Column: Chicago Bears must be brutally honest in their evaluations as they choose a path for 2024 and beyond

Players stuffed large cardboard boxes with workout gear Monday morning at Halas Hall, a rite of passage into an uncertain offseason for the Chicago Bears.

Many took a few minutes to talk about the 7-10 season that ended Sunday with a 17-9 loss to the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. They talked about how the Bears, after a rough opening month and a tumultuous series of staff departures, rebounded to become competitive over the final two months.

“We had two or three games where, if the outcome was different, we wouldn’t even be at this day right now,” wide receiver DJ Moore said. “We’d still be going strong into the playoff picture.”

Added edge rusher Montez Sweat: “You’ve seen how the defense performed when we’re on all cylinders. You’ve seen how the offense could perform when they’re on all cylinders too. There’s definitely a foundation here that we’re building upon.”

A timeline remains unclear for when Bears leadership will choose a direction heading into a pivotal few months. Coach Matt Eberflus joined general manager Ryan Poles in conducting exit interviews with players Monday, and that indicates Eberflus at least has a shot to return for a third season in 2024.

Chairman George McCaskey, President/CEO Kevin Warren and Poles may have moved to the next phase of the decision-making process Monday evening, or they could wait until Tuesday to begin sifting through evaluations that have been formed over the course of the year.

The Bears improved by four wins over 2022, but that bar was set ridiculously low during a season in which they stripped down the roster and reset the salary cap. More important than getting caught up in win totals, the Bears need to take a step back and evaluate the team’s trajectory for 2024, with plenty of resources to fortify the roster in free agency and the draft.

This will require sober conversations and brutal honesty.

“The hardest thing for an organization to do is evaluate itself,” former Bears GM Jerry Angelo once said. “I found that to be true in every program, college or pro. It’s very hard to do because when you’re looking at it internally, there’s more emotions involved. There are agendas. People sometimes don’t want to be truthful.

“It’s easier for me to clean up your backyard than it is mine. Yours looks like junk. Mine looks like art.”

Eberflus can point to tremendous strides on defense, the side of the ball where his expertise lies. The Bears finished 12th in total defense, No. 1 versus the run and in interception rate and seventh in first downs allowed. They’ve made major investments in Sweat, linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards and a young secondary. With a new contract for cornerback Jaylon Johnson, the defense should be solid next season in any scheme.

To Eberflus’ credit — and Poles referred to this Sunday in a pregame interview with WMVP-AM 1000 — he maintained a steady hand in rough times when some easily could have panicked. The team played hard throughout the season, and opponents said as much.

A decision on Eberflus likely will be intertwined with a direction for an offense that failed to make appropriate gains even as newcomer Moore had one of the best seasons in franchise history, catching 96 passes for 1,364 yards and eight touchdowns. Do the Bears feel confident in Eberflus’ ability to oversee significant offensive improvement with the likely addition of a rookie quarterback — either with the No. 1 draft pick or potentially after a trade down?

Vocal player support for quarterback Justin Fields is legitimate, but it’s also the most overblown storyline since the idea Eberflus could be fired midseason. Players genuinely like Fields. That’s abundantly clear. They’re also aware decisions involving roster moves are made way above their heads. And what do you expect them to say about someone they share a locker room with?

Ownership and management need to determine if they fear another season of stagnant offensive performance could bring the team back to the same position 12 months from now.

Unless the Bears are going to heap the vast majority of blame for the league’s 26th-ranked passing game on Fields’ shoulders, it stands to reason Eberflus — if he’s retained — would be prepared to replace offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.

The Bears can’t wait too long to begin a head coaching search if they choose that direction. But if that happens Tuesday or Wednesday, they wouldn’t be far behind the Carolina Panthers, Las Vegas Raiders, Atlanta Falcons and Washington Commanders — four teams the Bears defeated this season — and the Los Angeles Chargers.

Here’s something to consider if the Bears retain Eberflus: If they’re searching only for coordinators — Eberflus would have to find a defensive coordinator, even if he continues to oversee that side of the ball — they actually would be ahead of a lot of teams jumping into the hiring cycle that first have to hire a head coach. They also would be ahead of teams whose coordinators get poached as a head coach (think the Detroit Lions with hot coaching candidate Ben Johnson).

The Bears could take their time, evaluate a small handful of candidates and try to get a commitment from possible hires before some teams have gotten to the point of filling out their staffs.

If the Bears decide to replace Eberflus, they better have a high level of confidence they can get their first or second choice. Few general managers get a shot at hiring a third head coach, at least not without some real winning first, and Poles’ future no doubt will be linked closely to an anticipated quarterback move.

One thing is clear: If you get the quarterback decision right, a path to contention can move into the HOV lane. Look no further than C.J. Stroud and the AFC South champion Houston Texans for evidence.

First, as Angelo said, the Bears have to make some hard calls on the junk and art in their backyard.