Column: The Chicago Bears were not a disaster, which means progress for the McCaskeys’ football operation

Congrats are in order for the McCaskeys on another successful season of owning and operating the mom-and-pop franchise known as the Chicago Bears.

Despite a season-ending loss in Green Bay, the Bears finished on the upswing after going 3-14 in 2022 and starting this season 0-4, presumably giving coach Matt Eberflus another year to get things right.

Sure, the Bears are no closer to making the playoffs than they are to building a new stadium, but the narrative has dramatically changed since last January. You could almost hear Chairman George McCaskey patting President/CEO Kevin Warren on the back after the late-season turnaround for a job well done.

Instead of being a total disaster, the Bears were merely mediocre. And that counts for progress with a McCaskey-run football operation.

In the Bears owners’ imaginative minds, a 7-10 season, which included one win over an actual playoff team, the Detroit Lions, provided evidence they knew what they were doing when they hired Warren and general manager Ryan Poles to turn the team around and get their stadium built.

The Bears easily could’ve slid backward after the 0-4 start and the controversy surrounding the September exit of defensive coordinator Alan Williams. But a 7-6 record the rest of the way was a step in the right direction, even if it came against some of the league’s weaker teams.

With a little luck the Bears could’ve been 10-7, or at least 9-8 and “in the wild card hunt.” But they also could have blown games they wound up winning, so it probably all evens out in the end.

Some of the Bears’ players smoked cigars in the locker room after winning their last home game at Soldier Field, which could be construed as a premature celebration of a turnaround. Or maybe not.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

But just imagine for a moment if the Bears had a game-changing quarterback like C.J. Stroud or a bright young mind like DeMeco Ryans as head coach. Does what the Houston Texans did in 2023 behind Stroud and Ryans make the Bears’ incremental progress less meaningful?

They’re still the same old Bears, ending the season with more questions than answers. Now it’s up to McCaskey, Warren and Poles to decide whether to keep Eberflus and Justin Fields or move on from one or both.

The numbers aren’t easy to digest. Eberflus is 10-24 in two seasons and 2-10 in the NFC North. Fields ranked 23rd in quarterback rating in ’23 at 46.2, after finishing 15th in ‘22 at 56.3. Recall that Mitch Trubisky posted a 53.8 quarterback rating in 2020 in his final season in Chicago, and virtually no one was clamoring for him to stick around.

Neither Eberflus nor Fields should qualify as a slam dunk, though both the coach and QB1 showed enough in the final two months to make the argument for their return.

With or without them, Bears fans do have reasons for cautious optimism, despite the long-term prospects for a Lions’ reign in the division, the 10-game losing streak to the Packers and the general skepticism that’s built into their DNA.

Some have even dared to compare the ’23 Bears to the 2022 Lions, who went 8-2 in their final 10 games to finish 9-8, then won the North this season with a 12-5 record. I wouldn’t go that far. But with the No. 1 draft pick again and a chance to add to the core, a 9-8 season in 2024 is not out of the realm of possibility.

The ’24 schedule includes five patsies — the New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals, Washington Commanders, Carolina Panthers and Tennessee Titans — and the two division games against the Minnesota Vikings. That could be six wins right there. All the Bears would need is to go 3-7 in the other 10 games to have a shot at nine wins and respectability.

Would McCaskey dare to mess with what passes for success?

When asked Sunday if he expected to return, Eberflus told reporters “expectation is a future word,” noting he had to be “right here, right now,” sounding like a dated Pepsi commercial. He’s not exactly a wordsmith, but that’s not a deal-breaker for a head coach.

Bears experts, including our own Brad Biggs, suggest Eberflus will likely return, though perhaps without his offensive coordinator, Luke Getsy, who could be just the scapegoat management needs to show they’re not totally satisfied with mediocrity.

Remember when Getsy said during the season that he and Fields were on an “everlasting journey,” like they were destined to spend the rest of their careers together? Maybe they’ll both be gone and somehow end up together, laughing at the Bears for ever doubting them.

Who knows? No one really cares about Getsy’s journey, as long as it involves leaving. But everyone has a divergent opinion on Fields. Some think he’s proven he’s ready and needs only the right offensive coordinator to get the most out of his considerable talents. Others believe he’ll maintain his up-and-down trajectory.

Like many, I’m conflicted about Fields. Every time you count yourself out, he pulls you back in with one of his moonwalking feats, turning a sack into a sizable gain. But he’d follow up a great game with a bad one and ended the season without engineering a touchdown drive against the Packers.

Fields’ teammates reportedly love him, and he has represented the organization and city well in his three seasons while making some progress as a leader.

“He’s the quarterback of the Chicago Bears until otherwise,” DJ Moore told reporters Monday at Halas Hall. “And I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon. We’ll see.”

Will the support of his teammates be enough to convince the Bears’ brass to stay the course? Fortunately, talk radio doesn’t get a vote.

Even if the Bears do decide to move on, do you trust them to make the right call on the next quarterback after a lifetime of wrong decision-making?

Perhaps it’s safer to stick with Fields, draft wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. with the top pick and use the No. 9 pick on a quarterback not named Caleb Williams or Drake Maye. Give Fields some real competition from a potential starter and force him to fight to keep his job. He won’t like it, but it wouldn’t be in his interest to pout and it could make him a better quarterback.

Fields said after Sunday’s loss he would go into the offseason without any worries, insisting “I’m not going to let the potential (scenarios) or ‘What if? What if?’ stress me (and prevent me) from enjoying life.”

That’s the right attitude. Fields will be fine no matter what happens.

Meanwhile, the McCaskeys are also going to enjoy life, knowing their mom-and-pop franchise is the only NFL team in town.