It was on the same stage in the same room and in the same setting — the end-of-season wrap-up — when Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Poles said a year ago that he would have to be blown away to use the No. 1 pick in the draft on a quarterback.
Ultimately, Poles wasn’t moved to choose a QB, and one he passed on, C.J. Stroud, is leading the Houston Texans into the wild-card round of the playoffs this weekend. He’s going to be the runaway winner for offensive rookie of the year after throwing for 4,108 yards and 23 touchdowns.
In a similar media session Wednesday afternoon, after another last-place finish in the NFC North, Poles explained it was his call to retain coach Matt Eberflus for a third season. He listed reasons he’s confident the team will attract quality candidates to replace the majority of Eberflus’ offensive staff that was fired, including coordinator Luke Getsy and quarterbacks coach Andrew Janocko. Poles championed the idea of continuity and pointed to an improving roster on a young team that performed better during the second half of a 7-10 season.
It remains to be seen how convincing Poles, Eberflus and President/CEO Kevin Warren, who spoke for a combined 90 minutes, were for a fan base that fears the organization could remain stuck in a cycle of drafting a quarterback, firing a coach, hiring a new coach for the QB, mixing in a new GM and then starting all over again. Rinse. Repeat.
It’s a fair concern. The Bears own the first and ninth picks in the draft, and there’s a strong chance the team will use a high selection on a quarterback. If tangible gains aren’t made in 2024, will the team be in the hunt for a new coach to pair with a young quarterback entering Year 2? We’ve seen that movie — and the multiple sequels — and we know how it ends.
“I’m not worried about the history of different things,” Poles said. “It’s a different situation. This roster is built on really solid ground. It’s a little bit of a different situation in my mind.”
He pushed back at the idea the Bears necessarily made an error in evaluation when it came to Stroud, whom the Carolina Panthers passed over before the Texans took him at No. 2.
“I think you have to take in what’s best for your team,” Poles said. “So when you look at that situation and how it ended up playing out, to have DJ (Moore), to have Darnell (Wright), to have (Tyrique) Stevenson, to have the first overall and to have the second (-round pick) next year, I feel like that’s the best for our organization.”
That’s all part of what the Bears hope makes the roster attractive to candidates they want to speak with to fill out Eberflus’ staff. They’re going to put an emphasis on adaptability as they meet with candidates, and the Bears should be ahead of teams seeking a coordinator as part of a staff turnover. The club improved in a lot of areas from the first season under Poles and Eberflus, and which will give the new coaches and quarterback they wind up with a better opportunity to succeed.
Poles and Eberflus had positive remarks about Justin Fields, which is to be expected. They can’t say if Fields will be in the mix in 2024. If he’s not, they would like him to have solid trade value. If Fields had thrived, they wouldn’t have fired Getsy and Janocko, and Poles wouldn’t essentially made no comment about what’s going to happen with the fifth-year option in the quarterback’s contract. A decision on that option is due May 3.
“We love where Justin is right now,” Eberflus said. “He’ll continue to grow as we grow as a football team.”
Added Poles: “I did think Justin got better. I think he can lead this team. But at the same time there’s a unique situation.”
Fields was in the bottom third of the league in too many key statistical metrics for the Bears to commit to the idea of trading down from the first pick for a bundle of future assets and then building around him. It’s a time for information gathering, with Poles making it clear the most significant piece of the puzzle is learning what makes the prospects tick and getting to know them thoroughly.
How this plays out — with a new offensive staff and Eberflus needing to continue showing upward trajectory — will be something to watch. Poles originally sold the McCaskeys on a methodical process to establish sustained success. No one should have been expecting that at the end of Year 2.
“We’re playing the long game,” said Eberflus as he cited emerging young players.
Said Warren: “We’re impatiently patient but we also understand the importance to build a champion, it does take some time. I’m not saying a lot of time but I strongly believe that going into this third year is going to be a critical time for us to take a major jump.”
Warren was asked how he felt about the changes — and the big ones that were not made.
“Fortunately, I’ve been here,” he said. “My first year in the NFL, we were 5-11 at the St. Louis Rams. Second year we were 4-12. Then the third year we ended up going 16-3 and winning the Super Bowl. And I remember many of those days having conversations with John Shaw, our president, Jay Zygmunt, our executive vice president, coach (Dick) Vermeil, is that the questions that I would ask them of making sure the worst thing you can do on an organization that is making progress is to turn around too quickly.”
Those 1999 Rams happened to find a Hall of Fame quarterback who was sitting on the bench. Eberflus has some important decisions, and staff hires will be key. One way to ensure the Bears escape the cycle that has plagued them, well, just about forever: Pick the right quarterback come April. The right coordinator and quarterback coach are going to help. Another big-time wide receiver would be great. A better center is required.
The key to sustained success is fixing the quarterback position, and the Bears are, indeed, in a unique situation. Poles is right: The roster is better than it was when he held the No. 1 pick a year ago — good enough that this team could be a contender with the right guy.