A peculiar loss brings more concern — but a little optimism too: Brad Biggs’ 10 thoughts on the Chicago Bears

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10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears’ peculiar 24-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Caesars Superdome, with reasons for concern — and a little optimism as well.

It’s really difficult to turn the ball over five times, not get a single takeaway and wind up with not one, not two, not three, not four but five fourth-quarter possessions with an opportunity to go ahead or tie.

1. Usually when you wind up minus-5 in turnovers, the game is a total blowout.

Turn off the television in the third quarter, head outside and rake leaves this time of year. That’s typically been the case for the Bears, who last committed five giveaways in the 38-3 loss at Tampa Bay back in Week 7 of the 2021 season. As you might recall, they trailed 35-3 at halftime in a complete blowout at Raymond James Stadium. The Bears did manage a takeaway so they were only minus-4 that day against the Bucs. The last time they were minus-5, as they were Sunday, was a 41-21 loss to Washington on Dec. 24, 2016, when Matt Barkley was picked off five times.

There was a 31-7 loss at Baltimore right after a blizzard on Dec. 20, 2009. The Bears were crushed 26-7 by the Green Bay Packers on Dec. 31, 2006, but that season-ender had no bearing on the postseason. In Week 3 of the 2005 season, they lost 24-7 to the Cincinnati Bengals when they were minus-5 in turnovers. That’s it for such instances since 2000.

The crazier thing is the Bears managed to win when they were minus-5 against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 4, 1998, at Soldier Field. Talk about bizarre. Quarterback Erik Kramer lost two fumbles, one botched snap was assigned to center Casey Wiegmann, and running back Edgar Bennett and tight end Alonzo Mayes each lost a fumble. But the Bears scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally for a most improbable 31-27 victory.

Improbable didn’t happen against the Saints and the Bears are 1-13 in the Super Bowl era when they wind up minus-5 in turnovers. Rookie quarterback Tyson Bagent, who was pretty sharp through the first three quarters, and the offense had chance after chance in the fourth quarter to no avail. The Saints ran 22 offensive plays in the final 15 minutes — all on the Bears’ side of the field — but scored only seven points, allowing the visitors to hang around.

The defense stuffed New Orleans’ Derek Carr on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak with nose tackle Andrew Billings and linebacker T.J. Edwards making the stop. The unit forced a three-and-punt. Kicker Blake Grupe bounced a 47-yard field goal off the left upright after the defense had another stand without allowing a first down.

The Bears started at their own 9, 25, 17 and 2-yard lines on their first four possessions in the fourth quarter. After Grupe missed a kick that would have effectively iced the game, they took over on their own 37 with 2:26 remaining and trailing by seven. They were out of timeouts. They had a shot and the offense had come up with some big plays.

Darnell Wright was called for holding on first down. Bagent was pressured by Cam Jordan into an incompletion and then linebacker Demario Davis, running a twist with defensive end Carl Granderson on the left side of the line, came free and hit the quarterback from behind, jarring the ball loose for the fifth New Orleans takeaway and effectively ending the game.

An offense that piled up 250 yards in the first half with drives of nine, seven, six and 13 plays managed only 118 yards in the second half. The Bears ran for 106 yards in the first half. They got 50 in the second. D’Onta Foreman carried 20 times for 83 yards and Bagent showed he’s plenty mobile with 70 yards on eight carries. It felt like the Saints tightened up on the edge a little bit to stop the run in the third quarter but it wasn’t like New Orleans made big changes.

“Halftime adjustments are over-freaking rated,” Saints coach Dennis Allen said. “All right? Stop. OK? Play better. Coach better. Execute. Do your job. That is what it is about. OK? So that’s what the communication was at halftime. We did not come in there and just change the whole frickin’ game plan.”

The Saints intercepted Bagent three times, enough to torpedo his day. Bagent finished 18 of 30 for 220 yards and had two touchdown passes to tight end Cole Kmet. I thought cornerback Paulson Adebo made two really nice plays for his interceptions. He was instinctive and the ball probably came out a touch late each time. Bagent was going through his progressions and was just a little behind. It can’t happen. On safety Marcus Maye’s interception, Bagent threw the ball just behind Tyler Scott. There wasn’t a lot of margin for error against the Saints.

“I thought that our team played extremely well, which is why it’s so embarrassing,” Bagent said. “Just because it’s (a) one-score game (and) to lose the turnover battle by that amount, it’s embarrassing. It’s part of the game. I am just looking forward to building and learning from this experience.”

It wasn’t just ball security. The Bears were penalized eight times for 71 yards while the Saints had only one penalty for 5 yards. More on the penalty issue a little later on. Add this all up and it’s hard to come away with confirmation that the NFC South is pretty lousy. The Saints had all of these edges and were just able to hang on against a Bears team that is now 2-7. New Orleans leads its division with a 5-4 record. The Bears host the Carolina Panthers (1-7) on Thursday and get a shot at the Atlanta Falcons next month.

“This is evidence that we are very close,” coach Matt Eberflus said. “Being minus-5 in the turnover margin, to keep it that close, the ability for us to show our style. Our style is to run the football, stop the run, be physical. We just gotta get the ball right.”

I’m skeptical the Bears are close to anything you’d aspire to be near right now. This is the fifth time since 1982 that they have started 2-7 (or worse). It was a competitive game and Eberflus’ team doesn’t have room for this many errors, especially the self-inflicted ones. Yes, the Bears are playing hard for Eberflus but it’s not just a try-hard league.

“We execute a little better and be a little more disciplined, I think that game looks almost damn near a blowout on our part,” left tackle Braxton Jones said. “It is what it is. Fix those problems. I need to talk about myself first but I think we can say that as a team.”

The offense mustered only one first down on the final five possessions. The Bears had 19 first downs on their first six series.

“We came kind of to a screaming halt there,” tight end Cole Kmet said. “Defense did a good job but we have to be able to get out of that situation and be able to go get some points there.”

2. It’s a short week for the Bears — the second consecutive month they will play on a Thursday.

A lot of focus will be on whether quarterback Justin Fields can return from his dislocated right thumb to start against the Carolina Panthers.

Fields returned to practice for the first time Friday and was limited. The Bears will have walk-throughs Monday and Tuesday before a short practice on Wednesday. Enough time for Fields to spin the ball and prove to himself and the coaching staff he’s got the grip strength required to play?

“He’s day to day,” Matt Eberflus said. “We’ll find out more (Monday). We’ll see where it is. He started throwing, which is a positive, and we’ll see where it is in terms of his functionality.”

Eberflus has effectively ruled Fields out on Mondays since the injury but perhaps there is a better-than-decent chance the Bears will let the situation play out this week. I thought Tyson Bagent was pretty good in the first half against the Saints. Yes, he was late coming back to the right side for tight end Cole Kmet on his first interception but it was a nice play by Paulson Adebo.

Bagent is able to get through his progressions effectively. There were some plays in the last couple of weeks where he probably needed to be a little more patient. But the ball is coming out quickly and he took only two sacks. Reducing negative plays has helped the offense. Bagent has five sacks and 110 pass attempts. Fields has been sacked 24 times with 162 passes. But the turnovers were a killer for Bagent.

“We did a good job of controlling the game, managing the play clock, especially with the atmosphere that they always tell you about when you come here to play the Saints,” Bagent said. “I thought that we managed that well. I thought that we took advantage of a lot of things. Really, it just all comes down to myself in that last quarter, being able to do a better job of taking care of the ball better. Coach talks about it every single day, how important it is to take care of the ball. I didn’t do a good job of that. So, that’s basically just me there in that last quarter.”

Eberflus said the way Bagent has handled the operation — from the huddle to the line of scrimmage — has been impressive. The team feels like there’s something to build on here whether Bagent starts for a fourth week against Carolina or is back to a reserve role.

“For a guy to come in there as a rookie like that was pretty impressive when you think about it,” Eberflus said. “He’s had really good moments in the starts he’s had. He’s going to build off that. The most important thing Tyson can do now is to learn from his performance and get better.

“Look at those plays where he needs to improve and also look at the good plays. There are a lot of good plays out there he had in the first half, third quarter. He’s got to build off those things.”

It’s a cool story how Bagent has developed, and I have a little more on a way he found to put in some extra work since the season started, but the Bears have been clear all along it’s Fields’ job when he’s healthy. Maybe that would have shifted had they gone 2-1 with Bagent. But they beat the Las Vegas Raiders and have dropped the last two road games and Fields will be back soon, maybe even on Thursday.

“The experience factor,” Eberflus said when citing what Fields brings. “Him playing all those games. He’s operated in this offense. He’s had some good weeks prior to this in the Washington game. He’s had some good weeks this year. We’re excited to get him back when he comes back. The QB runs are viable there too, the perimeter’s getting under attack more. That’s what he brings.”

3. At first glance, the defense is better with Montez Sweat.

There aren’t any numbers that are going to jump out and the Bears went without a sack, getting only two quarterback hits — one by linebacker T.J. Edwards on a blitz and another by tackle Justin Jones. Sweat had two solo tackles and was credited with a pass deflection when it looked like he got the arm of Derek Carr. Was it great? No, but Sweat is going to help the Bears and they threw him right into the mix.

By my count from the press box — and it’s almost like you’re seated on the roof of the Superdome so the view isn’t great — Sweat was on the field for 40 snaps, including plays with penalties. The Saints ran a total of 62 plays. He lined up at left end 37 times and was at right end three times, which follows basically what he was doing in Washington. I had Yannick Ngakoue for 40 snaps as well — 38 at right end and two on the left side. DeMarcus Walker got 41 snaps — 16 at left end, 16 inside at tackle and nine at right end. Finally, Rasheem Green had 13 snaps at right end and five at left end. Again, this is unofficial and includes plays with penalties.

Matt Eberflus said the plan was to play Sweat on third downs and in the red zone and mix him in otherwise.

“He looked good,” Eberflus said. “I thought he had a couple good pressures. He’s getting his feet wet. Different style of defense a little bit. Different terminology. For him to come in here and play that many plays, it was cool.”

Sweat said trying to pick up a new defense on the fly has been challenging. He’s got to get the calls down so he can play off teammates. He’s been immersed in the playbook while also finalizing the $98 million, four-year extension his agents completed when Sweat was on the practice field Saturday morning at Halas Hall before the team departed for the airport. Talk about some kind of week.

“It’s security,” Sweat said of the contract. “But, I mean, it also creates more (expectations) … for me to get it done.

“If I get an injury, I know I am protected. That’s not really what I am worried about. I’m worried about getting dubs and getting pressure. I don’t take any moral victories or anything like that. The point is I didn’t get (Carr) down.”

I placed calls to a couple of former Commanders employees to get a handle on Sweat and what they thought he’d provide for the Bears. Donnie Warren retired as a pro scout in June 2022, so he was there for the early stages of Sweat’s career.

“He’s as good of a run player as he is rushing the passer,” Warren said. “Chicago got the best of the football players (Washington traded, alluding to the other defensive end Chase Young). Montez is an all-out guy. His get off, his length, he’s got long arms, he’s got long legs. He has been taught well to use his hands in the run game and keep people off him. I like him.”

Former Bears offensive line coach Pete Hoener finished his coaching career under Ron Rivera in Washington, retiring following the 2021 season. Hoener was also there to watch Sweat develop and he knows edge defenders when he sees them.

“Unreal athletic ability,” Hoener said. “He practiced hard. Played hard. Had a good motor. Seemed to be a tough guy. His biggest attribute is his athletic ability. He’s got all the tools now.”

Sweat was playing alongside three other first-round picks in Washington. The Bears don’t have that kind of talent assembled upfront yet but they are hopeful things will improve in the weeks ahead.

“Once I get more comfortable and once I start knowing the plays, I can play faster,” Sweat said.

He might help Ngakoue out too, if it means more one-on-one opportunities for the veteran. The Bears simply have not won enough solo matchups on the line this season.

“I feel like it will help the defense tremendously, a guy that has a big presence,” Ngakoue said. “A guy that can really come off the edge. We’ve got a quick turnaround. Today was a great day to get his feet wet … I saw some good things out there that we can take away from the loss. A loss is a loss but as a group we had some good rushes.”

We’ll see if the Bears primarily keep Sweat on the left side. In 387 snaps in Washington this season, he was on the left edge for all but 24. There were 22 snaps on the right edge and two inside at tackle.

4. Jaylon Johnson didn’t have quite the eventful week Montez Sweat did but, well, there was a lot going on.

The cornerback requested permission to seek a trade after the prime-time loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. He admitted he didn’t think he’d remain with the team.

The Bears wound up not getting an offer general manager Ryan Poles felt would help him adequately replace his best cornerback in the near future so no deal was made. Johnson was transparent about his emotions during a media session — he’s always been pretty revealing — and said he didn’t want to see newcomer Montez Sweat get paid before him.

Of course, that happened Saturday with the Bears ensuring Sweat wasn’t a half-season rental for a second-round draft pick.

“From a business side, it is what it is,” Johnson told the Tribune after the Saints game. “From a personal side, I’m happy for him. It was going to come at some point. Him being my teammate, I am definitely happy for that. That’s the goal. That’s a life-changing deal for him, so happy for that indeed.”

Johnson isn’t going to chase $24.5 million per season like Sweat got, but he’s played very well and should be in line for a lucrative extension.

“We’re gonna see where it goes, man,” Johnson said. “We’re gonna see what happens.”

The interesting thing here, and it’s real and cannot be overlooked, is Johnson has injury risk every time he steps on the field the rest of this season. He intimated this past week he wants to shelve contract discussions until after the season. Could that change? I don’t have any idea. The late Eugene Parker, a longtime successful agent, used to tell me that stalled negotiations could be resolved in less than five minutes. That’s all it took for a breakthrough in Parker’s mind. Will there be a breakthrough here? Again, no clue. But with each game and practice, there is an element of risk for Johnson.

“There ain’t no risk,” Johnson said. “I am just playing ball. Doing what I’ve always done since I was 8 years old. Of course, you always have a risk. That’s what comes with the game. Just continue to do my job at a high level. That’s the only thing I can handle right now.”

I asked Johnson if he spent time over the summer weighing all of the factors required to make the decision to bet on himself. It’s the kind of thing that can turn some players into nervous wrecks. There’s a ton at stake for players and human nature can take control sometimes.

“It ain’t even a bet,” Johnson said. “It’s just faith that God is going to take care of it. He ain’t failed me in 24 years. I am going to continue to bet on him. He’s 100% in putting me in a position I need to be put in. Nothing is going to change for me.”

5. Braxton Jones’ performance will be part of the Bears’ draft equation.

There might not be a player on the roster who can influence the direction the Bears take with their two first-round draft picks by how he plays over the remaining eight games like left tackle Braxton Jones. Some may counter with quarterback Justin Fields, but I’m of the opinion Jones’ performance over the second half of the season will have the most significant impact on draft plans. Does that mean it’s up to Jones whether or not the Bears choose a left tackle? No, but his play will be a part of the discussion and equation.

I don’t want to overstate the situation for Jones, who was activated from injured reserve on Saturday and started Sunday for the first time since Week 2, but he’s got a ton at stake with the Bears set to have options in Round 1.

Jones missed the previous six games with a neck injury. Fortunately, he didn’t require surgery and rest and some rehabilitation got him in position to face the Saints. He started and by my count, he was on the field for 48 of the offense’s 64 plays with Larry Borom spelling him on four series — three in the fourth quarter.

“I would probably say pretty close,” Jones said when asked if his neck was 100%. “It’s more about getting my feet back under me, to be honest. It’s been a long time since I’ve been out there and I felt good in terms of my injury and stuff like that. When I got tired, I started making mistakes. Other than that, felt good. It’s nice to be back out there. Just have to clean up those mistakes.”

The Bears had reasons for optimism and questions about Jones, a fifth-round draft pick last year from Southern Utah, entering the season. It’s not rare to see a late-round pick start on the offensive line in his first season. It is quite unusual for it to happen for a left tackle. Some key questions that still need to be answered: Where is his floor after a second season? Where is his ceiling? How much did he gain in his second season, which often provides the biggest jump a player will get in his career?

Jones worked hard in the offseason to strengthen his base and prepare to handle power with more tenacity. Technically, he’s made advances from a year ago when things were moving quickly. Remember, Jones had a rough go in the first two games, maybe in part because of the injury. He was called for three holding penalties (one was declined) and three false starts. He got called for a holding penalty Sunday — it was declined as the Saints accepted a hold against center Lucas Patrick on the same snap. There was a false start by Jones on the next play too.

The Bears need to feel really good about Jones by the end of the season or be prepared to consider options. There are a couple of intriguing targets projected to be available near the top of Round 1 in Penn State’s Olu Fashanu and Notre Dame’s Joe Alt. It wasn’t a great draft for left tackles this year but 2024 looks like it will offer a few more options.

“He’s maturing as a player,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said of Jones. “He’s maturing physically. I think those two things stand out. His stoutness and then his conceptual ability. He was kind of raw last year and now he gets it. He’s a smart guy. He’s a thinker so those things stand out the most.”

Keep an eye on Jones with eight games remaining. He has a lot to prove.

6. Three weeks ago when Tyson Bagent was stepping in for Justin Fields, he was asked what his life plan was if a shot in the NFL had not materialized.

I was going to basically just CrossFit my life away,” the undrafted rookie said. “Just get as ripped and jacked as I possibly could, and be a teacher at Martinsburg High School.”

His father Travis, a renowned arm wrestling champion, owns a CrossFit gym that Tyson grew up in when he wasn’t playing sports or in school. It’s that worker mentality that drove Bagent to seek a practice outlet on Tuesdays before he stepped in for Fields.

In a normal week for a Sunday game,Tuesday is a day off for the players and a planning day for the coaching staff. But when the season started Bagent felt like there was work he could put in to be better prepared.

So Bagent developed a plan that left some folks at Halas Hall marveling. He recruited four or five assistants from the equipment room each Tuesday and outfitted them in practice jerseys so he could use footballs with sensors in them to track the velocity of his throws. For the trackers in the footballs to work, Bagent and the targets had to have jerseys with the technology in them.

Armed with the game plan from the previous week, which contains a lot of concepts that are rolled over from one week to the next, and after setting up some barrels on the field, Bagent would rip through the entire plan, snap after snap, read after read, throw after throw.

“That was a big routine of mine when I wasn’t starting because I wasn’t getting in a lot of throws (in practice),” Bagent said. “I’d get the calls for the lengthiest plays from that previous week. I would call that out, tell them to spot up in a certain position and then just go through my progression and the ball speed would be tracked on every throw.”

Bagent uses footballs with sensors to ensure he is making throws with the precision that would be required in a game. He doesn’t want to throw change-ups just because he is working with non-NFL receivers — no slight intended to the staffers.

“A lot of times, whatever the concept was, I would have them stand at wherever the third or fourth progression was. So, I’m like, ‘Bang, bang, bang,’” he said.

The ball was out and it was on to the next play or concept.

“My whole life has been like that,” Bagent said. “Whenever I don’t get to work out, I start getting stressed out if I’m not sweating or something. That was a good way for me to stay up to speed with everything.”

The workouts lasted about 90 minutes. It was basically a hybrid version of what offensive coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko have the No. 2 quarterback do after practices Wednesday through Friday in a normal game week. They have the call sheet from all of the throws the starter has made that day and with some backup receivers, they run through the entire script after practice has ended.

“It’s the mental gymnastics of helping those throws and concepts become muscle memory,” Getsy said. “It’s visualization and understanding where everyone is supposed to be. Now, you’re working on your footwork. ‘Hey, line up just outside the hash about 7 yards, you line up there.’ Just that process and going through it gives you a better understanding.”

Bagent didn’t need the extra Tuesday sessions the last three weeks when he was getting No. 1 reps in practice. With Fields returning to practice Friday for the first time since suffering a dislocated right thumb on Oct. 15, Bagent could be back in the reserve role soon, perhaps even this week.

“And as soon as Justin comes back,” he said. “I’ll be back out there on Tuesdays.”

7. Why don’t the Bears have Jaylon Johnson shadow the opponent’s best wide receiver more regularly?

I receive this question from time to time from readers who wonder why the team’s top cornerback doesn’t do this. It’s something that has happened rarely over the last several seasons, extending back to when Sean Desai and previously Vic Fangio were directing the defense.

There isn’t an obvious matchup every week but a few stand out this season where it would have been a good question, like Las Vegas (Davante Adams) in Week 7. Cornerbacks coach/passing game coordinator Jon Hoke gave a pretty good answer when asked this week and I think it’s pretty instructive.

“That happened a lot more back when nobody motioned,” Hoke said. “Because all they have to do is put him over here and motion him over there. If you’re an offensive guy and all of a sudden (the cornerback) is running with that guy, does that tell you what the coverage is? It tells me, (they’re) in man (coverage), right?

“Back in the day, you always had the big X and the Z. Well, now they’ll take that big X — Mike Evans (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) for an example. They’ll put him in the slot. Not all corners play inside. OK, I’m gonna shadow him? So what coverage does that put me in? They’re in zone. So it used to be (more of) a thing. If you’re a man-based team and you know that and that doesn’t bother you, then you would do that more. But when you’re trying to be multiple and play both, it becomes a little bit more challenging. And I would say it’s worked out for us so far. We have our growing pains, obviously. But I don’t see it as a big factor. Valid point, though.”

Hoke is pointing out the Bears try to use multiple coverages. They mix in more man coverage than people think and they’ve been leaning on man more on third down. They like to rotate their safeties and disguise coverages that way and if a cornerback is traveling with a wide receiver, it’s a dead giveaway to the opposing quarterback what the coverage is going to be and that can be advantageous for offenses.

The Bears have done a fair bit of flipping sides with Johnson and Tyrique Stevenson, so they are mixing it up from time to time. Through the first eight games, Johnson was lined up as the left cornerback on 192 snaps and on the right side for 147 snaps. It’s an interesting split and as best I can tell what the coaches are doing is aligning Johnson to the field in most situations with Stevenson playing to the boundary side. In other words, Johnson has more space to cover when the opponent is on the left hashmark and he plays on the opposite side. So, he is moving around and it’s not static all the time. Figured this would be of interest to some.

8. One of these days, football folks might wipe the word ‘culture’ from their vocabulary.

It only serves to create headlines for teams mired in losing ways as they attempt — with a mixture of word salad and corporate jargon — to explain their way through things.

Bears coach Matt Eberflus was caught in that predicament Wednesday when asked about the dismissal of running backs coach David Walker for workplace conduct issues, two months after defensive coordinator Alan Williams resigned following personal conduct matters. Eberflus has invoked the word ”culture” over the last two years so he’s got himself to blame here.

“The culture in our building is outstanding,” Eberflus declared.

He also referred to the culture as “awesome,” pointing to strong relationships that have been fostered with the players and citing the accountability in place — when people don’t meet the standards (like Walker), they’re no longer members of the team. I’m sure Eberflus believes this in his heart of hearts.

The problem with trumpeting a team’s culture when the team’s record — 2-6 at the time — doesn’t reflect expected progress and bad losses have piled up (the Bears have lost eight games by 17 points or more since the start of last season), it comes across as disingenuous or even preposterous. The NFL doesn’t hand out culture trophies. There are no standings for culture. Former GM Jerry Angelo used to say you didn’t have to fill a roster with choir boys but football character was paramount.

It’s hard to believe the culture is as fantastic as Eberflus described when two of his assistants have exited for non-football-related issues in six weeks’ time.

It also sounded an awful lot like former Washington Commanders president Bruce Allen, the guy who occasionally stood up and took darts from the media and fans for owner Daniel Snyder, who cited the C-word back in 2019 after Washington fell to 0-5 and fired coach Jay Gruden. Allen pushed back on the idea Washington had a losing culture after having lost 11 of 12 games dating back to the previous season when quarterback Alex Smith suffered a broken leg.

“You know,” Allen said, “the culture is actually damn good.”

There were burgundy and gold T-shirts with the slogan in a matter of days. The team’s “culture” became a punchline.

A year later, Bears president Ted Phillips invoked the C-word when defending the state and direction of the franchise.

“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” he said. “Have we won enough games? No. But everything else is there.

“We have a solid football foundation. We have a solid football culture.”

In an effort to be solution-oriented here, I’d recommend attempting to steer clear of the C-word when losses are piling up. It’s a lose/lose proposition when you pump up the culture but the record is going in the wrong direction. Instead, use the A-word, ”accountability.” Discuss how every member of the organization — from players to coaches, front office members, assistant equipment folks and everyone in between — has a standard they must meet in their position. When everyone does their part, it raises the level of the organization. Ultimately, I think accountability and performance are what we’re talking about here. It’s just when the C-word starts getting thrown around and the record looks lousy (and coaches have departed), it looks bad and it sounds worse.

9. The significance of Thursday’s meeting with the Carolina Panthers for tracking the No. 1 draft pick cannot be overstated for the Bears.

The Panthers rallied to beat the Houston Texans 15-13 last week to get their first victory of the season but couldn’t sustain any momentum, losing to the Indianapolis Colts 27-13 on Sunday.

Carolina and the Arizona Cardinals are the only teams in the league with only one win. The Cardinals could potentially play their way out of the top pick with a few wins in the second half of the season as Kyler Murray is expected to return from a torn ACL soon, perhaps this coming week against the Atlanta Falcons. Arizona can’t roll rookie Clayton Tune out as the starter again. He got his chance Sunday at Cleveland and was a disaster in a 27-0 loss to the Browns. The Cardinals mustered only 58 yards on offense. Tune had three turnovers and Arizona had seven first downs.

The Panthers have a relatively easy schedule for the remainder of the season. They have only three games against teams that currently have a winning record — one of them being the Saints, a real average bunch as we saw. If the Bears can pin a loss on Carolina, it will leave them 1-8 with eight games to play. Carolina hosts Dallas in Week 10 and then plays three consecutive road games at Tennessee, Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

Let’s look at the teams in the mix for the top draft pick:

The one-win teams

Cardinals (1-8)

Next: Atlanta, Sunday

The path to No. 1: The Cardinals have lost six consecutive games, scoring 10 points or less in three of the last four games. I think Murray can spark this team a little bit, which could make a difference if coach Jonathan Gannon can get the Cardinals to play as feisty as they were at the start of the season. The Dec. 24 game against the Bears at Soldier Field could have big draft implications.

Panthers (1-7)

Next: at Bears, Thursday

The path to No. 1: Let’s look at this week. Carolina lost a couple of key defensive players to concussions in Sunday’s loss to the Colts. Edge rusher Brian Burns and cornerback C.J. Henderson both went out and on a short week with a road trip, it might be hard for either one to be cleared from protocol in time to play. Quarterback Bryce Young continues to pile up too many negative plays. Indianapolis intercepted him three times and he lost 36 yards on four sacks.

The two-win clubs

(in order of strength of schedule for all 17 opponents from Tankathon)

Bears (2-7)

Of the eight remaining games, the Bears have only two against teams that are currently above .500. Those are the two NFC North meetings with the Detroit Lions. It’s about as soft a schedule as you can imagine in the second half.

New York Giants (2-7)

Big Blue is going to be a factor down the stretch. Daniel Jones is reported to have suffered a potentially serious knee injury. The backup quarterback is Tommy DeVito with Tyrod Taylor on injured reserve. A year after paying Danny Dimes, the Giants could be drafting a quarterback and moving on.

New England Patriots (2-7)

Let’s see what shakes out the next three weeks. The Patriots host the Colts, have a bye and then play at the Giants. The schedule is challenging in December. Could New England have three or maybe even four wins soon?

If draft order was based on the current standings, the Bears would be picking No. 2 and No. 3.

10. Cornerback Jaylon Johnson is the obvious candidate for a player on an expiring contract the Bears need to work on re-signing.

Let me present one more option that might be a good idea for a new deal: kicker Cairo Santos.

The veteran is in the final season of a $9 million, three-year contract and the Bears will risk losing him in free agency if he’s not extended. That is unless they consider the franchise or transition tag for him, which seems unlikely. The franchise tag for kickers was nearly $5.4 million this season. Again, I don’t see them tagging Santos.

Santos was 1 for 2 on Sunday, hitting the right upright from 40 yards, his first miss of the season, and connecting from 31 yards. Entering Week 9, he was one of four kickers to be 100% on field goals.

Santos, who turns 32 on Sunday, is 89-98 on field goals (90.8%) since the start of the 2020 season. He’s a perfect 52-52 inside of 40 yards in that span. While it might be tempting to consider an option with a stronger leg, Santos has mastered the art of kicking in the conditions at Soldier Field and has shown the ability to adjust when needed as he did last season when he encountered a rough spot on extra points. Bring in a new kicker and hold your breath the first time he has to perform in swirling winds along the lakefront.

The Bears got a modest contract extension done with nose tackle Andrew Billings ($8.5 million, two seasons) and this would be another low-dollar investment that could knock off what would otherwise be an offseason need. Thirteen kickers have an annual average that exceeds Santos’ $3 million and he has certainly performed well enough to deserve a raise. A two-year deal for Santos would seem to make good sense the way he’s kicking.

10a. One of the areas the Bears were really good in last season was with penalties. It hasn’t been as clean this season and at the midpoint it’s got to irritate the coaches a little. Entering Week 9, the Bears had been called for 52 penalties, tied for eighth-most in the league with the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants. The Bears were seventh in yardage marked off against them with 439.

They were called for eight penalties for 71 yards against the Saints. New Orleans had just one infraction for 5 yards.

More glaring? Entering Week 9, the Bears were the beneficiaries of only 36 penalties, tied for 30th-fewest in the league. Only the Cincinnati Bengals (who only played seven games through the first eight weeks) had fewer with 31.

Add it up and the Bears are minus-209 yards in penalties. That’s been too much to overcome at times. No question.

10b. It’s only fair to ask the Bears about not choosing Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud. The Houston Texans rookie has been hot and he was sensational on Sunday rallying his team to a 39-37 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Bears faced the Bucs back in Week 2. Solid defense. Nothing spectacular but solid. Stroud completed 30 of 42 passes for 470 yards and five touchdowns. No picks. He’s the single biggest reason an awful roster from a year ago is now 4-4 and with hope for the future.

10c. I would be remiss if I ended this without pointing out a couple of really nice routes by tight end Cole Kmet for his touchdowns. It was a leak concept in the first one. He released away from the bootleg action by Tyson Bagent and then turned upfield. Great catch with safety Tyrann Mathieu in excellent coverage position. Kmet sold run action against linebacker Zack Baun — he really did — and got wide open for his second touchdown. He’s got five touchdowns for the season and 12 over his last 19 games. Not bad.

10d. A 15-yard face mask penalty against Velus Jones Jr. on special teams and then an incomplete pass — Jones had the ball ripped out of his grasp before he could make a football move — that was nearly a fumble. It was another rough game for the second-year player. I don’t know what the team is going to do in order to boost his confidence. If he keeps making errors, he’s going to run out of opportunities. We’ll see if rookie Tyler Scott is returning kickoffs this week. Something needs to happen with Jones.

10e. At the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas, the Bears opened as a 3-point favorite over the Carolina Panthers for Thursday night’s game at Soldier Field.


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