Criticism of Ryan Poles’ first year is arguably warranted. Not only did he construct the worst team in the league, but the Bears didn’t come away with a clear answer on if Justin Fields is the franchise quarterback. This offseason, however, should remedy both issues. The key will be two Poles evaluations: Fields and head Matt Eberflus. The good news is there’s reason for optimism in both cases.
From Weeks 4 to 16, Fields was 10th amongst quarterbacks in EPA per play. While that takes into account his rushing totals, why wouldn’t one take that into account? In that time span, Fields had a passer rating of 95, while putting up per game averages that would equate to more than 4,300 total yards and 33 touchdowns. It doesn’t really matter how he got the yards and touchdowns; it all counts the same.
25 was an all pro return man. Fields broke his ankles before blowing past the rest of the defense for a long TD run.
I know discounting this and looking solely at passing volume numbers is the current trend, but…man… pic.twitter.com/0yi2N7c3WG
— Andrew Dannehy (@ADannehy) May 16, 2023
Protection improvements, as well as the addition of DJ Moore, should help Fields as a passer. And while fans may have to accept that Fields is unlikely to ever become Patrick Mahomes from the pocket, he has shown enough to think he can be along the lines of Jalen Hurts.
Eberflus’ evaluation is a little trickier, but a general rule is that good head coaches are successful on the side of the ball in which they previously specialized. At first glance, that doesn’t seem to bode well for Eberflus, but the Bears had a really good defense early in the season. Through seven games, the team allowed 18.9 points and 330 yards while taking the ball away 12 times. If that held up throughout the final 10 games, the Bears would’ve finished fifth in scoring defense, 12th in yardage and fourth in takeaways.
It was after Week 7 that the Bears began a fire sale, first trading Robert Quinn and then dumping Roquan Smith. Eddie Jackson’s play was impacted by those decisions. Then he was injured. It wasn’t long before the team began playing undrafted defensive backs behind a defensive line that got pushed around.
The lack of pass rush will hurt in 2023, but the Bears have the necessary ingredients to turn the worst defense in the league to a top-20 unit. If Gervon Dexter and Zacch Pickens can merely hold their ground, they’ll be considerable improvements. Demarcus Walker is a considerable upgrade, and many expect the Bears to make at least one more move. The secondary, with Jackson, Jaylon Johnson, Jaquan Brisker, Kyler Gordon and Tyrique Stevenson, should be among the better groups in the league.
What should help the Bears climb the standings is the lack of improvement around them. Detroit had a chance to grab the division by the throat, but instead of using the top-10 pick they were gifted, they traded back and drafted a running back, then an off-ball linebacker, a tight end and a defensive back who won’t necessarily fill their coverage void.
The Vikings were fading late last year and didn’t do much to suggest that trend will stop this year. Though, we can expect them to score points, their apparent decision to move on from Dalvin Cook will hurt and their defense might be (intentionally) worse.
The Packers are a wild card, but it’s hard to see how going from Aaron Rodgers to Jordan Love will be an upgrade, especially when they left the new quarterback with two rookie tight ends and a green wide receiver room. They should be able to run the ball and play defense, but if Love is as bad as he has looked so far, they might have the worst offense in the league.
There is no guarantee that the Bears will make a huge leap up the standings, but at the very least we’ll be able to tell what direction they are heading. There are no valid excuses for Fields or Eberflus to not produce like their flashes indicated.