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10 Bears Takes: Chicago faces critical decisions in the coming months

With plenty of big decisions in the coming months for the Bears, we’ll dive into the season that was and the decisions ahead.

Syndication: The Post-Crescent Dan Powers/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK

With a 17-9 loss to the Green Bay Packers, the Chicago Bears 2023 regular season has concluded at (7-10). Although things did not end the way many would have wanted, the improvement was evident. This team appears to be on the cusp of breaking through. With another eventful off-season ahead, there are plenty of reasons for optimism moving forward.

Before we close the book on the 2023 season that was, let’s dive into one final 10 Bears Takes.

1. All weekend, the majority of the national media had deemed head coach Matt Eberflus “safe” with some caveats. Following Sportskeeda’s Tony Pauline report of the Bears having serious interest in Jim Harbaugh, everyone will be on pins and needles for the next few days. I know what I would do, but I also have a feeling I know what the Bears will do—more on the big decisions that lie ahead.

Whether it was Adam Schefter, Jay Glazer, Ian Rapoport, or Dianna Rusinni, the reports were all similar. Eberflus is expected to return, but... What about new president Kevin Warren? For the first time in over a decade, the team’s power structure has been altered. With a relatively strong finish to the season and a (2-4) record against the NFC North, it would be a justifiable decision to move forward with this coaching staff. Then again, it would also be ignoring the clear flaws with this team and coaching staff.

Then, Pauline’s report comes early on Sunday morning. He listed the Bears as one of four teams seriously interested in the current Michigan head coach. He highlighted the Las Vegas Raiders and Los Angeles Chargers as primary suitors but had an interesting note about two others. “Two other teams have shown significant interest in Harbaugh: the Chicago Bears and Washington Commanders.”

So, what does this mean? It could be as simple as an unconfirmed rumor. Pauline has been around a while and has provided some really good information, namely during draft season. I can only speak for myself, but I would absolutely consider him a reputable reporter. The other option? The Bears could be waiting to speak with newly hired agent Don Yee on Tuesday to gauge interest. Much like the baseball team on the North Side of Chicago, if you have a big fish worth chasing and that candidate is willing to commit, a team should make the move. Chicago Cubs fans have seen it not once but twice with Joe Maddon and, more recently, Craig Counsell. Albeit a different sport, the concept remains the same. If ownership believes a team is close, having the right coach can make a world of difference, especially in the game of football.

In my estimation, the way the Bears laid an egg against the Packers should at least give the team’s top decision-makers some pause. One game shouldn’t be the whole evaluation, but it can confirm some concerning trends that have plagued this regime over the past two years. Only time will tell how this all plays out. If I had to wager on the team’s future, I still lean toward Eberflus returning in 2024 but until the organization comes out and endorses him, speculation will run wild.

2. Justin Fields’ final audition is in the books. Has he done enough to convince this regime he’s the quarterback of the future?

No situation in the NFL is the same, but it was damning to watch Jordan Love, in his first full season of starts, completely outplay anything we’ve seen at quarterback from the Bears in three decades. Love looked calm, composed, and poised in the pocket all night. He torched the defense with a line of 27-of-32 for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. All of this without his two primary receivers. Christian Watson missed another game, and Romeo Doubs left in the second half, and I didn’t see him come back.

Then you flip to the Bears’ side of the ball, where they scored just nine points against a Green Bay defense that came into this game ranked 24th in defensive DVOA. This same Packers defense gave up 30 points to a Carolina Panthers offense that hasn’t scored in two full games. Just think about that for a minute. Love’s passing numbers out-paced the entire Bears offense (316 versus 192). The run game never got going, pass protection was a mess, and it didn’t appear many receivers were getting open downfield. That’s not to absolve Fields from his pedestrian numbers (11-of-16 for 148 passing yards), but come on...

It’s true, Fields has been playing better since returning from his dislocated thumb. He was coming off the second-best performance of his career— Against a much better defense than Green Bay’s— But Sunday’s finale was not one to write home about. So, what now?

We’ll dive into Luke Getsy’s future more in a few, but an uneven evaluation ended on another incomplete note. The Bears will now have the luxury of time. They hold the No. 1 pick in April’s draft but with the combine around two months away and Fields’ fifth-year option not due until May, general manager Ryan Poles can take his time and examine all the options. The signs of growth are there but are they moving fast enough to bypass taking the top quarterback in a second-straight draft? Only time will tell, but if I were to wager my guess as of Monday morning, I believe that Fields has played his final snap in a Bears uniform. Life in the NFL isn’t fair, and I’ll maintain that Chicago failed him far more than he failed them, but opportunities like this don’t come around very often. The financial reset will play a part, but the chance for Poles to bring in his own “guy” seems like it’ll be too much to pass up this time around.

NFL: Preseason-Buffalo Bills at Chicago Bears Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

3. Speaking of Fields, the complexity of the decision on offensive Luke Getsy could provide an early look into where the Bears are leaning with their decision at quarterback.

If there’s one person in this equation that unequivocally does not deserve to return in 2024, it would be the team’s offensive coordinator. For the second straight year, the Bears offense ranked in the bottom third of the league in most important statistical categories. They finished the year 22nd in offensive DVOA, 20th in total yards, and 18th in team points. The passing offense stayed anemic, and they were commonly out-coached.

The team’s decision at quarterback will play a part in the final decision (assuming Eberflus is retained), but it shouldn’t. Whether it’s Fields or Caleb Williams in 2024, Getsy has not proven that he can develop a young quarterback with any sort of success. This hire should be another cautionary tale of handing relatively inexperienced offensive minds the keys to play-calling duties.

Assuming Chicago does part ways with Getsy while keeping Eberflus, it’ll be interesting to see how many options they’ll have. Acknowledging a change that needs to be made is one battle; finding the solution is an entirely different beast that the Bears have not had a great history of solving. My guess would be that it’ll be someone with similar concepts to Getsy and probably a candidate who will be on the street after Black Monday. Frank Reich could make sense, as could someone like Eric Bieniemy (assuming he doesn’t land a head coaching job). Klint Kubiak could jump ship in San Francisco for play-calling duties or maybe even a college name like Liam Coen.

If the organization does choose to make sweeping changes by letting go of the entire coaching staff, that’ll open up an entirely new list of possibilities. For now, I won’t spend too much time on those names, barring a surprise later in the week.

4. Going into the season, I had the Bears at (8-9), with an outside chance at the playoffs. Fast forward four months later, and their record is almost exactly where I had expected, but how they got there was vastly different than I had assumed.

All in all, (7-10) is not a bad finish for a team that was the worst team in the league just a year ago. Chicago made their intentions no secret when the new regime took over. They wanted to tear things down and build them up with their own vision. Winning seven games in Year 2 of a rebuild is nothing to scoff at. I think that even the most skeptical of observers can see that the Bears are on the right track.

What I did not expect was two different assistant coaches to be dismissed mid-season, an (0-4) start, and them blowing three 10-plus point fourth-quarter leads. When zooming out, the seven wins featured just one 2023 playoff team. The majority of their wins were against teams that were on the fringes of firing a coach or in the midst of their own rebuild. A team plays who they play, but the quality of wins wasn’t there for me this season. In total, Chicago is 2-12 against teams that reached the post-season the same year. That’s simply not good enough. Especially when factoring in that four of the seven teams Chicago beat this year have fired their head coaches.

That doesn’t mean it should discount the progress being made, but it should provide some added context when they make their final decisions with the coaching staff. As I noted above, if it were me, I’d go out and take a swing at the right head coach. I’m not convinced Eberflus is the guy for the job, and getting dominated by the Packers on Sunday did very little to curb my concerns.

Overall, I’d call 2023 a “win,” but if this organization is serious about winning in the near future, it’s time to make some tough decisions. In order to do that, they must look in the mirror and ask themselves if what they’ve seen over the last two years is good enough. Only time will tell how that plays out, but they shouldn’t mistake “going in the right direction” for their arrival at that point.

5. Grading the offensive development in 2023.

With the entirety of the season in the rearview mirror, I figured it was time to go through and grade each unit. I’ll go group by group and do an overall grade, too.

Quarterback: C

Justin Fields didn’t have the third-year breakout quite like fans had hoped. Sure, he was improved over the two previous years, but that Josh Allen/Jalen Hurts leap did not come. Some of that can be attributed to his supporting cast and coaching, while some Fields has to shoulder as well. It’s not hard to see that he’s not done growing, but with the No. 1 overall pick in hand for the second straight year, I’m not sure the third-year quarterback did enough to prevent drafting his replacement. The development of Tyson Bagent was also a welcomed sight. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re comfortable with him as QB2 if they decide to draft their starting quarterback in April.

Wide Receiver: B

Don’t get me wrong. DJ Moore was everything and more than I expected. Being able to see a true No. 1 receiver in action was a welcomed sight and will be a huge value moving forward, regardless of what they do at quarterback. With that being said, the development behind Moore was disappointing. Chase Claypool fizzled out and was dealt in October. Darnell Mooney’s last two seasons combined still did not eclipse his 2021 campaign. Tyler Scott didn’t have many bright moments, and there’s not much else in the pipelines behind that group. I’d fully expect a high-value addition and another mid-tier free agent or mid-round pick to be added to this group. They’ll need more upside and depth behind Moore this off-season.

Tight End: B+

Cole Kmet had a career year in Year 4. He made his four-year, $50 million contract look justifiable almost immediately. The former Notre Dame product had a career-high 73 receptions for 719 receiving yards and six touchdowns. While it’s fair to say that he’s more of a Y tight end, his receiving abilities, especially in the red zone, greatly improved this season. Robert Tonyan was nothing to write home about, which leads me to believe that they could look to add depth higher in the draft this year. Brock Bowers might not be a great “value” pick, but I wouldn’t complain if they took him with the ninth pick in April’s draft.

Running Back: C+

On paper, this group appeared to be an upgrade over what they had in 2022. I was never one to believe that a single player could or would replace David Montgomery. I did believe that the combination of new additions would fit their offense better. The final verdict is in, and it did not. Khalil Herbert was the team’s primary runner for the majority of this year and did well when he was healthy. He’s not a true RB1, but he brings enough to the table to feel good about him at the top of the rotation. Veteran D’Onta Foreman played well when given the chance, which wasn’t very often. Fourth-round rookie Roschon Johnson showed flashes, but overall, he did not flash as a rookie the way I thought he would. My guess is that Foreman will be elsewhere in 2024, and the Bears will be back in the market for another quality runner.

Offensive Line: C+

Coming off the Week 18 performance, some may be questioning my grade here. That’s fair, but when you zoom out on the entire product for the whole season, it was a large improvement over last season. In my opinion, the Bears have three building blocks: Darnell Wright, Teven Jenkins, and Braxton Jones. They could choose to upgrade at left tackle this off-season, but my focus would be on center and better depth. This group is young and improving. They need to be better against top competition, but I believe coaching plays a big part in that, too. Overall, I’d call 2023 a win for the offensive line, with plenty to build on this off-season.

Offensive coaching staff: D-

What’s there to say at this point? Getsy should not return, but we’ve already covered that. I’m not sold Chris Morgan is the answer on the offensive line either, but his development of both tackles should be noted. Tyke Tolbert needs better talent, and if they keep Eberflus, they’ll need to hire a new running backs coach who emphasizes pass blocking. It’s hard to feel great about this group when the offense produced another bottom-third product.

6. Grading the defensive development in 2023.

Defensive Line: C+

Considering the lack of proven talent this group started off with, I’d say it’s a win that this group is anything above a failing grade. Rookie Gervon Dexter Sr. drastically improved as the season went on. I’d feel comfortable counting on him as a building block moving forward. Andrew Billings is as rock-solid as it comes and was well-deserving of his extension. Justin Jones looked like a much better player this season, but there should be multiple avenues to upgrades this off-season. On the edge, Sweat is the key component. He was the first player in NFL history to lead two different teams in sacks in the same season. Demarcus Walker is a very nice rotational option that provides versatility on the interior. Outside of that, this group needs some high-value investments. Whether those are high-round picks in April, big-money free-agent signings, or both, it needs to be done. This unit is headed in the right direction, though.

Linebacker: B+

Back in March, Chicago opted to sink $24.5 million per year on a pair of linebackers, T.J. Edwards and Tremaine Edmunds. Both took a bit to get going, but Edwards has already outplayed his current contract. Edmunds is getting there, but he’s still no Roquan Smith. The depth behind them is solid with Jack Sanborn and Noah Sewell. But don’t be surprised to see another mid-round investment during the draft.

Cornerback: A

I’m not sure there was a better development on this entire roster than what happened at cornerback this season. Jaylon Johnson went from good to great. Going into Week 18, he was Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded cornerback. His quarterback rating was impressive, as was his career-high four interceptions. Second-round rookie Tyrique Stevenson had a rough start to the season. It would have been easy to write him off, but they stuck with him, and it paid off. He finished the year with a team-high 16 pass breakups and was tied for the team lead with four interceptions. There’s still plenty to improve upon, but the arrow is undoubtedly pointing up in a big way. Kyler Gordon’s second year was a success. He settled into the nickel spot and played well for the majority of the year. Even fifth-round rookie Terell Smith had quite a few good moments in limited time. Assuming Johnson is back for 2024, this could be one of the better groups in the NFL for 2024.

Safety: B

From a 2023 standpoint, this group was more than fine. Jaquan Brisker took a step forward and Eddie Jackson was still pretty dang good. The depth is a question and will likely be addressed this off-season, but I’m more curious about their decision on Jackson this off-season. We’ll dive more into that later, but this group could look a little different in 2024. Playing in front of this group of corners, it’ll make the safeties jobs a lot easier.

Defensive coaching staff: B+

Taking Eberflus’ head coach title out of it, I’d say there were many impressive qualities that he showed after taking over as the defensive play-caller in mid-September. Phil Snow should also get credit as a part-time defensive analyst. The hire of John Hoke paid immediate dividends. The work he did with a young cornerback group should not be overlooked. Dave Borganzi finally had talent to work with at linebacker and did well there too. The defensive line needs more talent, but overall, I felt like Travis Smith did well, all things considered.

All in all, this defense staff would be worth keeping around. The issue: Eberflus is also the head coach. We’ll see what shakes out with this group, but they are clearly headed in the right direction, even with a few letdowns over the last four games.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Mandi Wright / USA TODAY NETWORK

7. The Bears will hold the No. 1 and No. 9 overall picks in April’s draft.

It only took a full 18 weeks, but we can finally fire up more accurate mock drafts! “More accurate?” you might ask. Well, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but we can at least pretend to know who the Bears will take at their proper positions in the first round!

Despite playing a close game on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers finished at a disastrous (2-15), with a 9-0 loss to the NFC South Champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There’s really not much more to say about Carolina other than “thank you.” While I always believed that trading down last year was the right move, not many could have imagined a scenario where Chicago would walk away with a pair of Top 10 picks, after more than doubling their win total from one season ago.

Chicago’s own pick ended up settling at No. 9 after a Las Vegas Raiders win. It could have been as high as No. 8, but the Atlanta Falcons were blown out against the New Orleans Saints in Week 18, capping off a vastly disappointing season in Atlanta. As Poles noted in his weekly pre-game radio hit on ESPN 1000, having two Top 10 picks will allow them maximum flexibility in late April. If they choose to stick with Fields at quarterback, a trade-down could net a historical haul. If they decide to change courses at the most important position in football, they could still trade down from No. 9 and get additional draft capital in return. There will be plenty of fun to be had in the draft, but there are plenty of decisions to make before that point. Buckle up; it’s going to be another eventful off-season.

8. The 2024 slate of opponents is now set.

With the Bears’ second-consecutive fourth-place finish, the list of 2024 opponents has been locked in. The good news is that they’ll face a fourth-place schedule. The even better news: They’ll have nine home games. Chicago was (5-3) at Soldier Field in 2023.

Home (9): Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Carolina Panthers.

Away (8): Detroit Lions, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco 49ers, Washington Commanders.

On first look, there are plenty of winnable games on next year’s schedule. That’s the value of a fourth-place schedule. By my count, they’ll face five rebuilding teams, and I’d venture to guess that the Patriots and Commanders will have rookie quarterbacks starting. As we’ve learned, judging a team’s future schedule based on the current strength of schedules is a fool’s errand, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they don’t have a real shot at the playoffs (regardless of who is at quarterback). The only note I’d make here: Don’t be surprised if one of the team’s home games turns into an international game. I could see Seattle or Jacksonville as prime opponents for that matchup.

9. I have a feeling two key players (currently under contract for 2024) played their last snaps in a Bears uniform.

  • G/C Cody Whitehair
  • S Eddie Jackson

Post-game, Whitehair was asked by 670 The Score’s Chris Emma about the direction of the team moving forward. He was very complimentary but appeared to know his time in Chicago had come to an end. “This team is going to be great next year. A lot of momentum going into next year. Obviously, this loss is tough. We wanted to get this one going into next year. But this team is definitely on the rise. They’re headed in the right direction.” For me, that last line is telling. $9.15 million of Whitehair’s $13.25 million cap hit can be saved by a pre-June 1st release. Considering he wasn’t even the first option off the bench at center, it’s safe to say that he’ll be released in the coming months.

As for Jackson, his cap hit is the biggest factor in potentially returning for his eighth season with the team. The veteran safety is set to make a whopping $18.14 million in 2024. With a pre-June 1st cut, they could save $12.56 million. There’s a scenario in which Jackson returns on a reworked deal. He’s one of the leaders of that defense and still provides plenty of value. Asking a player to take a pay cut is never easy or a given but the 30-year-old has made it apparent that he wants to stay with the team. We’ll see what shakes out in the coming months.

A few players (out of contract) I don’t see returning: WR Darnell Mooney, G/C Lucas Patrick, and DE Yannick Ngakoue.

10. Thank you to all of our readers for hanging in for another season. It hasn’t always been fun or pretty but it was a helluva lot better than 2022.

There’s never really a dull season for Bears fans, is there? Despite things not going as well as we might have hoped, they still improved upon a (3-14) 2022 campaign, and the future appears bright. There were plenty of bumps along the way, but we made it through!

As always, I really appreciate each and every reader. Whether you’re tuning in weekly to see what idiotic ramblings I have or whether you simply enjoy my thoughts, my appreciation is the same. It’s not always easy putting these things together, but it’s always worth it. Thank you to everyone, and we’ll see you back here throughout the off-season.