After a 3-0 preseason, the Matt Eberflus era begins in earnest for the Bears in 12 days when Trey Lance and the San Francisco 49ers come to town.
That’s when we’ll get our first real gauge of Eberflus as a head coach and where the Bears are headed.
But I have to tell you, after an offseason program, training camp and three preseason games, there’s reason for long-term optimism in Chicago.
Not the kind of optimism that should have fans dreaming of a Cincinnati Bengals-type run this season. Yes, the schedule is soft, but the Bears are still likely to lead in the six-, seven-win range.
That might be hard to swallow in today’s world where instant gratification is commonplace. But if you take a long-term view and understand that patience will be key to general manager Ryan Poles’ rebuilding vision, there’s plenty of reason to believe the Bears are on the right track.
Let’s start with the headliner.
Justin Fields’ talent has never been in question. The big arm, quick treatment and elite athleticism were apparent at Ohio State and shone in spots during a turbulent rookie season with Matt Nagy shoving his way to the starting line. arrival.
The questions around Fields were twofold: is he the guy Eberflus and the Poles want behind centre? If so, would they do enough to support him so he could reach his great potential? Or was he already doomed to suffer the fate of so many promising signalmen who fell into the wrong situation?
It’s easy to point to the Bears’ lack of major signings this offseason as proof that the Poles and Eberflus aren’t sold on Fields. If they wanted their young quarterback to thrive, they’d top 31st in the NFL in offensive spending, right?
But it’s not seeing the forest through the trees.
Poles and Eberflus’ biggest move came when they hired Luke Getsy from the Green Bay Packers to be the offensive coordinator. Getsy is a rising star in NFL circles, and he has vowed to build an offense to highlight who Fields is as a quarterback — an outstanding athlete who wants to attack whenever possible.
The wide-area counterfeit program popularized by the Shanahans has spread throughout the NFL. It has many offshoots, from the Kubiak branch to McVay and LaFleur.
Some disciples, like Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, have strayed from the fundamentals. But Getsy’s scheme remains consistent with the original doctrine: you use the wide-area racing game to set up play-action bootlegs, nakeds, etc. with course concepts that play off each other and require the defense to make tough decisions.
The program is designed to make life easier for the quarterback, giving them easy throws that should lead to yard-after-catch opportunities with the proper personnel.
The installation process was clunky and disjointed. It was like watching a group of people drag a tire down a mountain with their teeth. Progress has been minimal and setbacks have continued.
But by the end of camp, the Fields and the Bears offense had seen more good days than bad. Despite an uncertain offensive line and a group of proven wide receivers, the offense began to come together.
Fields’ clean dismantling of the Cleveland Browns in the Bears’ preseason finale confirmed that the Bears had made progress. That all the sweat the Bears poured into the bucket was paying off, with Fields leading the way.
The sophomore quarterback has worked all offseason to improve his footwork, refine his mechanics, develop a better pocket presence and take responsibility for leading the Bears in this rebuild.
Getsy praised Fields’ “significantly improved” mechanics while noting that the job is far from done.
You can dismiss Fields’ stellar play against a starless Browns defense as nothing more than a preseason red herring. But what we saw Saturday in Cleveland was proof of potential. That Getsy tailored his plan to Fields’ strengths. That the quarterback’s skill, combined with Getsy’s innovation, can combine to create a deadly offense.
This brings us to Eberflus.
Defensive-minded head coaches often bite off more than they can chew and start drowning before games start to matter.
But the first head coach has embraced a CEO role since taking office. He let defensive coordinator Alan Williams put his stamp on the defense, opting to oversee the rebuild from 1,000 feet without interference.
But that’s not to say Eberflus hasn’t put his stamp on the Bears’ new founding.
The HITS principle (hustle, intensity, takeaway, intelligence) has permeated the Bears locker room. It has the support of everyone from Jaylon Johnson to Eddie Jackson and Robert Quinn.
Eberflus took over a Bears team whose innards were rotten from a previous regime. He arrived and challenged his best players to set a high standard that everyone would follow. So far, there have been no defectors.
Eberflus, 52, arrives early to each meeting. His defensive experience has come in handy for quarterbacks and the offense as a whole.
More importantly, Eberflus handled early distractions well with Quinn and Roquan Smith. He clearly connects with his players, building trust essential to getting the most out of the 53 players on the roster.
There will be growing pains for Eberflus. The first moments of the head coach will appear. The losses that will surely pile up this season will test his culture and the players’ faith in him and his system.
But he seems to be up to the daunting task ahead.
If Fields and Eberflus are the co-stars of my optimistic feelings about the Bears’ future, the draft class is the supporting cast.
Jaquan Brisker has the makings of a 10-year-old star, Kyler Gordon arrived with the perfect mix of skill and confidence, and the Bears have enough confidence in Braxton Jones to make the fifth-round pick the starting left tackle in a crucial year for Fields’ development.
Sprinkle in the mouth-watering speed of Velus Jones Jr. and the potential gems of Elijah Hicks and undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn, and the Poles’ first class of rookies have all the makings of a great founding group.
The 2022 season almost certainly won’t see the Bears play until January. There will be growing pains. Games against the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles could be tough to watch.
But teams with a talented quarterback, smart head coach and savvy general manager usually find their way out of the wasteland and back to relevance.
The work has only just begun for Fields, Eberflus, Poles and the Bears. There are miles to go before the words “successful” and “rebuild” can be uttered in the same sentence. The process will be long.
But if those three essential pieces are already in place, the Bears will eventually arrive at their desired destination.