In a team meeting Monday, Chicago Bears coach Matt Eberflus talked to players about what worked in their three wins over the past six weeks.
The Bears didn’t turn the ball over and took it away five times. They sacked the quarterback and protected their own. Eberflus praised the run defense and rushing offense in this six-game stretch, along with the team’s success on third downs on offense and defense.
Next up? The final seven games of the 2023 season. Eberflus and the coaching staff will hammer those things the team has done well and improve what it hasn’t to try to get as many wins as possible.
Meanwhile, upstairs, chairman George McCaskey, president/CEO Kevin Warren and general manager Ryan Poles can have the luxury of watching the end of the season through the lens of 2024. Change is coming. It could be as massive as a new quarterback and head coach. It could be minimal through the standard free-agent and draft acquisitions and coaching turnover. But something has to be different for a team that is eyeing another last-place finish in the division.
With seven games to go, here are seven things the Bears’ decision-makers can accomplish.
1. Figure out a plan at quarterback
Poles might already know the answer to this. He has seen 21 starts from Justin Fields. He’s seen the great — the first half against the Denver Broncos and the win over the Washington Commanders — and a lot more games in which Fields struggled.
The inconsistency, the upcoming decision on a fifth-year option and the possibility of picking a quarterback with the Carolina Pathers’ draft pick might make this a done deal. Maybe there’s nothing Fields can do over the next seven games to change his trajectory in Chicago.
But the thing about Fields, which has made the past 2 1/2 seasons maddening at times, is the potential. The talent is there. It just hasn’t come out week to week, let alone quarter to quarter. Eberflus highlighted the Week 5 win as Fields at his best.
“You can certainly point back to that game, and man, that was a heck of a game to watch,” Eberflus said. “He really did a nice job of managing that game, really delivering to our skill and letting those guys run during the course of that game.”
Now, could Fields do that seven weeks in a row? Is that what it would take to convince Poles to use his first two picks on players who can complement as opposed to replace Fields? Either way, Fields’ story in Chicago isn’t over. He has at least seven games to change narratives. The problem is we haven’t seen a lot of evidence to tell us to expect that kind of string of success.
Come Jan. 8, the Bears should know what direction they’re going at quarterback.
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2. Identify coaching needs
The Bears are 3-7 this season and 6-21 under Eberflus. No organization wants to go through a coaching change after two seasons, but over the next seven games — like at quarterback, if a decision hasn’t already been made — there have to be some tough evaluations of this staff.
Eberflus’ defense has played well over the past six games. It still lacks in splash plays but has performed admirably against the run and on third down. Is that enough to make up for a bad record? If the answer to No. 1 is that the Bears will draft a new quarterback, why should Eberflus be the one to help oversee that search?
If Eberflus stays, something else would have to change, right? For one, he’d hire a defensive coordinator. But what else? Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy is thought of more highly around the league than he is among Bears fans. What vision do the Bears have for their offense in 2024?
A strong finish could help the Bears defend keeping the status quo. Remember, John Fox stuck around after going 3-13 in his second season. That’s not meant to defend the decision, but there’s precedent. Coaching changes were made at a few positions (running back, wide receiver, offensive line, outside linebacker), but that was it.
3. Feel good about Sweat
Thursday night, Montez Sweat racked up eight pressures and three QB hits. He is still seeking his first sack as a Bear, but that was a positive night for the team’s highest-paid player.
Over the final seven games, Sweat can continue to get acclimated to the scheme, and the coaches can better understand what makes him tick and what will allow him to be successful. Ideally, come January, the Bears will know they have one dynamic edge rusher heading into the offseason. The first two games showed promise.
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4. Get continued ascent from Jenkins, Wright
Since 2018, the Bears have lacked blue-chip players. Even before then, it’s been hard to find them on offense, let alone on the offensive line. The last Bears guard to be voted into the Pro Bowl was Kyle Long — Cody Whitehair and Josh Sitton went as alternates. Teven Jenkins’ play might not be getting enough attention outside Chicago, but he’s playing like someone who can be a long-term starter.
Jenkins has plenty at stake in the final seven games, too, as he enters the final year of his contract in 2024. Nate Davis’ eventual return might bounce Jenkins back to the left side, and he can further show his value if he stays effective.
Darnell Wright has also played at a high level at right tackle, showing the athleticism Poles coveted. He should be slotted for a spot on the All-Rookie team. The last seven games will allow him more time to progress into a foundational piece.
5. View progress from Day 2-3 rookies
The Bears haven’t gotten consistent returns from the rest of their rookies like they have from Wright. Tyrique Stevenson has, at times, played like a fixture at cornerback, but penalties have been an issue. Defensive tackles Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens haven’t been productive. Would the Bears have to seriously consider pouring more resources into the three-technique spot or can Dexter prove himself as a starter for ’24?
Running back Roschon Johnson and wide receiver Tyler Scott also haven’t put up the numbers to signify they’re definite future starters. They’re getting the snaps, though, which will be a good thing down the stretch. Johnson might still be working his way back after missing time with a concussion. Scott has only nine catches.
As long as Tremaine Edmunds is sidelined, linebacker Noah Sewell will get some chances when the Bears are in their base defense. Cornerback Terell Smith impressed the staff early but has struggled to stay on the field.
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6. Make decisions at corner and No. 2 wide receiver
Speaking of Stevenson and Smith, their evaluations could factor into the call the Bears make on cornerback Jaylon Johnson — if there’s a call to make. He could be set on entering free agency and letting the market dictate where he goes and how much he makes.
The final seven games give Johnson more chances to beef up his resume, which might make it harder for the Bears to keep him — unless they value his abilities highly enough that he stays in Chicago.
If not, the Bears could move forward knowing they have two young starters in Stevenson and Kyler Gordon and then rely on either Smith or Jones along with another draft pick or a free-agent addition.
On offense, Darnell Mooney has 22 catches for 321 yards this season. He has 14 catches in the past five games after only eight in the first five. It has been a tough season for Mooney, who had 1,055 yards two seasons ago on a worse offense. Can he produce enough down the stretch to earn a contract? That would shore up the No. 2 or No. 3 spot at receiver alongside Moore, depending on whom the Bears add in the offseason. They have to find another weapon, though. The caliber of that pass catcher could depend on how good they feel about Mooney at the end of the season.
7. See gains from Edmunds, Davis
The two biggest free-agent additions have made more headlines for not playing than what they’ve done on the field. Davis missed time throughout the offseason and into September because of a death in the family. His absence was understandable but also limited his ability to get into the swing of things, and then it got halted by a high ankle sprain. In his absence, Jenkins has flourished at right guard.
Edmunds missed most of the preseason and has missed two games with a knee injury. He had eight splash plays before the injury: three tackles for loss, one interception, three passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He has zero forced fumbles, sacks or QB hits. Jack Sanborn, meanwhile, has three tackles for loss, too.
When he’s healthy, Edmunds will return to his starting role, but the Bears should want to see the type of high-level play that led to a contract worth $50 million guaranteed. With Davis, finding a way to plug him back into the interior with Jenkins and getting what the Bears saw in him should only improve the line.
(Top photo of Justin Fields: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)
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