At 1-5, the Chicago Bears have a lot to sort through as they ready to face the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday at Soldier Field.
Offensive line uncertainty. Defensive inconsistency. An undrafted rookie likely to make his first NFL start. It’s another complicated puzzle that Matt Eberflus and his coaching staff need to put together.
In advance of the game, here’s the inside slant on three notable storylines.
‘Nothing to lose’
All aboard who’s coming aboard.
That amplified and familiar whistle you’ve been hearing this week has been coming from Chicago Bears headquarters in Lake Forest, where Desperation Station has sent the latest hope-and-hype train on its way.
The Tyson Bagent Express is out on the tracks with a couple of opportunities to board before it barrels into Soldier Field for Sunday’s game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
For the “Let’s see what we’ve got in the kid” crowd, this is an exciting and intriguing moment, a chance to latch on to an underdog story as a 23-year-old undrafted rookie from Division II Shepherd University continues to live out his football dreams.
What’s not to love about the possibility and the self-assured way Bagent has been attacking this with preparation as his fuel and destiny as his compass?
Asked Wednesday if he ever dreamed an opportunity like this would materialize as a kid growing up in Martinsburg, W.Va., Bagent just shrugged and smirked. “Oddly,” he said, “I always thought it was going to happen.”
His sincerity carried such positive energy.
As for those rolling their eyes at the sudden and significant swelling of Bagent belief within pockets of the Bears fan base, the skepticism is understandable given the number of once-hopeful backup quarterbacks whose journeys derailed well short of their desired destinations.
Does Caleb Hanie ring a bell? Matt Barkley?
How about a Chad Hutchinson or Jimmy Clausen? Henry Burris or P.T. Willis?
In some ways, Bagent is just like all those dudes, thrust onto center stage due to circumstance but still eager for the chance to prove himself. He is also nothing like any of the QB2s who have come through Halas Hall before, on a unique voyage and blessed with a combination of humility, drive and poise that helps him stay centered.
Reminded that a year ago he was at Shepherd preparing to face West Chester University in front of a crowd of 2,123 fans in Pennsylvania, Bagent didn’t flinch at the reality that he will lead the Bears to play the Raiders this weekend. In fact, he explained why he hasn’t felt all that overwhelmed.
“I think my life has been planned out for me ahead of time,” Bagent said. “Everything that has happened and will happen was already set in stone to happen. And I think coming from where I come from, I’ve pretty much beat every odd that there was for me. So I’ve got nothing to lose.”
Bears tight end Robert Tonyan applauds that mindset. Tonyan’s NFL entry came in 2017 as an undrafted rookie out of Indiana State, and the first regular-season game he played in was that unforgettable Packers-Bears opener in 2018 at Lambeau Field. He recalls the energy and nerves he had that night and can relate to the situation Bagent finds himself in.
If Tonyan has any wisdom to share with the rookie quarterback, it’s that perseverance can be a powerful professional catalyst.
Listen up, kid.
“A lot of people give in and give up,” Tonyan said. “In this league and in this world in general, sometimes it’s all about who can put their head down and just work harder to last longer without giving up. So wherever you have your eyes set or your goal established, just keep going after it. Put in the work and manifest that vision of success and it’s going to come.”
Tonyan’s belief in Bagent has only grown as they’ve gotten to know each other over the last six months. “We were talking in the sauna almost every day during camp,” Tonyan said. “We have similar stories. And we have talked a lot about taking that different path to get here but also understanding it’s all about what we do with these opportunities.”
Tonyan has come to appreciate Bagent’s natural confidence and the ways he used his preparation habits to strengthen it. Then, on Sunday, Tonyan saw Bagent’s playmaking instincts kick in under pressure. On first down from the Vikings 20-yard line during the Bears’ fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Tonyan was supposed to run an out-and-up route. But when he recognized a blitz, he converted into a short out route into open space near the right sideline, hoping his quarterback would adjust similarly.
Sure enough, facing a six-man pressure, Bagent stood strong in the pocket and, just as he was blasted from behind by linebacker Ivan Pace Jr., fired a strike to Tonyan. Gain of 11.
“Tyson just ripped it,” Tonyan said. “That was good to see. This is a dude who played a lot of ball in college. And regardless of how young he still is, he has confidence in his ability to make those kinds of plays and trust what he sees in a way where he can make quick decisions and find completions and get the ball out in time.”
Those are the types of moments Bears teammates have been taking note of for months now with Bagent. There’s a presence there, running back D’Onta Foreman explained, that guys easily respond to.
“It’s just the way he carries himself,” Foreman said. “His poise and how he goes about business is what I respect. He’s just very confident and passionate — just somebody who expects to go out and play well.”
Now it’s on to Sunday, on to the Raiders, on to an opportunity to continue turning heads for however long starting quarterback Justin Fields is out with his dislocated thumb.
To dismiss the fun folded into this Bagent storyline — regardless of how temporary or long-lasting it turns out to be — is to willfully pass on some of the most-time tested allure in sports with a determined underdog taking on this massive challenge with admirable fearlessness.
Still, just the setup and the efforts alone aren’t enough to guarantee any level of success. Not for a guy trying to master the hardest position in the sport at the highest level under an incomprehensible amount of pressure.
Hanie, don’t forget, turned in an admirable relief performance in the 2010 NFC championship game against the Packers, allowing giddy imaginations in Chicago to run wild. But the next season, after Jay Cutler broke his thumb in late November, the 7-3 Bears became the 7-7 Bears under Hanie’s guidance as the underdog quarterback threw nine interceptions in four losing starts.
By Christmas night of that season, the Bears had moved on to start another underdog backup, Josh McCown, whom they had pulled back into the league from a high school coaching gig in North Carolina.
Now Bagent’s number has come up, offering him the chance to write this next chapter in Bears quarterback history.
On Wednesday, Bagent thought about what it will mean to him to make an NFL start and reflected back to December when he was processing the end of his college career following a Division II playoff loss to the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers. A friend of Bagent’s reminded him that with the astronomical odds of just making the NFL, his days as a starting quarterback might have ended.
“That’s just how the apple falls from the tree sometimes,” Bagent said.
But this chance to start for the Bears against the Raiders? Bagent is ready to give it his best shot.
“To look at where I’m at and see how everything has kind of fallen into place, I have nothing but extreme gratitude and I’m just feeling super blessed to be able to be that kind of motivational role model to the younger people in my family.”
And off we go. All aboard who’s coming aboard, right?
Like sands through the hourglass
On the first play of last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings, Justin Fields did everything right before the snap. He recognized the six defenders at the line of scrimmage and, with the Bears operating out of an empty backfield — with three potential pass catchers to the left and two to the right — Fields made a protection call to have his offensive line block to their right after the snap.
It was basic math. With six defenders potentially rushing and only five Bears blockers, one Viking would be left free. The protection call should have alerted Fields it would be outside linebacker D.J. Wonnum sprinting unblocked from his left, requiring the quarterback to float right after catching the snap and get the ball out quickly to one of his reads in fullback Khari Blasingame or receiver DJ Moore.
There’s been debate across Chicago in the five days since on whether that was the optimal play call against a heavy-pressure defense. (Coordinator Luke Getsy explained Thursday he was hoping to get an early tell on how the Vikings would defend them when they had two backs and one tight end on the field).
Still, there was still a play there for Fields to make had he executed his post-snap responsibilities properly.
Catch snap. Float right. Fire.
Instead, Fields stayed behind center after he took the snap, was slow to get the ball out, took a huge shot from behind from Wonnum and lost 7 yards on a sack.
“He did the hard part,” Getsy said. “He checked the protection. He just didn’t react the right way. When you make the protection check and you know you have the (rusher) free, you’ve got to drift right and throw it.”
That was one of four sacks Fields took on 18 dropbacks against the Vikings. The final one came on the Bears’ first drive of the second half, this time when the Vikings brought six defenders to the line of scrimmage but rushed only three, dropping eight players into coverage to confuse Fields. On that sequence, the pressure wasn’t immediate and Fields — this time following his rules — saw the Vikings drop eight and made his best effort at extending the play in a way that would hopefully open up bigger throwing lanes.
Said Getsy: “When you’re on third down or in the gold zone and people want to drop eight, you have to extend some plays. Because the (throwing) windows are going to be all foggy, right? You have people dropping all over the place. But if you can extend the play now you create huge windows for yourself.”
Perhaps Fields could have taken a deep shot to Darnell Mooney down the middle of the field or ripped one to Moore 13 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. But as he drew the play out, rookie right tackle Darnell Wright didn’t finish his pass blocking duties on Danielle Hunter. Thus Hunter slipped around Wright 4.6 seconds after the snap and hit Fields, who desperately tried to throw the ball away but landed awkwardly on his right hand.
Loss of 5. And perhaps a loss of very valuable time.
Fields dislocated his thumb on that play and now has an indefinite timetable to return. His right hand remains swollen. And while there is no fracture or significant structural damage, the Bears aren’t certain when their starting quarterback will be able to firmly grip a football.
It’s not as much a pain tolerance thing as it is about functional strength. And while it’s a near certainty rookie Tyson Bagent will start Sunday against the Raiders, the Bears need to figure out how quickly Fields can return.
Week 8 in Los Angeles against the Chargers? Perhaps the following Sunday against the New Orleans Saints? Or might his return not come until after the team’s second mini-bye following a Thursday night game against the Carolina Panthers on Nov. 9?
The clock is ticking.
Tick, tick, tick.
Every game Fields misses is a missed opportunity to both further his development and give the Bears a better big-picture understanding of where his growth curve is headed.
Sunday will mark the eighth start since 2021 Fields has missed due to injury or illness. Compare that to his six total victories as an NFL starter and a problematic trend has emerged. The Bears currently have a QB1 who has been more likely to miss a game than win one.
Last week’s clunky performance awas further unnerving, particularly coming after encouraging offensive performances against the Denver Broncos and Washington Commanders. With the entire unit unsettled, Fields managed just six completions and 45 net passing yards with the Bears scoring only six points over the seven possessions he led before being hurt.
That provided additional evidence to the files of a young quarterback whose playmaking brilliance and flashes of potential have too often been overshadowed by his inconsistency and inability to flourish as a passer.
After 31 NFL starts, Fields still isn’t showing a breakthrough with his pocket poise, processing speed or his off-script abilities as a thrower. Now he’s injured again and perhaps facing a decision on how much he should rush to get back for a last-place team that isn’t going anywhere.
But what about Fields? Where is he headed? How will the rest of his season unfold? And how will the long-term direction of the franchise be impacted in an offseason full of crucial decisions?
It’s such an uncomfortable position to be in. For Fields. For the Bears. For a quarterback-scarred city fatigued by all the disappointment it has been forced to endure and still unable to agree on what needs to happen next.
After Sunday, the Bears will still have 10 games remaining, each an opportunity to seek clarity on the quarterback situation. As intriguing as a handful of Bagent starts may be, the Bears’ biggest priority is to have a solid understanding for where Fields’ development is headed. But after 31 starts, there is already a pretty large sample size.
At this point, it’s probably misguided to anticipate Fields eventually performing high-level quarterback duties he has yet to show he can master.
Now, the Bears must wait through another delay, waiting to see how long it will take Fields to get back on the field and then waiting to learn how he’ll function when he does.
Make no mistake, though. The clock is ticking.
Tick, tick, tick, tick, tock.
‘The next level’
Even with the heaviness of another loss, the disappointment of a 1-5 start, the harsh reality that just getting “in the hunt” of the NFL playoff picture is a long shot, safety Jaquan Brisker stood in front of his locker stall Sunday at Soldier Field and felt a tinge of encouragement.
Brisker and the Bears defense had come alive in the 19-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears played with noticeable cohesion. There was an obvious edge. The result was a crisp and relatively clean performance with the Bears allowing only three plays of 15 yards or longer in the game and forcing four three-and-outs on the Vikings’ first five possessions after halftime.
“Every series, it felt like we kept getting more and more swag,” Brisker said. “We have to keep that up.”
For a player as passionate and hungry as Brisker, the loss still triggered a sharp frustration that continues to linger as the team looks ahead to Sunday’s game. But defensively, the Bears also feel like last weekend’s performance provided something to build on.
“That was definitely a positive,” he said. “Now we have to take it to the next level.”
Added linebacker T.J. Edwards: “It was fun out there, man. We played with a confidence and a swagger. That was good to see.”
Don’t get it twisted: No one inside the locker room is feeling cheerful or satisfied about where the team stands. But a strong defensive showing was still noteworthy. Over 11 possessions, the Bears allowed only one touchdown and 12 points. They limited the Vikings to 220 total yards — the fewest allowed by a Bears defense since Week 6 last season — with just 58 of those coming after halftime.
The Vikings failed to convert on 11 of their 13 third-down plays, including all six in the second half while averaging just 2.1 yards per rush for the game.
Bears coach Matt Eberflus was particularly pleased with how his defenders made tackles in space and used sharp vision to break on the underneath throws the Vikings tried to hit throughout the afternoon.
“That’s stuff we worked on,” Eberflus said. “The coaches who I’ve been around have always said, ‘You get what you emphasize.’ We emphasized that a lot last week. The guys played with good energy. The guys knew what to do. They played fast and they played with good fundamentals.”
On top of all that, the team’s second-quarter takeaway was a group effort with Edwards winning his blitz and hitting quarterback Kirk Cousins just as he threw with Tremaine Edmunds diving to snatch the fluttering football on what was officially ruled a Cousins fumble.
“That’s a crazy outcome as far as what they’re calling it,” Edmunds said. “But nah, that was just a big play as far as us collectively being in position to be successful. Now we need more of that.”
The Bears started last weekend’s game with their preferred group of 11 starters intact. And while safety Eddie Jackson, still battling a nagging foot injury, lasted only 14 snaps before exiting, there’s hope the defense can be close to whole with a chance to build meaningful chemistry and momentum.
“Our coaches have been putting guys in positions to make plays,” Edmunds said. “Then our execution of the detail has been to the top (level) and guys are figuring out ways to make plays. That all goes back to how we work through the week. Every time we go out to practice, every time we make our way through a walk-through, we lock in on what the emphasis is. It’s a positive when those things carry over.”
Against the Vikings, the video showed what is possible when a unit is assignment sound and able to take care of the littlest details. “The energy and effort was at a premium last week,” safeties coach Andre Curtis said.
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson was bothered by the 77-yard touchdown drive the Bears allowed just before halftime but felt, beyond that, the defense “played dominating football.”
“We just have to keep building, keep finding ways to come together and stick together, to be aggressive and go out there and have energy,” Johnson said. “Then (we) let our execution drive our energy and continue to keep that juice throughout the game.”