You won’t win a news conference coming off a 14-loss season, but you sure as heck can get dropped for a loss or leave your fan base struggling to understand the messaging.
It was just two years ago that Chicago Bears President Ted Phillips tried to highlight what was going right after the team’s second consecutive 8-8 finish.
“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” Phillips said. “Have we won enough games? No. But everything else is there.”
Two days after the Bears wrapped up their 12th consecutive season without a playoff victory, general manager Ryan Poles came across Tuesday as measured, honest and confident in assessing where the team is without dropping anything that would come across as a surprise.
The Bears still are trying to get the quarterback right — Poles professed belief in Justin Fields — and still haven’t won enough games. If you’re looking purely at the roster and not considering the first-rate facilities at Halas Hall, not much else is in place.
Here are some highlights from Poles’ comments and other observations.
Poles said he wasn’t glued to the television after the Bears’ 29-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at Soldier Field for the ending of the wacky Houston Texans-Indianapolis Colts game. Improbably, the Texans won in the final minute with a touchdown and 2-point conversion, losing their grip on the top pick in what turned out to be Lovie Smith’s final game as coach.
“I got home (Sunday night) and one of my buddies from the neighborhood drove by, like, ‘Hey, congratulations on the first overall pick,’” Poles said. “I’m still not in that mindset right now. It hurts. It hurts to be in that position. Obviously the opportunities and the things that will come from that, I hope that it helps us. But you’re always expecting to win. You don’t want to be in this position.”
While fans are delighting in the possibilities with the organization owning the top pick for the first time since 1947, Poles stopped short of that. No one should celebrate having the worst record in the league because while it creates flexibility — a word Poles used multiple times — it’s also a stark reminder of how many holes there are across the roster.
“Some of those close games that we talked about that can go one way or the other, I was hoping to win those,” he said. “But that wasn’t the case. I know that this team has got a long way to go. Coming in, that was an understanding that there is a long way to go. Yeah, like I told you, losing, it hurts. You always expect to win more than three games.”
That encourages the Bears as they prepare for Fields to be the starter again in 2023. Poles said he “would have to be absolutely blown away” to consider selecting a quarterback with the top pick.
“I’m excited for the direction he’s going,” Poles said. “As I mentioned before, he knows where he has to improve. I think he mentioned that the other day. We’re excited about his development and where he goes next. He showed ability to be impactful with his legs. There’s flashes with his arm. Now if we can put that together, I think we have something really good.”
Fields has to improve as a pocket passer to take the next step in his growth, something Poles referenced.
“As a passer, just for things to slow down mentally,” Poles said when asked where Fields must grow. “And then be able to react and anticipate quicker. We also have to continue to build around him so that he can do that consistently as well.”
He did not refer to Fields as a “franchise quarterback.” The truth is, barring something unexpected, Fields is this franchise’s quarterback for 2023, and the Bears know they need to be better around him in order to better evaluate whether he can become that guy.
The Bears know they need to be much better in pass protection. Poles called the transition of Teven Jenkins to right guard a success and said he was proud of the way fifth-round pick Braxton Jones fared at left tackle.
Outside of that, there’s a lot of unknown. Left guard Cody Whitehair is under contract for $9.9 million in 2023, and it’s logical to consider him part of the mix because Poles and Co. need more addition than subtraction at the position.
“As a unit, I thought the run game was really good,” Poles said. “But we have to get better in pass pro. They all know that. And they’re up for the challenge and … for those that aren’t here, we’ve got to continue to bring in players that can help us do that.”
Who is in the mix moving forward?
“We’re working through that,” Poles said. “We’re going to get with the offensive coaches and kind of go through the rankings and talk about the future. (Jones) has got a long ways to go to reach his ceiling, but for his path … not many people look at the schedule for a player who goes into the offseason, Senior Bowl, combine, comes in as a fifth-round pick, battles through camp, gets a spot and then plays every single snap through the season.
“That’s an accomplishment right there. That tells me he’s wired right. He’s got mental toughness, rolls (with) the ups and downs. I’m hoping that he continues to work on his body, his technique and that’s someone that we can play with and be successful with for a while.”
That’s a slim list of players in the mix for 2023. Other current players will be considered and could be in line for starting positions, but there’s a lot to evaluate.
They’re projected to have more than $110 million. What does that mean? Poles won’t have any cap constraints on anything he wants to pursue.
“Obviously we have a lot more resources,” he said. “So I’m excited to do that. But we’ve got to stay sound in free agency. I know everyone’s talking about how much money we have and we’re just going to go crazy. We’re going to be sound so that we get the right players in here and we get good value.”
The Bears can pounce on any starting-caliber players who reach the marketplace after mostly bargain shopping last March. However, some are projecting this to be a very weak year for free agency. I’ve noted Washington Commanders defensive tackle Daron Payne as an ideal candidate. He could get the franchise tag.
“He played outstanding football for us,” Commanders GM Martin Mayhew told reporters in Washington on Tuesday. “It’d be difficult to move forward without him.”
The Commanders have many issues, including quarterback, and already gave defensive tackle Jonathan Allen a massive contract. If they want to keep a strength a strength, they need to find a way to secure Payne.
The popular idea is the Bears trade down from No. 1 and add some picks — a good idea considering they traded their second-round pick (No. 32) to get wide receiver Chase Claypool.
Not surprisingly, Poles said everything is on the table — picking a player at No. 1, trading back a short distance or trading back a long way.
“We can evaluate the talent there,” Poles said. “We can see what player presents themselves in that position to help us, and then we can look at the scenarios. If the phones go off and there are certain situations where that can help us, then we’ll go down that avenue too. We have really good flexibility to help this team, regardless if it’s making the pick there or moving back a little bit or moving back a lot. We’ll be open to everything.”
In my mind, the Bears lose the chance to add an impact player if they trade out of the top five or so. Sure, you add more picks if you move back a lot — and the more picks the Bears have, the better — but those picks are blank cards when you get them, not proven contributors.
When I look at the roster, Poles and coach Matt Eberflus really need a difference maker. Pass rusher, defensive tackle, left tackle, wide receiver, you name the position. They can use that guy. A trade down deeper into Round 1 could add future draft capital. Extra picks in 2024 could be helpful if the Bears are hunting for a quarterback a year from now but wouldn’t help them be better on the field in 2023.
Asked which players stood out as potential blue-chip contributors, Poles named the tight end.
“The one that stands out to me this year … I thought Cole did a really good job,” Poles said. “I thought he elevated his game from the film that I watched last year to what it was this year, so that’s exciting. That’s one that comes to mind right now.”
Kmet, who hasn’t missed a game in three seasons, is eligible for an extension with one year remaining on his rookie contract. He caught 50 passes for 544 yards and seven touchdowns, averaged a career-high 10.9 yards per catch and increased his yards per target from 6.6 in 2021 to 7.9.
What could a new deal for Kmet look like? You have to imagine it would be north of the $8 million annual average Jimmy Graham got in 2020. Twelve tight ends average more than $10 million, not including super-utility player Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints.
In years to come, Poles hopes to be able to rattle off a handful of names when asked for blue-chip players.
Poles praised Montgomery, and this will be an interesting situation to follow. The Bears have more than enough cap space to do anything here, but they also have much more pressing needs at premium positions and second contracts for running backs can be risky.
As I’ve detailed previously, Matt Forte is the only true running back to receive a second contract in the 22 years I have covered the Bears. That doesn’t include Tarik Cohen, who was more of a gadget player on offense and return specialist.
“I’ve always wanted to keep David,” Poles said. “I love his mentality, how he plays the game. I told him that to his face. He’s part of the identity that we had this year that kept us competitive.
“Now, the second part of that is the contract situation. That’s something that we’ll see how that goes and if we can find common ground. I’ve learned that you can want a player and the value’s got to come together for it to happen. I love the way he attacked this season. That’s a guy that does everything right. You all watched his tenacity, his fight. I’m a big David Montgomery fan.”
Wide receiver Darnell Mooney and cornerback Jaylon Johnson are in the same situation as Kmet, coming off their third seasons. Poles remains upbeat about Mooney, who is recovering from a leg/ankle injury suffered in November. Any decision on his future would be linked to where he is physically. The Bears hope he’s back up to speed at some point in the spring but were thin on specifics.
“I love (Mooney) more than I did when I first walked in the door,” Poles said. “I think he’s a special human being, first and foremost, and a really good football player. I don’t know if I have the specific details. I know he’s doing really well. Everything’s positive. He’s headed in the right direction.”
The Steelers own the 32nd pick (a second-rounder because the Miami Dolphins forfeited their first-rounder) and the Bears have Claypool under contract for one more season after he caught 14 passes for 140 yards in seven games.
“That’s the difference between trades in baseball and basketball, it’s like plug and play,” Poles said. “There’s an entire offseason and half of a season of installs and all the things you need to do collectively to play and execute offensive plays. On top of that, it was a little bit choppy with Justin getting dinged up, (Claypool) got dinged up.
“I told Chase, and we had a really good conversation, I’m not blinking at that one at all. I think he’s going to help us moving forward and I’m excited about it.”
This trade could be viewed differently if Claypool is a major cog in the passing game next season. At the time, I think Poles looked ahead to free agency and saw there wouldn’t be much available at the position. He also wasn’t planning on being at the top of the draft when the deal was made. Now the Bears have a lot of catching up to do to make this deal even close.
Finding a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver will be challenging. The draft, trades or even free agency might offer possibilities.
“Obviously you would love a No. 1,” Poles said. “I hope one of these guys on our roster or if someone’s available can develop into that guy. But we’re always trying to develop that guy. We’re always trying to look for playmakers, and hopefully one of the guys that we have in our locker room now will elevate to that position.”
The deal reportedly includes $60 million in guarantees and makes Smith the first off-ball linebacker to reach a $20 million annual average.
News of Smith’s deal broke after the Bears wrapped up Poles’ media session. Smith wound up getting what he wanted, and I doubt it’s dramatically different from what the Bears had on the table back in August. Smith was able to make an immediate impact for the Ravens, but it’s easier to plug in a linebacker than a receiver like Claypool.
It’s easy to see both sides of this one. The Bears could have extended themselves a little bit to get a deal done with Smith, who obviously impressed the Ravens after arriving. They could have secured the best player on their roster instead of creating an additional need.
But they would have had to pay Smith higher than their valuation to accomplish that and would have wondered at what level he would be playing when the team finally reaches the level of competitiveness Poles is aiming for.
I think the Bears are leaning on the ability of Eberflus and his coaching staff to develop a draft pick at weak-side linebacker. That’s the unknown part of this equation. If the Bears can find their own Shaq Leonard, a second-round pick for the Colts who was groomed under Eberflus, then they’ll be fine at the position.
That would require a draft pick that could have been used to address another position. If that works, though, they would have an affordable player who is a big part of the defense and could allocate resources to more premium positions. Remember, Eberflus basically scoffed at the idea of drafting an off-ball linebacker with a top-10 pick.
Think premium positions: edge rusher, left tackle, cornerback, three-technique defensive tackle and I think you have to include wide receiver. That’s what makes this such a massive project, one that likely will take multiple offseasons.
Does such a robust shopping list, the No. 1 pick and a wild amount of cap space create pressure for Poles?
“I don’t know if that necessarily creates pressure for me,” he said. “I put pressure on myself and we put pressure on each other to be the absolute best. The plan is to sustain success, so I think that’s enough pressure.
“I don’t know if it’s the noise in all of that outside the building. I know that we want to be successful and that’s the pressure we put on ourself. I guess we have a sense of urgency that we move to, too. I don’t know if that really moves the needle for me.”
The team practiced hard and with enthusiasm to the end of the year, and that’s meaningful even if it didn’t help snap a 10-game losing streak. It will have to be created from scratch again in 2023 with a new roster that will have to learn how the team operates. What we know is Eberflus and his assistants can get that kind of action out of players.
“Toughness, that stood out to me,” Poles said. “I can’t tell you how many coaches from the teams that we played called the next morning — or GMs — and said: ’You can feel your guys on tape. You can feel that they played the right way. Keep doing what you’re doing. You’re on the right path.’”
While I don’t believe in waving the culture flag after a 3-14 season, I’ll buy into this because I heard similar sentiments as I spoke to folks with other organizations throughout the season. They gave the Bears high marks for effort and playing hard, and that can slip in a flash as losses pile up.
Cunningham is well-regarded at Halas Hall and throughout the league, and he has a background with two successful organizations in the Ravens and Philadelphia Eagles.
I’m sure Poles would love to see Cunningham get his own team. At the same time, Cunningham has a strong voice in what the Bears are doing and will be a major influence on offseason moves if he isn’t hired elsewhere.