Once left for dead at 2-7, the Chicago Bears have stoked long-shot playoff hopes with three wins in their last four games, including two in a row.
Before they try to make it three straight Sunday in Cleveland, Brad Biggs gauges the playoff scenarios and answers a slew of other questions in his weekly Bears mailbag.
You’ve been pretty transparent with your thoughts on Justin Fields’ future with the Bears. Assuming you are correct and the Bears trade him away (respectfully, I hope they don’t!), what would you anticipate that timeline looking like? Is this a move that would likely take place in March or could it stretch out down to the wire? — Vince R.
I’m not exactly sure what you mean by “the wire,” but I would imagine if they decide to move on from Fields, they would prefer to have a 2024 draft pick in return. That could happen in March after the new league year begins, or it could be a move made during the draft. The timing would depend on a handful of factors, including how many teams might be interested. In this scenario, some teams might have Fields as a Plan B if they can’t get a quarterback they desire in the draft. Some might be considering other veteran options as well. There are a lot of moving parts.
What could a return package for Fields look like? Again, that would depend on a couple of factors, including how many teams are involved. If the Bears can play multiple teams off each other, maybe they could push the price up a little bit. In 2021 the New York Jets traded Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers for three draft picks. (Are you sensing a trend here? The Panthers make bad trades.) The Jets got a sixth-round pick in 2021 and second- and fourth-round picks in 2022. A package similar to that probably would be a best-case scenario for Fields. I don’t believe the Bears would be able to get a first-round pick in return if they opt to trade him, but you never know.
It’s not a given the Bears will move on from Fields, but as you say, I’ve been consistent with my opinion on how this will play out, while also reminding everyone that weekly referendums don’t do a whole lot of good beyond promoting discussion.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah was asked about Fields’ future Sunday before the Bears won, and he framed it this way:
“I use the phrase ‘the confetti test,’” Jeremiah said. “Can you close your eyes and imagine him as a quarterback on the podium with the confetti falling that you’ve just won a world championship? I don’t know that he’s shown you enough to give you that. To me, you look at this draft — and we’ll get into the names over the next few months — but you’ve got a chance to, in my opinion, get better, younger, cheaper at that position and you still possess the fifth pick as of right now as well to address some other needs.”
Lot of talk about the Bears, not long ago 2-7, now being in the playoff hunt? How realistic is this? — Tom F., Elburn
It’s a long shot but it has fueled optimism in the locker room and created some excitement for the fan base, and in mid-December, that’s a very good thing. Thirty of the NFL’s 32 teams remain alive for a playoff spot, which is just what the league hopes for and a result of the expanded 14-team playoff system. The Bears and New York Giants are 5-8, right behind a group of five 6-7 teams for the seventh and final NFC playoff spot. That’s a lot of traffic.
The Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints are 6-7. Tiebreakers get complicated, especially if three or more teams are involved, and with four games remaining, a lot of movement is possible. The way the Bears have been playing, they should have a shot to win all of their remaining games: at the Cleveland Browns, home against the Arizona Cardinals and Falcons and at the Packers. They have head-to-head losses to the Packers and Saints.
According to the New York Times’ interactive playoff simulator, the Bears have an 8% chance to reach the playoffs. A win over the Browns on Sunday would boost their odds to 11%. If the Bears win out and finish 9-8, they have a 62% chance. That’s without setting results for other games, but it shows you they’re still not a shoo-in if they run the table.
If you’re interested in scoreboard watching this week, here are outcomes you need to root for:
Bengals over Vikings
Broncos over Lions
Buccaneers over Packers
Panthers over Falcons
Giants over Saints
Commanders over Rams
Eagles over Seahawks
Let’s say the Bears win their final four games and those seven outcomes occur (the odds on this parlay would be through the roof). In that case the simulator gives the Bears a 98% chance of making the playoffs.
You could get lost in the playoff simulator all day. The bottom line is the Bears need to play quality football for a good stretch. If they can do that, you should feel better about how things set up for 2024 and they’re going to have a shot.
Will Matt Eberflus ever complain about the late hits Justin Fields takes? — @mabdacuma
This is a recurring question after Fields gets contacted by defenders, usually on running plays when he slides. You saw it happen in Sunday’s win over the Lions when linebacker Jack Campbell hit Fields when he was already on the ground. You saw it Monday night in the New York Giants’ win when quarterback Tommy DeVito slid and was hit by a Packers defender. Giants coach Brian Daboll went nuts on the sideline, and it wasn’t hard to read his lips and see language not suitable for publication.
It’s a fine line for officials to determine what is a legal hit and what crosses the line, and fans want to see a honked-off coach when a hit is questionable. I get it. That’s not necessarily Eberflus’ style, and he’s not the kind of guy who wants to rail on officiating to reporters and put himself in jeopardy of being fined by the league. I can’t blame him in that regard.
I can promise you Eberflus is doing two things that are more meaningful than ripping officiating to the press. First, he and his staff are working officials before games. This is standard protocol. “Hey, we’ve seen No. 53 with some questionable hits on quarterbacks the last few weeks. Be on the lookout for that.” Coaches are constantly working officials for calls, and this begins pregame with stuff they’ve seen in scouting. “Hey, our QB has taken some hits lately that have crossed the line. I need to make sure he’s protected today.”
Second, Eberflus is reaching out to the league office weekly when he thinks a call was missed. That can be educational. Sometimes the league admits a call was missed. Sometimes the league explains why a flag wasn’t thrown. Either way, the Bears get a detailed response explaining how the play was evaluated upon review.
“I’m always in their ear about that because protecting the quarterbacks in this league is big,” Eberflus said Monday. “Those guys are the league, so it’s important that we do that and we continue to do that. If you have a guy that’s a runner and he slides down like that, we’ve got to protect him.”
Just because Eberflus isn’t channeling his inner Ditka and providing the kind of sound bite you would hear on sports talk radio for an entire week doesn’t mean he’s not making his displeasure known in more meaningful channels.
Have Darnell Mooney’s agents thrown out a number? Is he a sure free agent and gone after the year? — @hubrogers
Mooney doesn’t have a lot to negotiate off of this season in terms of productive numbers, but I think the Bears believe in him and understand what he is capable of doing with increased opportunities. The Bears need to consider which direction they want to take at wide receiver in the offseason. Do they want to tap into a terrific draft class for receivers?
From Mooney’s standpoint, why eliminate 31 other teams from bidding by talking about a deal with the Bears now? Four regular-season games remain, and then he can wait until March and see what the marketplace looks like. Maybe the Bears would make an offer that’s close to what’s available for him in free agency. But he would be smart to find out, wouldn’t he?
Do you think the Bears might extend Jaylon Johnson and/or Cairo Santos before the end of the season? — @jtbarczak
General manager Ryan Poles seemed to indicate after the trade deadline that Johnson’s camp was intent on playing out the season. Survey the NFL for long enough and you learn never to say never. But I’m not sure what would motivate Johnson to sign a contract now, so close to reaching free agency. Unless he’s offered almost exactly what he wants, why not play out the season and then see if the Bears want to use the franchise or transition tag to keep him?
Overthecap.com estimates the franchise tag for cornerbacks in 2024 will be $18.4 million and the transition tag will be $15.9 million. Most of the time, teams use a tag to create more time and space for negotiations; otherwise, they have a player they want playing on another expiring contract. We’ll have to see if the Bears and Johnson have a big surprise the next few weeks.
I could see the Bears trying to get an extension done with Santos. I think it would take a solid offer because Santos otherwise could explore the marketplace. There’s virtually no chance the Bears would tag him (estimated $5.8 million for the franchise tag and $5.3 million for the transition tag). If they did, I’m betting he would run, not walk, to sign that offer and return it immediately. He’s due a raise as he nears completion of a three-year, $9 million contract.
Given your experience, how surprised are you in the space of a few weeks, in the minds of fans, Matt Eberflus has gone from 100% gone after this season to possibly staying, something fans now may be supporting? — @jpoch1983
It’s a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world we’re in. My guess is some of the loudest who were speaking out against Eberflus when the team was 2-7 after the Nov. 5 loss in New Orleans are some of the loudest now about his possible return for a third season. Some folks just like to yell.
The Bears will make a decision on the future after the completion of two full seasons, and the improved play of late on both sides of the ball gives Eberflus and his staff a chance.
Why are the Bears lately choosing to take the ball if they win the toss instead of the traditional deferring until the second half? Are they trying to play more from the lead earlier so they can stay with their run game longer? — @noah_booty
The Bears elected to receive the opening kickoff the last four times they won the coin toss, and they are 3-1 in those games with an opening-drive touchdown in three of them. Matt Eberflus is going against what has become traditional strategy, as most teams elect to defer when they win the toss, hoping they can score late in the second quarter and then double up with points on the first series of the third quarter to swing momentum.
Why is Eberflus zigging when most teams are zagging? The Bears feel pretty good about how their offense produces with coordinator Luke Getsy’s scripted plays to open the game. They have five touchdowns on their first possession (not necessarily the first series of the game), which is tied for fifth in the league. The San Francisco 49ers are tops with eight, and the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens all have six.
I don’t think it has anything to do with the running game. The idea is they think they can get some early momentum and set the tone. Eberflus deferred the first two times the Bears won the toss this season. The opponent has won the toss in seven games and deferred each time.
Why not keep Justin Fields for $6 million next year and draft a first-round quarterback and let him learn, a la Aaron Rodgers/Jordan Love? Gives Fields one more year (maybe with a new offensive coordinator) and that lets them kick the tires on a new guy in practice and probably in a game or two given Fields’ injury history. — @carlso1
You’re making an apples-to-oranges comparison. What do Fields and Rodgers have in common besides the fact both play quarterback? Rodgers is a four-time MVP who will be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection. The Packers were trying to plot a future after Rodgers when they saw a quarterback they really liked fall into the back of the first round in 2020.
The Bears would be selecting a quarterback at or near the top of the first round because they don’t believe Fields is their guy for the long haul. The Packers felt like they had the luxury of grabbing a quarterback and continuing to win with Rodgers when some thought they should have selected a player who could help them immediately.
Any chance they’d bring in a new punter? When watching games, it’s remarkable to see the talent-level difference between opposing punters and Trenton Gill. Starting field position matters and it would be great if they could get someone more consistent. Odds they add one this offseason? — @shootermcconlon
The Bears have struggled in the punting game this season, and Gill ranks last in the league among qualifiers with a net average of 35.2 yards — 2.6 yards worse than 31st-place Sam Martin of the Buffalo Bills. That’s not all on Gill — it’s an 11-man operation — and the coverage unit has had too many breakdowns. But he’s a big part of the equation and it’s certainly something the team will want to look at in the offseason.
Gill’s gross average is 45.5 yards, tied for 25th. As a rookie last year he had a better season with a 40.3 net average, which tied for 25th. Soldier Field is one of the toughest stadiums in the league for punters, and it would be hard for the Bears to have a punter in the top third of the league with half of their home games along the lakefront.
Gill is young and can improve, but I’d have to guess they want to provide him some legitimate competition in the offseason, which they didn’t do last spring.