through custom gear.
DE Yannick Ngakoue (knee) — After an injury during practice Thursday, Ngakoue’s status appears to be in question.
RB D’Onta Foreman (ankle) — For the first time since early this season, the Bears will have their three running backs healthy with Foreman, Khalil Herbert and Roschon Johnson. With that, they must decide how to allocate workloads in the backfield.
CB Tyrique Stevenson (ankle) — Stevenson suffered an injury in practice last month. Fortunately, he is in line to miss just one game as a result and should be back this week against the Lions.
OT Larry Borom (illness) — The reserve tackle Borom missed the Monday night game in Minneapolis, but he returned to practice in full this week.
LB Noah Sewell (knee) — The rookie linebacker Sewell worked in a limited role for the first time since his mid-November knee injury in practice.
Quote to note
“I’m treating it like we’re in playoff mode now. I think five very winnable games here to end the season. Who knows what can happen at 9-8?” —Bears tight end Cole Kmet
Emma’s Prediction (8-4): Bears 24, Lions 21
The Bears came up just short in their first meeting with the Lions. But Eberflus sees this team trending in the right direction, and I tend to agree. They close out the win this time at Soldier Field and make it consecutive wins for the first time since 2021.