GREEN BAY — Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles left his seat in the Lambeau Field press box at 5:58 p.m. Sunday, in the final minutes of his team’s season finale, in the height of the emotions that came from an intense game against the rival Green Bay Packers.
Poles stood up immediately after Aaron Jones’ win-sealing 10-yard run with 1:52 to play. The Bears GM didn’t say anything, didn’t make an expression, just grabbed his work bag and sauntered out.
Poles was on his way to the Bears locker room, stuck in the aggravation of his team’s 10th loss, this one a gutting 17-9 defeat that sent the Packers into the playoffs while pushing the Bears into a multi-stage period of upcoming reflection and evaluation.
First, though, Poles was on his way to survey the immediate mood of players and coaches, trekking through the stadium concourse on a chilly January night only made colder by the chant-filled celebration the locals were having for their team’s triumph.
Most significantly, Poles was on his way toward an offseason that will test his nerve and decision-making skills as they have never been tested before.
This is his stage now, his opportunity to define what matters most for the Bears, to clearly define his expectations and establish whether he’s intent on raising the bar. (And, if so, by how much.)
We all know what’s coming, starting first with the organization’s critical decision on what to do with coach Matt Eberflus and his staff. That assessment, which may take days to finish, will be followed in the coming weeks and months by what promises to be a landmark test of the team’s quarterback evaluation skills.
Poles, though, first has to process Sunday’s defeat for all its disappointment and ugliness, a loss that proved once again the current Bears just aren’t good enough yet. Not to consistently win big-moment games against quality opponents. They are now 2-12 over the past two seasons against teams that reached the postseason, including this year’s 1-6 mark.
Sure, the Bears closed the gap this season. But there is still an obvious gap.
How else do you explain them being outgained 432-192 on Sunday, a staggering discrepancy that looked every bit as jarring as the final numbers?
Quarterback Justin Fields? His final start of the season ended with just 11 completions and 148 passing yards in a three-field goal performance that left a lot to be desired. By contrast, Packers quarterback Jordan Love turned in a 316-yard passing effort, fired two touchdown passes to Dontayvion Wicks and finished the regular season with 4,159 passing yards and 32 TDs, numbers that would be single-season franchise records at Halas Hall.
Whoa, right? Isn’t that what it’s supposed to look like? In the first season following Aaron Rodgers’ exit, Love and the Packers still grinded out a winning record and earned the No. 7 seed for the NFC playoffs. (So much for the notion that rebooting at quarterback is a harbinger of failure.)
So what happens next for Poles as he lets all of this sink in while receiving feedback and direction from team president and CEO Kevin Warren? Will he continue to endorse Eberflus as a steadying leader and the right commander to propel the Bears to a run of success that hopefully eventually includes championships? Or will there be a temptation to explore other options, to possibly replace “good enough” with “much better”?
Eberflus said Sunday evening he was planning to sit side by side with Poles all day Monday at Halas Hall, ready to conduct 9 hours of meaningful exit interviews with players. But Eberflus would not say whether he had been given any assurances that he would remain the Bears coach. Nor, did he dismiss the suggestion that several days might pass before he had any clarity on his future.
“I’ll have those conversations with ownership here coming forward,” Eberflus said. “It’ll be midweek in there somewhere I’m sure.”
Eberflus also reiterated his eagerness to meet with Poles and Warren and Bears ownership to have his say in his performance review. “I do know this,” he said. “The foundation has been set for how we operate. And I do know the locker room. We’re standing on solid ground — of hard work, of passion and enthusiasm for the game. And we’re just going to keep working together to improve this.”
As for Fields, his saga is certain to unfold much more slowly over weeks and possibly months as the Bears reflect on his 2023 performance while simultaneously doing a deep dive into the 2024 draft class to see if there might be a prospect — like Southern California’s Caleb Williams, perhaps? — who would qualify as a long-term upgrade.
With maturity and self-awareness, Fields acknowledged his uncomfortable reality Sunday night and promised to handle it as gracefully as he could.
“It’s not like we didn’t have the No. 1 pick last year,” he said. “It’s going to be the same thing. Like I’ve said, I control what I can control. I’m going to get healthy this offseason, spend time with my family and get better.
“We went through the same thing last year. We had the No. 1 pick and everybody was asking ‘What if? What if? What if?’ And nothing happened. I’m not saying that nothing will happen (this offseason) because, shoot, we all don’t know. But I’m not going to let the potential (scenarios) or ‘What if? What if?’ stress me (and keep me) from enjoying life.”
Fields also expressed satisfaction within the growth he made in his third NFL season. “I think I’m headed up,” he said. “I felt growth this year, each and every game.”
But at the tail end of his postgame news conference, the quarterback offered a “just in case” goodbye, too.
“Whether (I’m) here or not, I have no regrets,” he said. “Shoutout to you guys (in the media) for making my job a little bit harder. To the City of Chicago, I love y’all. I appreciate the fans and the support from all the Bears. And in case this is my last rodeo with you all, I appreciate y’all for everything.”
Then he too marched through the season’s exit, uncertain of what’s ahead. That fate rests in Poles’ hands. And the Bears GM will have to reconcile all the positive vibes that came with the team’s run of five victories over seven games late in the year with the silent and dejected mood that was suffocating the locker room Sunday as a 10-loss team was hit with its latest reality-check loss.
In an interview aired during the Bears’ official pregame program Sunday, Poles didn’t show any of his cards as it related to his quarterback evaluation but expressed optimism about finding a positive resolution before training camp.
“We’re working from a position of strength and just going to continue to keep an open mind and look at all options,” he said. “I’m excited for that opportunity.”
He seemed more glowing in his review of Eberflus’ leadership, crediting the Bears coach for showing “the mental toughness and the steady hand to really captain the ship when the seas are rough.”
“And they got rough at certain times,” Poles continued. “Certainly last year and early this year. There was some sudden change and he was steady at the wheel. He fought to get us back above water and get things to where they were.
“His ability to adapt and adjust, really take input from the players to get this thing on the right path was incredible where I think a lot of people would have been in really bad shape and crumbled to the pressure. He got better with the pressure. And so did our football team.”
That felt like firm support.
But those comments were made before Sunday’s game; before the Packers kicked the Bears out of their way on a surge into the playoffs; before Eberflus dropped to 10-24 overall as Bears coach; before Fields was so thoroughly outplayed by Love; before 5:58 p.m.
That’s when Poles left his seat in the Lambeau Field press box and walked out with hundreds of possibilities for reconfiguring the Bears this offseason and, likely, thousands of thoughts on how to pick the best ones.
He must now ask himself, with every decision that’s ahead but especially the high-profile, high-stakes ones, what qualifies as excellence. And how close are the Bears to achieving it?