CHICAGO — Over his first three NFL seasons, Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet became a master in treading water, learning how to paddle, thrash and kick to stay afloat when the seas got rough. As a rookie in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kmet watched his team’s 5-1 start become an 8-8 wheeze followed by a lopsided playoff loss in New Orleans.
The following year Kmet lived through a 38-day losing streak during the Bears’ 6-11 free-fall. That triggered a new round of firings and overhaul inside Halas Hall.
Then last season his favorite boyhood team made history as the Bears lost more games than they had in any of their previous 102, including a record-setting 10-game skid to end the year.
So yes, Kmet knows it’s time for the Bears to make a significant breakthrough in 2023. Long overdue, actually.
“Last year, we were in a lot of close games and, in my opinion, in a lot of games we should have won,” he said. “We were the worst team in the year last year based off record. But there were a lot of games we should have won if we had taken care of business in the final minutes.”
As one of the Bears’ core leaders this season, Kmet will be responsible for helping set new direction for a franchise that has gone 12 seasons without a playoff win and 35 years since it last enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons. He will be one of the most respected voices in a locker room that has been pushed by general manager Ryan Poles since the spring to “develop a championship mindset.”
For the second-year GM, that directive is about replacing hope with expectation. It’s about setting unwavering standards. It’s about creating a confident mindset that can be put into action when games are played.
On the opening day of training camp, Poles stressed the need for players to first establish unwavering devotion to their craft. He wants them to understand their strengths and weaknesses and attack their development accordingly. Most importantly, perhaps, Poles wants them to solidify that championship mindset.
“It’s a mentality,” he said. “You’ve got to have that confidence. I want our team to walk into the stadium (every week) believing they can win football games and not hoping.”
Of the 53 players Poles chose to start Week 1 on the Bears roster, 26 have arrived since last season ended. That’s 26 players with new energy and perspective that can help shape the championship mindset.
The Eagles were a 12-loss team in 2020 but broke through with a wild-card berth the next year. Last season they won 14 games, then secured two playoff victories to win the NFC. Edwards has a good feel for how that climb accelerated.
“The biggest thing was just focusing in on the day-in and day-out (responsibilities),” he said. “Everyone has their angle with what they want to do in this league. And it’s difficult to get there. But it’s about what you do on the daily. It’s about how you go about your business and how you talk to certain people. It’s how you lift in the weight room. What does the detail look like in meetings? Things like that.
“That’s something I can really see (developing) here, something you can really see is of importance. That’s big-time (to see) as a player. You want everybody to be on the same page and to make sure we’re speaking the same language.”
Fellow linebacker and newcomer Tremaine Edmunds played in eight playoff games with the Buffalo Bills over the last four seasons. That’s as many postseason contests as the Bears have participated in since 2002. Edmunds was part of a 6-10 Bills team as a rookie after joining an organization that hadn’t won a playoff game since 1995.
He then saw the Bills accumulate more high-level talent, shape their culture and hit stride in a way that produced three consecutive AFC East titles while solidifying them as a perennial Super Bowl contender. Edmunds believes the Bills’ rise came through a special combination of unity, accountability and collective resolve.
“Everything is not going to be glitz and glam,” he said. “When you’re on a journey that’s bigger than yourself, you’re going to go through rough days. But those rough days are what bring the team together. It’s about not pointing fingers. It’s about, number one, taking accountability. If you can’t look at yourself in the mirror, you can’t expect anyone else to believe in you.”
On defense, Edmunds saw the way the Bills’ work habits and investment create belief for a unit that finished in the top five of the league in takeaways each of the last three seasons. The Bills also allowed a league-low 17.4 points per game over the past two years.
Perhaps that’s why Edmunds so quickly found his footing at Halas Hall, not afraid to use his voice as a leader.
“Experience is the No. 1 teacher,” he said. “It’s about the guys who have been there, guys who have played in those (big) games. The guys who know what it takes to win should definitely speak up and be the leaders.”
‘Headed in the right direction’
Edmunds points to safety Eddie Jackson as one of the experienced and energized Bears leaders. Jackson has seen his share of frustration and failure during his six seasons in Chicago. But he is also one of three remaining members from the organization’s last championship team — the 2018 NFC North winners that won 12 games and, including the playoffs, lost only four by an average of three points.
Over four years, Jackson was part of an Alabama program that won 51 games and played for the national championship twice, winning it in 2015.
In short, he knows what the feeling is supposed to be and senses things heading in the right direction at Halas Hall, particularly for a high-energy defense that has spent the last four months forming a bond and sharpening its competitive edge.
“It’s fired up out there, man,” Jackson said in August. “It’s intense. Everyone is flying around. Guys are locked in. It’s a whole different mindset compared to last year. … It’s just like everyone is just playing free. You know the year we got (Khalil) Mack (in 2018), it was like a (vibe) shift. But now it’s like everyone is leaning on each other. Like, ‘Hey, bro, this is all we got. This is all we need.”
Or put another way, Jackson said: “Everyone is competing. No one is complaining. When you get that, I feel like things are always headed in the right direction.”
On the opposite side of the ball, the Bears offense will need high-level production and reliable steadiness. Coordinator Luke Getsy already has lectured his group on both fronts, reminding players they are about to board an 18-week roller coaster, needing to steel themselves accordingly.
Through every corkscrew, every twist, every stomach-shaking drop, Getsy has directed his players to adopt a mindset of “We got this (bleep).”
That will start with quarterback Justin Fields.
“Everybody’s going to be looking my way no matter if it’s going good or bad,” Fields said. “So it’s just being the leader vocally with my body language and being cool, calm, collected on the field and being there for everybody. It’s continuously picking up everybody if something’s not going our way.”
Fields offered additional perspective on how the team’s championship mindset should emerge.
“Champions are built differently,” Fields said. “They think differently. They move differently. … It’s really just stepping on the field knowing you’re the best player out there. It’s knowing that when you step on the field, you’re going to win that game. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s just a different feeling.”
For Kmet, this year’s championship mindset has to create fuel to win close games. He thinks back to last season’s 35-32 home loss to the Dolphins; a one-point defeat the next week to the Lions; a 27-24 stumble in Atlanta in Week 11. Those were three of the Bears’ six losses in 2022 by seven points or less.
“They all stick with you,” Kmet said.
He also understands a team’s ability to meet those moments in the pressure-packed stages of the fourth quarter is the great separator in the NFL.
“I do think you have to learn how to win,” Kmet said. “And that comes from experiencing a breakthrough. Once it happens once, you know the formula for it and you’re able to repeat it.
“I think there’s a breakthrough that needs to happen for us. Once we get there and are able to do it on a consistent basis, we will be set from there.”
Kmet feels more confident, naturally, in the Bears’ upgraded talent on offense, most notably the addition of top receiver DJ Moore via trade in March and the selection of right tackle Darnell Wright at No. 10 in the draft. That should help propel the Bears in the right direction. Beyond that, Kmet said, there’s an attention to detail and a mindset needed to excel consistently in game-on-the-line situations.
“We can’t just sit here and expect people to believe in us,” Kmet said. “We have to go out and show them we can do it and do it on a consistent basis. And then that belief will start to come.”
Added Fields: “It’s knowing that you’re going to win and expecting to win rather than just hoping.”