The Jekyll and Hyde act that has become the Chicago Bears took their show on the road to New Orleans on Sunday. Despite a strong start and 14 points in their first three drives, five turnovers were too much for an undermanned team to overcome. The good news? It was a pretty entertaining 60 minutes of football. The bad news? The Bears are 2-7 and are still not trending in the right direction, despite what their general manager might believe.
With another eventful week at Halas Hall in the books, where does this team stand heading into an impactful Week 10 matchup on Thursday Night Football against the Carolina Panthers? We’ll dissect all that, and more in another packed edition of 10 Bears Takes.
1. Undrafted rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent has been a great story, but any talks of a quarterback controversy died a quick death in the second half of Sunday’s game. And that’s okay.
The absence of Justin Fields has created quite a debate throughout the football world. In the eyes of many, Fields has not lived up to expectations through his first two and a half years in the league. Many, including myself, had labeled 2023 as a do-or-die season for the young quarterback. So far, it’s been more of the same. Inconsistencies have plagued his short NFL career, but not all of them have been his fault.
Enter the undrafted rookie out of Shepard. Bagent has been a great story. A kid who comes into the league with a chip on his shoulder, nothing to lose, and everything to gain. The fact that he was able to win a roster spot coming out of training camp was impressive, especially when considering that the Bears had just given P.J. Walker a two-year deal on the third day of free agency. Making three starts in his rookie year? Even more improbable.
In my own evaluations of Bagent, I’ve been impressed (with the proper context). He has not looked overwhelmed, and his arm strength has proven not to be as big of an issue as I had once feared. He has stood confidently in the pocket and delivered the ball. He’s shown an advanced confidence and understanding for a complex offense that is rarely found in young quarterbacks. There’s plenty to like about the undrafted quarterback. The issue? He has now turned the ball over eight times in three-plus games. Regardless of how good the story can be on a player, this simply cannot happen.
Will it get better in time? I would assume so. Asking any rookie quarterback to come in mid-season and make a handful of starts is never an easy task. This coaching staff does not have the benefit of time, though. That’s why it makes sense to go back to Fields (when healthy).
This is not to say that Fields doesn’t have his own faults because he does. Over his first three and a half games, Bagent has been sacked just five times. In Fields’ five and a half games, he has been sacked a whopping 24 times. The offensive line still has its issues— Including continuity— But the discrepancy is far too big to ignore. With that in mind, the Bears still need to finalize their evaluation of their former No. 11 overall pick. Even if Fields is not the future of this franchise, he’s auditioning for a handful of teams that will be looking for a cheaper quarterback alternative next off-season. The book has yet to be written on Fields— Although I can imagine where things are trending— But him starting as many of these final eight games as possible should be a top priority.
2. Tuesday was yet another black eye for this regime with the dismissal of running back coach David Walker. When speaking to the media on Wednesday, General Manager Ryan Poles gave a glowing endorsement of head coach Matt Eberflus. Dissecting all that was said in this week’s pressers.
Let’s just say that Week 9 was yet another eventful week for the organization. It started off late Monday night with a report from ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler stating that Jaylon Johnson’s camp had requested and been granted a trade request. Early Tuesday morning came a second unexpected report from The Athletic’s Adam Jahns and Kevin Fishbain. Within the report, it detailed that the team’s running back coach was being terminated. Later, it came out that this was a Human Resources-involved incident that had been addressed once before he was later fired for a similar issue. For those keeping score at home, that’s the second assistant coach who was relieved of his duties following HR-involved incidents. While Alan Williams did technically resign, it’s easy to read between the lines.
If that wasn’t eventful enough, the Bears traded for edge rusher Montez Sweat on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours short of the trade deadline. Despite the big move, no press conference was scheduled. Skipping ahead to Wednesday, another report came out from Fowler that the Bears had not started contract extension talks with Sweat, prior to trading a 2024 second-round pick for him. Fans were already on edge before head coach Matt Eberflus came to the podium, but the “fun” did not stop there.
Throughout Eberflus’ 11-minute press conference, he was grilled about Walker’s dismissal, the team’s culture, and his hiring practices. It was clear (to me) that Eberflus was drowning in a sea of tough questions without many revealing answers. Despite the big acquisition on Tuesday, there were just a few questions on Sweat. An hour later, the Bears informed the media that Poles would meet with them.
In my opinion, Poles handled the entire press conference well. He addressed the confusing situation with Johnson, the thought process behind the Sweat trade, and even gave a ringing—Yet surprising— Endorsement of Eberflus. Following the head coach’s comments of calling the team’s culture “awesome,” many, including myself, found his comments somewhat surprising.
“The way he holds everything down is incredible for how loud it is, how tough it is, with this team, you watch them and they fight. You can’t watch that team and be like, oh, they’re going to fold. Most teams fold and they’re not folding.” Poles said. “It’s been really hard, especially from where we started last year in trying to build this and do it the right way. But what do I see from (Eberflus) on a daily basis and how does he get this team ready on a weekly basis? To me, I see a grown man who has leadership skills to get this thing out of the hole.”
You can take this one of two ways.
- Eberflus’ job status is much safer than most of us assumed.
- Poles truly believes in Eberflus as a coach, but deep down, he knows that without significant progress over the final eight games, his words won’t mean a thing.
Personally, I’m going with the latter. It’s easy to make those types of comments when there are nine games left and still plenty of time to turn things around. Hypothetically, if they win five of their last eight games, a (7-10) record would be considerable progress. On record alone, it would be much easier to justify giving Eberflus and his staff another season to pull a Dan Campbell. Hopes are one thing, but if we’re being realistic, the chances of Eberflus doubling his career win total over the next eight games are slim-to-none.
So, for now, talk is cheap. It’s also worth keeping in mind that, in some ways, Poles is auditioning himself and this franchise for any potential head coaching candidates next off-season. His job status should also be uncertain (despite his recent moves). There’s still plenty to learn over the final eight games, but (5-3) record seems about as unlikely as the Bears not ending up with at least one Top 5 pick. Let’s revisit this conversation in late December when we have a clear picture of where this team is headed.
3. Tuesday’s acquisition of defensive end Montez Sweat makes all the sense in the world in the long-term. I do have some concerns about Poles continuing to trade away high-round draft capital, though. More on a busy week of moves.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the Bears’ biggest issue on the roster has been their pass rush. Or lack thereof. So, in theory, it makes sense to take a big swing at a pass rusher before the start of free agency next March. Sure, if you look at a list of potential free agents in November, you’ll see plenty of good talent. By the time the end of February rolls around, the overall talent isn’t recognizable.
I completely understand why Poles has both trade deadline acquisitions that he has over the past two years. It’s easy to project forward a few months and know that a big need is unlikely to be filled in a watered-down market. It is also worth noting that just because the Bears have a league-high cap figure and many needs, it doesn’t mean that their top targets are guaranteed to sign in Chicago. We saw the same thing last year with Mike McGlinchey. Money talks, but so does a player’s preferences. It only takes one team to go over the top in the bidding process to completely blow up a plan. It’s also notable that the Atlanta Falcons had traveled pretty far down the road for Sweat. If the Bears did not offer their projected high-second-round pick, he’d likely be in Atlanta right now.
With all of that context out of the way, it’s still fair to question why Poles has become so comfortable with trading away valuable draft capital in back-to-back years. We saw a similar approach with Ryan Pace— Although he used valuable draft picks to trade up— And in the long run, it did not work out. “Conviction” sounds great at the moment, but at a certain point, a general manager’s best process will always come back to drafting well.
Again, I understand why he did it, but I also understand why many are skeptical of his overall process.
Onto some better news... Poles weren’t just active in the trade market. He inked extensions for a pair of defensive linemen in Sweat and nose tackle Andrew Billings. While one could argue that the Sweat deal was a bit over market value, the extension for Billings should prove to be an excellent value for the team. That leaves one unhappy player left to deal with and that’s Johnson. Despite both sides saying they want to get a deal done, it feels like Johnson’s side is going to take some time to convince.
4. Speaking of the trade deadline, the Jaylon Johnson situation became a lot more comfortable when Sweat inked his lucrative extension on Saturday.
His post-game comments on Sunday were... Interesting, to say the least. When asked about whether it was awkward that Sweat was extended before Johnson, his response was short. “Nah, I’m here to get All-Pro big dog, and to win as many games as I can.” When pressed a little more about whether he still wanted to get a deal done “I’m focused on All-Pro right now, big dog.” These quotes courtesy of Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Chicago.
Well, there you have it... Time heals most wounds, and money talks. The bad news for Johnson is if they can’t get something worked out before late February. The Bears can slap a transition or franchise tag on him, with Sweat’s deal getting wrapped up so quickly. If I were a betting man, I don’t think Johnson will be playing somewhere different in 2024. We’ll see if Poles can calm things down and get a deal hammered out before the tag becomes an option.
Regardless of who the team’s defensive coordinator is in 2024, this is a better unit with Johnson as their top cornerback. Poles fully acknowledged how important Johnson is to this defense and also admitted that if he was going to lose him, it would have to come with a late first or early second-round pick in return. To me, that doesn’t sound like a general manager who is going to let his best defensive back walk for free in March. Pro Football Focus’ Brad Spielberger projected Johnson’s new contract around $19 million a year, which would be close to Trevon Diggs money. Considering Diggs was selected just one pick after Johnson, it makes sense as to why Johnson’s camp believes he’s in the same price point. Diggs has the flashier numbers but Johnson’s production this season has at least put him in the same conversation.
5. Despite the addition of Sweat, the Bears’ pass rush still cannot generate sacks.
Going into this past Sunday, the Bears’ defense ranked last in the league with 10 sacks. The next team had 15. Leaving Week 9, Chicago is still stuck on the same number. All of this despite spending $18.5 million this season on free agent defensive end additions and adding Sweat on Tuesday. As a unit, they had just four quarterback hits on Derek Carr.
Suffice to say, this is still a group that needs plenty of work. The good news is that they’ve got Sweat, Billings, and Demarcus Walker locked in for the next few seasons. The bad news is that the free agent pass-rushing market will be sparse and will require another overpay. Unless they use their second first-round selection on a lackluster top-end of the draft class, they’re going to have to get creative. They could opt to spend money on a better three-technique option or could even take someone like Illinois’ Jer’Zhan Newton early in the draft. Either way, it’s going to require more creativity from Poles and is unlikely to be one of the team’s strengths come next September.
6. A season-best performance from wide receiver Darnell Mooney was great to see.
It’s been a rough year and a half for the Bears’ home-grown receiver. After being taken in the fifth round of the 2020 NFL draft, Mooney was a pleasant surprise over his first two years in the league. When given his chance to be the team’s top receiving option last year, he struggled. Shortly after acquiring Chase Claypool around last year’s trade deadline, Money would miss the back half of the season with an ankle injury that required surgery.
Coming into 2023, the Bears knew they needed a better top receiver, which is why they acquired DJ Moore. I can only speak for myself, but I expected a big fourth year from Mooney, especially since he was no longer going to be seeing the opposing team’s top cornerbacks. Unfortunately for him, it has been another disappointing start to the year. Before Sunday, he had 15 catches for 225 yards and just one touchdown.
In Week 9, he was the team’s leading receiver with five catches for 82 yards. He was able to show off his speed on a screen that he turned into a 38-yard play and was one of the focal points of the offense in the first half. Moore is still very clearly the top target, and you could make an argument that Kmet has turned into the team’s second option, but it’s good to see Mooney getting more involved in the offense.
There are still eight games left to go in the regular season, but I get the feeling that the two are trending towards going their separate ways. The Bears are likely to need multiple receivers this upcoming off-season, but with a stacked top of the draft at the position, they could choose to move in a “cheaper” direction with a little more upside. Either way, Mooney is one of the good guys, and I would love to see him get paid, whether it’s in Chicago or elsewhere.
7. Every time linebacker Jack Sanborn gets an opportunity to start, he continues to make plays.
Let me first start by saying that I understand why Poles went out and overhauled this linebacking group. It was in serious need of a talent infusion, especially after a scheme switch and trading away Roquan Smith at last year’s trade deadline. That said, I was disappointed to see Sanborn relegated to a lesser role at SAM.
Tremaine Edmunds’s injury afforded the former undrafted rookie a chance to slide back in the middle and roam the field at the MIKE position. He did not disappoint. He doesn’t possess great athleticism, which shows up in coverage, but as a downhill player, he’s instinctive and very fun to watch.
Sanborn finished Sunday’s game with 10 tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage. On the first watch, I didn’t see any big mistakes. Because of the contracts of Edmunds and T.J. Edwards, it’s unlikely we’ll see Sanborn thrust into a bigger role unless an injury happens. Even so, it was good to see him out on the field for extended snaps. Simply put, his ability to make plays has not gone away.
8. A weekly first-round draft order update: The race for the Top 2 picks is becoming more clear.
The Bears’ projected first-round picks did not change in Week 9. They came in with No. 2 and No. 3 overall, and that’s the way it’ll be heading into Thursday night. With the Panthers and Bears facing off, Chicago can either fall out of the Top 2 entirely or be sitting at No. 2 and No. 5 in a worst case scenario. Considering both teams’ remaining schedules and probabilities at a Top 2 pick, a Bears win is likely to be more beneficial to them in the end.
What has changed is the picture around them. The Arizona Cardinals were thoroughly dominated in Cleveland by the Browns. Quarterback Kyler Murray should be back in Week 10, though. Hopefully, that’ll give them a needed boost into a few late-season wins. They’ll face the Atlanta Falcons in Week 10, the Houston Texans in Week 11, the Los Angeles Rams in Week 12, and the Bears in Week 16.
The New York Giants remain a mess and will play the remainder of the season without starting quarterback Daniel Jones, who tore his ACL on Sunday against the Las Vegas Raiders. The (2-7) Giants have quickly become a prime contender for a Top 2 pick. New York still faces the Commanders, Patriots, Packers, and Rams. Most of those games will be without primary backup, Tyrod Taylor, though.
The New England Patriots continue to struggle, as they lost 20-17 against a recently gutted-out Washington Commanders team. At (2-7), projected wins are getting tougher to find over their final eight games. They’ll face the Colts in Germany before their Week 11 bye. Their “winnable” remaining games include the Giants in Week 12, the Broncos in Week 16, and the Jets in Week 18.
Six three-win teams are remaining, and by my estimation, the Green Bay Packers are the only team that could truly factor into the Top 5 pick conversation. This should be a five-team race to the end, and luckily for the Bears, they hold two of those picks.
NFC North Lookaround: The gap between the Bears and getting out of the cellar grows after a pair of wins within the division.
Despite a lackluster performance against an undermanned Rams team, the Packers came out victorious on Sunday with a 20-3 win. The score stayed close for far too long, especially when considering Brett Rypien was the opposing quarterback, but the Packers pulled away late in the game. They’ll face a tough matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers on the road in Week 10.
The Minnesota Vikings’ run of bad quarterback health continued on Sunday, but somehow, some way, they came out with an impressive last-minute win against the Falcons. Rookie quarterback Jaren Hall was ruled out quickly with a concussion, but Josh Dobbs had an excellent second half to cap off an impressive 31-28 victory in Atlanta. My guess is that Dobbs will be the starter moving forward. At (5-4), Minnesota currently sits as the 7th seed, but it’s hard to imagine that’ll be the case when Week 18 concludes.
The Detroit Lions enjoyed their Week 9 bye after a dominating 26-14 victory that ultimately got head coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler fired in Las Vegas. They’ll face the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 10.
10. Week 10 look ahead: The (1-7) Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football
The moment you’ve all been waiting for is almost here... Okay, maybe just some of you? I don’t know at this point. Trying to get excited about watching the Bears each week has become quite a chore. Even so, Thursday night’s game will surely have a large impact on the final 2024 NFL draft order.
The Panthers are coming into Thursday with a single win, and frankly, they are lucky to have it. Fellow rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud had his worst game as a professional against Carolina and missed a pair of “easy” throws that led to the Panthers’ final drive and game-ending field goal. In Week 9, Carolina could not stop turning the ball over. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Former No. 1 overall pick Bryce Young has struggled for the majority of his rookie season. He outplayed Stroud in Week 8, but he was responsible for a pair of pick-sixes and turned the ball three times in total. Young’s 77.1 quarterback rating ranks in the bottom five of current starting quarterbacks.
On the flip side, we’ll have to wait a few more days to figure out if Fields will be back in action for Week 10. Poles sounded confident on his weekly pre-game ESPN 1000 radio spot that Fields could play, but Moore’s comments post-game make me believe that he might not be as sure of a thing as some had hoped. With a short week and no real practices scheduled, they’re going to have to feel good about Fields’ practice last Friday. Either way, this is a winnable game for the Bears and one they “need” to win. They opened up as (-3) point favorites, according to Draft Kings.