Admittedly, it wasn’t pretty. The Chicago Bears’ 16-13 escape act against the stumbling Carolina Panthers won’t soon be submitted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It was an ugly game, low on big-play splashes. But for a last-place team looking to find its winning formula in close games, the Bears left Soldier Field on Thursday night with understandable satisfaction.
“For us in this locker room and with everything we’ve been going through all year, we really needed this,” running back D’Onta Foreman said. “It means a lot. We’ve been in a lot of close games where one play, two plays didn’t go our way. The way we finished tonight was great.”
With seven games remaining, the 3-7 Bears are intent on creating some sort of meaningful momentum. They will have to compile a lot more convincing evidence over the next two months to establish themselves as a team on the rise.
The Bears will have to continue winning games they are supposed to while also becoming more competitive and successful against higher-quality teams and in the division. And their next game will come against a quality Detroit Lions team that leads the NFC North.
So what really matters for these Bears down the stretch? With a big-picture focus, how can this group continue to improve in ways that matter beyond 2023?
At the close of Week 10, here are five pressing questions.
Step 1: Get back on the field.
Fields took his last snap on Oct. 15, when he dislocated his right thumb against the Minnesota Vikings. He has missed the last four games.
Bears coach Matt Eberflus has continued to assert that Fields will be back as the starting quarterback whenever he is healthy. Yet there has been a lack of clarity on what final hurdle(s) Fields needs to clear to reach that state.
On Wednesday, Eberflus steered around questions about what the team’s medical staff has communicated as to why Fields has yet to be cleared.
On Friday, Eberflus was asked directly if, pardon the pun, Fields had given his thumbs-up approval in regards to his personal readiness to return to game action.
“All the guys are feeling in a good spot right now who are injured,” Eberflus said. “Again, I have no other update for you beyond that.”
If Fields returns in Week 11 at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, he will be 35 days removed from his last game action, presumably the longest in-season stretch of his life in which he has been unable to play. Will there be some inevitable rust and timing issues for him to work through? Of course. But the clock also is ticking for Fields to put his defining touches on a 2023 season that has been difficult to draw solid conclusions from.
In flashes, Fields has been brilliant, teasing the masses with glimpses of high-level potential. But his season to this point also has been largely defined by inconsistency and injury interruption.
Last week, offensive coordinator Luke Getsy was asked where specifically he’ll want to see improvement from Fields when the quarterback returns. “To say there’s a target, that makes it very specific,” Getsy said. “I don’t think it’s that. It’s continued growth. (He needs to) continue to improve on his overall game — on every aspect of it. The run game, the protection game and the pass game.”
Quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko was a little more specific. “We had a couple games there we started to find ourselves on offense,” Janocko said. “(Now let’s) just get back to that momentum — back to playing smart, accurate, intelligent football. And then let’s go get some wins. That’s really the big thing.”
The man who matters most in the big-picture evaluation — general manager Ryan Poles — has weighty winter decisions ahead on whether to keep his current QB1 as part of the plans for 2024 and beyond or pivot with a likely top-three draft pick. (In what is considered a long-shot scenario, the Bears could opt to do both.)
By early May, Poles must decide whether to exercise the fifth-year option on Fields’ rookie contract, which would be a fully guaranteed financial commitment north of $24 million for the 2025 season. That, of course, would lock the quarterback in as the presumed Week 1 starter for 2024.
To this point, Fields hasn’t shown nearly enough to earn that level of trust from Poles and the Bears. But if he is able to start the final seven games, he would have significant control in reshaping and redefining how he is assessed.
Through his first six starts this season, Fields was still taking way too many sacks with a concerning 12.9% sack rate. He has shown continued deficiencies with his field vision and ability to process and read defenses quickly.
Fields hasn’t exhibited a fourth-quarter clutch gene yet either.
Internally, the Bears also are waiting and hoping for the breakthrough when Fields can become a much more dangerous off-script passer.
This latest stretch of injury inactivity has increased Fields’ total of missed starts to 11. By comparison, in the 44 games the Bears have played since drafting him, he has been the starting quarterback for just six victories.
These are all things the higher-ups at Halas Hall must consider.
By the same token, they also must process Fields’ brightest moments with proper perspective. In Week 4, Fields threw for a career-high 335 yards and four touchdowns against the Denver Broncos. Four nights later, he had 282 passing yards and four more TD tosses on the Thursday night stage in a blowout win against the Washington Commanders.
Performances like those need to become more regular occurrences through November, December and January if Fields is to sink his claws into the Bears’ franchise quarterback role. As Eberflus so often likes to say, “We’ll see where it goes.”
Only Poles and team President Kevin Warren can shed meaningful light on how they will conduct their analysis of the coach. And, with a lot of football still left, it will be interesting to see whether the Bears can experience a second-half surge that changes the conversation.
Right now, though, the fact Eberflus’ job security has been a major topic since mid-September is concerning. In the Super Bowl era, only one Bears coach hasn’t made it to a third season — Marc Trestman.
Leaguewide, however, the quick reboot has been far more common. Over the last 30 years, 57 coaches haven’t made it to a third season, including 15 who have made rapid exits from either the Browns or Raiders.
Working against Eberflus? The Bears’ 0-4 start this fall followed an 0-10 finish to his first season. His .222 winning percentage through 27 games is the worst of any Bears coach ever.
The abrupt and odd Week 3 resignation of Eberflus’ hand-picked defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, stands as a stain on the coach’s resume. So, too, was the firing of running backs coach David Walker this month for conduct that didn’t meet the organization’s standards.
On the field, Eberflus’ HITS principle hasn’t borne fruit as advertised either. Most notably, with Eberflus preaching from his first day on the job that his defense would be fanatical in its efforts to produce takeaways, the Bears have gone 11 games under his watch without one and five others with only one.
After being shut out in that department Thursday night, the Bears’ 27-game takeaway total under Eberflus stands at 32. By comparison, Lovie Smith’s teams averaged 34 takeaways over his nine seasons with the franchise.
The Bears also have faltered consistently in close games, with Thursday’s victory improving them to just 2-10 under Eberflus in one-score affairs.
At some point, Warren and Poles might want to compile their list of young, building-block players who have shown significant growth under the developmental guidance of Eberflus and his staff. That should factor into the discussions as well.
Two weeks ago, in the midst of another chaotic week at Halas Hall, Poles offered an enthusiastic public endorsement of Eberflus, lauding him as an energizing leader who has been keeping a struggling team united and focused through significant turbulence.
“What I see every day, when I see him address the team and when I see his approach through adversity, it is stable, man,” Poles said. “I know in the outside world it doesn’t look like that. And I know it looks like we’re far away. But this dude comes in every day and just keeps chipping away.”
Poles will be asked for another — and more meaningful — assessment eight weeks from now.
Since the team’s 0-4 start, the defense has been on a notable climb, allowing an average of 284.8 yards and 17.5 points per game. (Touchdowns allowed by the offense and special teams aren’t included in those calculations.)
Compared against those same categories (400.9 ypg, 29.9 ppg) from the team’s two-season, 14-game skid, undeniable progress has been made.
Now, with pass rusher Montez Sweat on board and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds potentially returning from a knee injury in Week 11, the defense will be as loaded and close to full strength health-wise as it has been since training camp opened, just in time for the stretch run of the season.
All of those things left veteran safety Eddie Jackson excited after Thursday’s win.
“Let’s see what our true potential is,” Jackson said. “We’re different when everybody is out there together. There’s a different level of energy, a different level of playmaking. When we get everybody back, we’re going to see.”
In the “stats that really matter” department, though, the Bears defense is still lagging. As the only team in the league to play 10 games so far — 14 teams have only played eight — the Bears still rank last in sacks with 13, even after a three-sack night against Bryce Young on Thursday.
The Bears also are tied for 17th in interceptions (six) and 27th in fumble recoveries (three).
Still, they rank fourth in rushing defense and have held opponents to a 32.8% third-down conversion rate over the last five games.
There are definite signs the defense is moving in the right direction. And, among the players, there’s a sincere feeling their best is yet to come. “Everybody knows how it feels when you win,” Jackson said. “Right now, we got us a little momentum. Now it’s time to go on a run.”
The most obvious answer is cornerback Jaylon Johnson, who has seven games left on his rookie contract and has vocalized a) his goal to be recognized as an All-Pro this season; and b) his desire to get a new deal from the Bears or any other NFL team that rewards him as one of the best defensive players in the game.
Johnson never runs from the stakes and has his eyes on finishing his fourth season strong.
Receiver Darnell Mooney, a fellow member of the Bears’ 2020 draft class, is in a similar situation and would like to stack much more production on what has so far been modest output this season: 22 catches, 321 yards, one touchdowns.
Sweat already has his long-term security via the four-year, $98 million extension he signed with the Bears four days after joining the team. But Sweat, who was credited with three quarterback hits Thursday, has to continue establishing himself as the engine of the Bears pass rush, showing the ability to be an every-week impact playmaker for the team that has shown its belief in him.
Offensive lineman Teven Jenkins has continued to come on since coming off injured reserve in October and can put himself into the extension queue if he is able to stay healthy through the end of the season while still playing at a high level.
In the coaching ranks, Getsy’s ability to guide the offense and create a noticeable production uptick will be watched closely as well.
Across all fronts, the belief at Halas Hall is that the lowest of the team’s lows from the past 14 months are in the rearview mirror. And even with a playoff push highly unlikely, there’s a lot left for this group to play for.