The Chicago Bears on Sunday will play at MetLife Stadium for the second time this season, facing the New York Jets in East Rutherford, N.J. They lost to the Giants 20-12 in Week 4. The big question this week is the availability of quarterback Justin Fields — who suffered a separated left shoulder and torn ligament in Week 11 against the Atlanta Falcons. As the game approaches, our team of writers digs in to four key topics surrounding the 3-8 Bears.
1. Justin Fields’ shoulder injury is ________.
Brad Biggs: An unfortunate development.
The offense has been highly productive running the ball and — more importantly — scoring. The Bears averaged 29.5 points over the last five games, and while that has led to only one victory, who thought they would be putting up points like this? The Bears scored 30 offensive touchdowns last season and have 27 this year with six games remaining.
Obviously the organization doesn’t want to expose Fields and his non-throwing shoulder to more injury, but the “shut Fields down” crowd has been overly dramatic. Fields and the offense need to get a lot better, and that has happened over the last five games. In the first six games, Fields completed 54.8% of his passes and threw four touchdowns with five interceptions. In the last five, he completed 64.6% with nine touchdowns and only three picks. Not only did he set records as a running quarterback, he made some advancements throwing the ball. Fields and the offense need to continue to show growth, especially in the passing game, and that isn’t going to happen if he’s on the sideline.
Colleen Kane: Concerning.
The fear with Fields running as much as he has over the last six weeks — when he had 80 carries for 640 yards and six touchdowns — is that one of the hits would knock him out. I can’t be the only one cringing five times a game watching it. It might be a risk worth taking, but it’s a risk nonetheless. Now he and the Bears are trying to decide if he’ll play through what he said was a separated non-throwing shoulder with a partially torn ligament.
We know how tough Fields is, that he certainly could play through it. Is it a good idea? Especially against a good New York Jets defense that has 32 sacks in 10 games? That I don’t know. Maybe the injury isn’t going to get worse when he takes more hits, and maybe he feels he can operate at the same level with the pain. But it’s fair to question why a 3-8 team wouldn’t give him at least a week or two to regroup after such an injury. Otherwise I might be in for a lot of cringing Sunday.
Dan Wiederer: Unfortunate.
The question is whether it was just a freak thing — with Fields landing awkwardly after absorbing a routine tackle on a routine play — or whether it’s a byproduct of all the Bears have been asking him to do as a runner to enliven their offense over the last month. I tend to lean toward the former.
It’s football. These things happen. But the Bears need to figure out ways to keep Fields out of harm’s way as much as possible. And in my opinion, it’s only practical to hold him out of a meaningless road game Sunday against the Jets in the interest of getting him time to rest and recover.
2. Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy has been ________.
Biggs: A breath of fresh air.
He deals with questions directly and provides straight answers without beating around the bush. He has been clear that his goal every week is constructing a plan and then calling a game that gives the Bears the best opportunity to win. I reference that because I asked him if the trade for wide receiver Chase Claypool would lead to him opening up the passing game more with Justin Fields. Only if Getsy felt the Bears would be better served by throwing the ball more in a given week.
Getsy has done a particularly good job of finding what his players do best — which is a process — while working to minimize weaknesses, all the while dealing with a lot of moving parts on the offensive line. I think former Bears GM Jerry Angelo would be particularly proud of him because Angelo regularly warned about the dangers of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Getsy works to make sure the square pegs go where they should, and that’s reflective in the offense’s improvements. Players say he does a good job of taking input from them, and that’s important.
Kane: A steady guide for Fields.
Following the court of public opinion on Getsy has been a roller coaster. Harsh but perhaps deserved criticisms early as the Bears tried to get their new offense running. Gushing praise for the adjustments the Bears made to aid Fields following their mini-bye. Worry that Getsy will be off to a head coaching job after the season. And now fair questions about the play-calling in the loss to the Falcons. (Though it has been noted that at least one of the final three plays wasn’t run correctly and another was a Fields interception.)
It hasn’t all been pretty, and there’s still a long way to go before Fields is where he needs to be as a quarterback. But Getsy seems to be the same guy through it all, committed to the process of developing Fields and the offense and adamant that the quarterback is taking the needed steps along the way. Fields is levelheaded, but it can’t hurt to have that influence as he navigates the bumps of a rebuilding season in a tough market. Matt Eberflus gave Getsy high praise last week, calling him a “definite big-time candidate” to be a head coach because of his intelligence, flexibility, joy, honesty, loyalty and ability to command a room.
Wiederer: Process-driven and solution-oriented.
After the first five or six games, the Bears offense was a total mess, disjointed and unproductive and still searching to solidify an identity. But Getsy’s work in remolding the offense around his quarterback’s strengths and preferences has been masterful and sparked to a stretch in which the Bears scored 29 points or more in four consecutive games.
The offense’s 24 points Sunday in the loss to the Falcons felt disappointing. But that would have been a season high in points scored in the first six games. Perhaps more telling, the Bears are now in the top 10 in two of the league’s most important offensive categories — third-down conversion percentage and red-zone efficiency. Over the last six games, the Bears jumped from 28th to fifth in third-down production and now rank behind only the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Cincinnai Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles in that category.
3. Matt Eberflus’ coaching through 11 games has been ________.
Here’s what I know about Eberflus through 11 games: He has done a good job of being the face of an organization that is completely stripping down the roster with an eye toward the future.
Eberflus has to answer for why the defense is one of the worst in the league. The Bears are tied for 27th in points allowed, can’t stop the run, don’t have a hint of a pass rush and have been a mess on third down. The passing offense remains a work in progress, to put it kindly, and he’s playing with a ton of young players.
That’s a long way of saying it is going to be really difficult to judge Eberflus as a head coach until he’s presented with a better roster. He seems to have legitimate buy-in by a young locker room and the effort has been solid, but talent is king in the NFL, and the Bears have an extreme shortage of that. By midseason of Year 3, we should have a pretty good indication of whether real progress is being made because in a lot of ways the Bears have taken steps backward with an eye toward improving in the near future.
Kane: Worthy of an incomplete grade.
Ultimately the all-business Eberflus — at some point down the line — will be judged on the wins. But it’s hard to judge where this team is headed given the roster he is working with. I know that despite a lack of talent the Bears have stayed close in several losses.
I know that Fields has taken steps forward on Eberflus’ watch, with Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko leading the charge. I know that the defensive-minded head coach, along with coordinator Alan Williams, has directed a unit that is low on sacks and in the top 10 in takeaways, the latter one of Eberflus’ core principles. I know the morale of the team still seems to be good despite losing seven of the last eight games, though that’s going to be tested down the stretch even more as the Bears play some of the league’s best in December. And I know Eberflus, who doesn’t call plays, has had some game decisions not go his way but probably hasn’t committed what I think are egregious in-game mistakes.
What does that all add up to? That we need to see more from the coach over the next season and a half to determine what type of job he’s doing.
Wiederer: He has a lot left to prove.
Eberflus earned deserved praise during the summer for articulating his vision and establishing a standard of effort that he wants his teams to live by. The HITS principle was, pardon the pun, an early hit. And to this point, the Bears have remained competitive and feisty despite having a roster that remains low on top-tier talent and quality depth. The moment also hasn’t seemed too big for Eberflus in terms of game management or situational awareness.
But the Bears are 3-8 with one-third of the season remaining. Eberflus and his staff must retain the concentration and investment of players while continuing to develop younger players. A much bigger test of Eberflus’ coaching talent will come in 2023 as the Bears attempt to make a significant leap in the NFC.
4. After Ryan Poles’ trade-deadline dealings, his biggest task is ________.
Biggs: Well, everything?
Maybe not everything, but close to it. The Bears need wholesale upgrades on defense in the offseason. They have so many needs on that side of the ball, he’s not going to be able to check every box in one offseason. The offense lacks a No. 1 wide receiver. The offensive line has been in area of need since this time last year. This is just a cursory overview of what lies ahead in the offseason.
Poles needs to put together a list of wants and needs — and those are different things — and then determine what matches the Bears have in free agency and the draft. He basically moved from the beginning of Round 2 to the end of it while shipping out linebacker Roquan Smith for wide receiver Chase Claypool. That is the net result of the trades, and the Bears had better hope Claypool is a major cog in the passing game next season after the Pittsburgh Steelers received a premium pick for him.
It’s a big offseason, and I simply would remind you that when Poles has talked about free agency, he always referenced being calculated and wanting to be draft-driven. I expect the Bears to make a couple of major buys in free agency, but massive splashes generally lead to almost immediate disappointment. Don’t expect him to go bonkers. He’s not looking for shortcuts.
Kane: Filling a ton of holes on the roster this offseason.
Poles’ trades of Robert Quinn and Roquan Smith for draft picks made plenty of sense, but they also left the Bears with even more needs. One of the Bears’ primary concerns has to be the defensive line, especially end. The Bears have just 15 sacks this season, with 4 ½ from defensive ends currently on the team. Poles also must take a look at linebacker and cornerback to determine whether he wants to continue with internal solutions or upgrade.
While Chase Claypool might turn into a good acquisition — the jury is out as he is still working his way into making an impact on the offense — Poles still needs to add at least one other big wide receiver talent. And then he needs to make serious evaluations about where the offensive line might need changes. I’m intrigued to see how he prioritizes the many moves the Bears need to make to be a competitive team. Like Eberflus, we are still far away from a complete picture of what type of GM Poles is.
Wiederer: Fortifying the roster across all three phases.
I’m not trying to be flippant here. But the perception across the NFL is that the Bears depth chart remains a wreck with the 2023 offseason to-do list already pretty daunting for Poles and his staff.
The Bears need to find ways to stabilize their offensive line and upgrade their receiving corps. That’s part of the reason they are posting historically bad passing numbers, averaging just 128.1 passing yards per game, last in the NFL by a mile. Only three teams in the last 30 seasons averaged fewer passing yards per game.
The front seven on defense also needs significant improvement, particularly with a pass rush that has produced an NFC-low 15 sacks, including just 6½ from defensive linemen still on the roster. As exciting as Fields’ breakthrough over the past month has been, the Bears have to find more top-end playmakers on both sides of the ball to even begin dreaming about a winning season in 2023.