Embarrassments versus triumphs: How to conduct an honest performance review of the Chicago Bears

Maybe, if what the leaders at Halas Hall are selling has substance, the Chicago Bears may truly be ready to enter the on-ramp toward meaningful progress.

If, as Bears general manager Ryan Poles asserted, coach Matt Eberflus is the right leader for this moment, a head-down grinder with high integrity and a knack for unifying, then the Bears can withstand another bumpy week and emerge with greater strength.

“I know it looks like we’re far away,” Poles said Wednesday. “But this dude comes in every day and just keeps chipping away.”

And if, as Eberflus said, the culture is truly, to borrow his description, “outstanding,” then the Bears should have deep reserves of ambition, resilience and harmony to fuel them through the second half of the season.

“These guys work hard every single day,” Eberflus said. “The relationship piece is there. We care about each other. We’re working diligently to get this thing turned. We really feel we’re turning the corner.”

If so, November should be as defining as any stretch the Bears will face. Starting Sunday in New Orleans and continuing with a quick-turnaround home game Thursday against the Carolina Panthers, the Bears have a chance to do something they have yet to accomplish under the current regime: win consecutive games.

After that, they’ll dive back into division play with a pair of road contests: Nov. 19 at Detroit and Nov. 27 in Minneapolis. Those games will give the Bears a chance to unlock a new achievement by securing their first NFC North win(s) in two seasons — with eight consecutive division losses and counting during that span.

For now, Poles has painted Eberflus as a picture of stability during a time of turbulence.

“The way he holds everything down is incredible for how loud it is, how tough it is,” Poles said. “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.

“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 I see from (Eberflus) on a daily basis and how he gets 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.”

But now it’s time for action. For production. For meaningful results.

It’s time to support all that hopeful rhetoric with on-field evidence of momentum and success.

The degree of difficulty remains elevated as the Bears attempt to steady themselves after yet another chaotic week. It started with a blowout loss on the prime stage in Los Angeles last Sunday, continued with cornerback Jaylon Johnson requesting permission to seek a trade the next day and veered sideways again with the Wednesday’s firing of running backs coach David Walker for what is believed to be unacceptable conduct.

The midway point of the season will officially arrive at halftime Sunday at the Superdome and the Bears will land there with as many departed assistant coaches from Eberflus’ staff (two) as they have victories.

They will land there with starting quarterback Justin Fields still injured, promising young safety Jaquan Brisker dealing with serious concussion issues, the offensive line still unsettled, playoff hopes all but dead and with very little evidence to show they can consistently compete with better teams.

On Wednesday, Eberflus was asked to describe from his vantage point the direction of a 2-6 team that has had far more turbulence off the field than success on it. “Over the last four games we’re 2-2, right?” he said. “And the direction is good. Obviously we had an injury to our starting quarterback. We had a backup (Tyson Bagent) come in and win a game for us. The defense is on the rise.”

Eberflus went on to laud the Bears’ improvement in stopping the run and the offense’s ability to establish a reliable ground attack. Then he stressed the need to have better results in the turnover battle.

“When we get that right, we’ll be right,” he said. “The guys are positive, upbeat and looking forward to New Orleans.”

To much of the outside world, it felt like artificial optimism.

‘We’re all disappointed’

When training camp opened in July, Poles was asked to set a bar for the year and articulate a vision for how this season could be qualified as a success. The Bears’ forgiven failures of 2022 were in the rearview mirror, a free pass granted as Poles executed a roster teardown, secured the No. 1 overall pick and then traded that to the Carolina Panthers for a haul of future draft capital plus receiver DJ Moore.

But 2023? Progress seemed necessary. A show of advancement and direction felt like a reasonable ask.

“I think great teams have high expectations and they go chase those. That’s what we’re going to do,” Poles said. “I don’t want to put a ceiling on what we can be. But I know our goal is always to win the division and be a championship-caliber team.”

That the Bears are not. They are still a group whose 2024 draft status is discussed far more than its current playoff hopes. And if it were just the repetitive losing, Chicago’s edginess might not be as sharp.

But the Bears always somehow seem to find new banana peels to slip on, new manholes to fall into. And the discussion around the team too often centers around transactions and transgressions instead of tangible football success.

As is frequently noted in league circles, it can be easy to identify a team’s direction by comparing its most significant triumphs to its notable embarrassments. On the former, the Bears have just two wins this season: convincing victories over the Washington Commanders and Las Vegas Raiders. But those two successes must be properly framed given the current state of both opponents’ franchises. The Commanders just held a fire sale with some of their better players at the trade deadline. And the Raiders fired both general manager Dave Ziegler and coach Josh McDaniels Monday night after falling to 3-5.

As far as embarrassments? The Bears have lost six times already, including a 38-20 trouncing by the rival Green Bay Packers in Week 1, a 41-10 beatdown by the Kansas City Chiefs two weeks later and a late loss to the Denver Broncos that saw them blow a 21-point second-half lead.

In Week 3, meanwhile, defensive coordinator Alan Williams abruptly resigned under mysterious circumstances. (Multiple sources told the Tribune that was a conduct-related departure.) Sixteen days later, the team grew so fed up with moody and inconsistent receiver Chase Claypool that they traded him to Miami for what essentially amounted to a bag of Peanut M & M’s, taking a huge loss on what was a significant midseason trade in 2022.

Walker’s dismissal Wednesday only added to the perception that Eberflus’ coaching staff is failing to meet expectations as his team falters simultaneously.

“We’re all disappointed,” Eberflus said. “It’s never good when this has to happen.”

There are also injury issues with seven players having spent time on injured reserve. Six different starting offensive line combinations already having been used. Fields’ return timetable is still cloudy. And there’s significant uncertainty still lingering around the long-term health of Brisker, Tremaine Edmunds (knee) and, to some extent, Eddie Jackson (foot).

(Don’t forget also that promising guard Teven Jenkins missed the season’s first month after injuring his calf during a conditioning workout on an August off-day in Indiana.)

Deal or no deal

This week the Bears also found themselves in the center of contract drama with their top cornerback. Johnson’s desires for an extension have played out in a very public manner and included this week’s exploration of a possible exit. So why was Poles inclined to grant that permission?

“It’s the respect I have for Jaylon,” he said. “If that’s in your heart and you want to check that out, go check that out and see what comes back.

“If everything lines up perfectly, if you want to go somewhere else, then that could happen. And if that brought (back) the (draft) pick where I thought we could get another Jaylon Johnson, then we could do that too.”

Poles continues to state he wants Johnson as part of the defensive core for years to come. But the GM and his front office have yet to show Johnson and his representatives a satisfactory path to making that happen. And when Poles traded a 2024 second-round pick to Washington on Tuesday for standout pass rusher Montez Sweat, he did so with confidence he could sign Sweat to a long-term extension.

But Sweat, upon arriving at Halas Hall, didn’t seem to be in a rush to make an instant commitment to an organization he knew so little about and to a team with obvious uncertainty.

“I just want to consider everything around me before I make a decision,” Sweat said.

The Bears’ difficulties in finding common ground with Johnson further cloud the discussion. The team’s divorce from star linebacker Roquan Smith via a midseason trade in 2022 have also heightened a perception in some league circles that the team has flaws in its negotiation processes and struggles to take care of homegrown talent.

The QB roller coaster

Fields’ uncertain status — both health-wise and developmentally — remains at the center of the uneasiness. The third-year quarterback has shown flashes of brilliance this season. He had his first career 300-yard passing game against the Broncos last month and threw a total of eight touchdown passes in back-to-back games against Denver and Washington.

His chemistry with Moore has been impressive. Currently, Fields’ 91.6 passer rating ranks 14th among qualified quarterbacks.

But Fields’ first six starts were also defined by worrisome inconsistency. Of his eight turnovers, three were returned for touchdowns. He failed to deliver in late game-on-the-line moments against the Buccaneers and Broncos, has a troubling 61.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter and has yet to show any semblance of high-level pocket poise or field vision.

With a 12.9 % sack rate in his six starts, Fields’ struggles to get rid of the ball on time have been magnified with Bagent having only a 3.6 % sack rate in the two-and-a-half games he has played.

Coincidentally, Fields dislocated his right thumb while falling awkwardly on a Week 6 sack against the Vikings. Sunday will mark his third consecutive missed start (and the 10th in his career) in a season where the organization was eager to measure his durability alongside his performance.

Few teams with this level of quarterback instability can reasonably declare they are turning a corner. Thus over the final two-plus months, the Bears will have to reach some pretty important conclusions in regards to their next steps and whether they want Fields to remain for a fourth season. If not? Well, the quarterback reboot manual at Halas Hall is well worn and usually handy.

What now?

For everyone involved — players, coaches, execs, fans — this can become an exhausting existence. Flimsy hope. Empty promises. Head-scratching off-the-field developments. And so many losses continually piling up.

The last time the Bears won consecutive games, Matt Nagy was still the coach with Nick Foles and Andy Dalton were the starting quarterbacks.

The last time the team won a playoff game, Barack Obama still had two years left in his first term as president.

The last time the franchise enjoyed three consecutive winning seasons, the price of gas in Illinois was 94 cents per gallon.

With that perspective, Bears fans are forgiven for not enthusiastically lapping up Eberflus’ presentation of an eager team feeling upbeat on the way to New Orleans. (By the way, the Bears’ last victory at the Superdome came in 1991.)

Bears fans are forgiven for browsing Eberflus’ glossy brochure advertising an improving team with a 2-2 record in its last four outings and promptly rolling their eyes.

Bears fans are forgiven for wanting higher standards and evidence the franchise is truly on the right track.

Who knows? Maybe this upcoming stretch of November games will truly be a turning point. Maybe the Bears will stick together and keep chipping away to make undeniable progress in their quest to become the championship-caliber team Poles envisions.

Maybe all these recent headaches and stumbles and dismissals will fade and be replaced by meaningful positive momentum.

Maybe, just maybe, right?

One way or another, November should prove defining in a lot of ways for a lot of people.