As Justin Fields ascends, Bears should prioritize winning over draft slot

Schrock: Winning more important than draft slot for Fields, Bears originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

There's a prevailing thought fluttering around the streets of Chicago, both real and digital, that the Bears aren't missing out on anything by losing close games to the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, Atlanta Falcons, and Green Bay Packers.

With Justin Fields dazzling, the belief is that the Bears and Fields are best served playing well enough to show progress but bad enough to rack up the losses and fly up the 2023 NFL Draft board.

This is misguided thinking.

There's no question that the Bears' roster has more holes than the carcass of the Titanic. The entire front seven needs to be overhauled, the offensive line needs work, and the arsenal, despite the addition of Chase Claypool, still lacks the top-level talent Fields needs to take the Bears from NFC doormat to Super Bowl contender.

The Bears currently sit at No. 2 on the 2023 NFL Draft board. That's a perfect place to find blue-chip talent, especially when you aren't quarterback shopping like several teams will be this offseason.

I'm not advocating for the Bears to reel off four in a row to end the season. With the defense getting flambeed every week, there's little shot of that happening with the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills on deck after the bye week.

The losses will come.

But what I'm advocating is for the Bears to walk a tightrope. To win a close game or two down the stretch and get Fields and other members of this young core much-needed experience in how to perform in winning time.

Head coach Matt Eberflus is trying to build a culture. That's the first step of a rebuild. So far, Eberflus has gotten ultimate buy-in from his players. All of them.

But an essential part of building a winning culture is, you guessed it, winning.

"I'll tell you what they are getting is perseverance, determination," Eberflus said after the Bears' 31-30 loss to the Lions in Week 10. "That's what they will get. Everybody is going to look at this and say, 'hey, we've lost six out of seven,' and all the things that the outside noise is going to be.

"Let's have winning habits. Make sure we have winning habits every single day. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Which they do. They practice hard. They are doing the right things. It's about determination and perseverance and staying the course. That's what they are going to learn. That's what they are learning. ... It will eventually crack."

Fields is ascending. His play over the last seven weeks has been the MVP-caliber stuff that personifies a franchise quarterback.

The 23-year-old quarterback is hitting all the checkpoints this season. After a Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders, Fields said he was sick of "being close."

He's no longer close. He's there and on the fast track to stardom.

But there's more needed to put this young Bears team on the path to contention. Learning to win is vital when building a contender from the ground up. While the Bears might practice winning habits six days out of the week, constant losing on Sundays can often wipe that out.

Losing can be corrosive to a player and a roster.

On the season, the Bears' offense has had the ball 10 times with under six minutes to play and a chance to win or tie the game. They only scored on a four-play, 0-yard drive to beat the Houston Texans in Week 3. That drive was set up by a Roquan Smith interception in Texans territory.

All other drives have been torpedoed by mistakes or lack of execution.

There was the Ihmir Smith-Marsette fumble against the Minnesota Vikings in Week 5. Darnell Mooney bobbled a would-be game-winning touchdown against the Washington Commanders in Week 6. Equanimeous St. Brown dropped a pinpoint pass on fourth down against the Dolphins. St. Brown also ran a poor route on an interception that ended the Bears' potential game-winning/tying drive against the Packers on Sunday.

Fields and the Bears need to find a way to turn around their game-winning drive blues. Success breeds confidence and belief that what they are doing is the right way. That their process will pay off.

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A win Sunday against the Packers would have made the Bears 4-9 with a brutal December schedule upcoming. It would have had little overall impact on their final draft position. They are percentage points ahead of the Los Angeles Rams and Denver Broncos. Those teams play each other later this season. The Rams also just added Baker Mayfield, who could be just good enough to win them a game or two down the stretch.

The draft position will sort itself out. The Bears' roster has enough holes in it to avoid a wild winning streak at the end of the season.

But finding a way to win. To succeed where they failed against the Vikings, Commanders, Dolphins, Lions, Falcons, and Packers would have been invaluable for Fields and for the rest of the young core Eberflus and general manager Ryan Poles hope to be the foundation of the winning machine they are building.

Fields' rise has already made the 2022 Bears season a success. They'll finish in the bottom five of the league and have a prime chance to add elite talent early in the draft.

But when they have a chance to win, be it against the Eagles, Bills, Lions, or Vikings, it would be in their best interest to see Fields, Chase Claypool, Cole Kmet, and others deliver. To see proof of progress and put winning in this team's DNA as they enter Phase 2 of the rebuild.

The Bears won't win their way out of a good draft pick, but the constant losing can have an adverse impact on the core of this rebuild. That's harder to survive than missing out on a preferred draft slot.

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