The Chicago Bears are heading toward a fascinating pivot point in franchise history, looking to elevate a rapidly improving team through a series of key decisions during the 2024 offseason.
On Thursday, we took a deep dive into the team’s big-picture evaluation of quarterback Justin Fields while exploring the possibility of drafting USC standout Caleb Williams with the No. 1 pick.
In this installment, after speaking with more than a dozen sources in recent weeks about the state of the Bears and the opportunities ahead, we zero in on the coaching staff, organizational health and roster-building efforts.
Here are eight things to consider as the Bears march toward their season finale Sunday in Green Bay.
1. Within league circles, there’s chatter that the Bears are considering keeping Matt Eberflus as their coach in 2024.
Publicly, general manager Ryan Poles has said he won’t reach final decisions on any of his most important big-picture evaluations until after the season. But victories like last week’s 20-point home thrashing of the Atlanta Falcons add weight to Eberflus’ confidence that his team’s current climb is legitimate.
Recent evidence: Five straight wins at Soldier Field to end the season. A 5-2 record since Week 10. A nasty defense that, under Eberflus’ guidance, is playing well in every phase across all three levels.
Winning is football’s most powerful drug. And right now the Bears are riding high with belief swelling inside the locker room. Defensive players are lauding Eberflus’ aggressive approach and willingness to solicit and apply feedback.
Across the building, there’s satisfaction in the way the team has not only stayed together but emerged with its strong finish.
On the whole, despite a football-centric personality that can be perceived as awkward — and has occasionally created clumsy exchanges with the media — Eberflus has connected with his players in a meaningful way.
The case can be made for pressing on with him as the team’s leader. That case would only strengthen if the Bears finish the season with a convincing victory in Green Bay, knocking the rival Packers out of playoff contention.
Before last week’s game, Poles spoke on the Bears pregame show on WMVP-AM 1000 and emphasized his desire for the team to “finish this season on a high note” while also vowing “to take a step back and look at everything in its totality to make sound decisions” after the season.
The season ends with what one source called “a moment” for the Bears — a bright-lights game at Lambeau Field with legitimate stakes for both teams. For the Packers, a victory means a playoff berth. For the Bears, an upset could be the closing argument Eberflus needs to stick around.
2. Poles and Bears President/CEO Kevin Warren won’t be aiming to win a January popularity contest.
With all the football decisions ahead — coaching staff, quarterback, etc. — Poles and Warren must widen their vision, searching for solutions that set up the Bears for sustainable long-term success, even if some of their conclusions might not resonate in the outside world.
A jumpy fan base hoping the team can make a big splash in 2024 won’t deter the Bears decision makers from seeking the path they believe would put them in a championship mindset and in playoff contention for much of the next decade.
Regarding the fork in the road at quarterback, for example, one former AFC executive acknowledged the anxiety the Bears decision makers might feel simply by entertaining the possibility of moving on from Justin Fields and replacing him with USC’s Caleb Williams, North Carolina’s Drake Maye or another draft prospect.
“Drafting Caleb may actually be the difficult choice,” the exec said. “That may be a harder decision for them to make than keeping Fields. Drafting Caleb Williams (or another quarterback) is going to send shock waves through that locker room ... which is never fun. That’s an incredibly uncomfortable feeling. But it still might be the right move for the team.”
3. Similarly, a decision to retain Eberflus might not please everyone in Chicago given the stains on this season.
Eberflus saw his defensive coordinator, Alan Williams, abruptly resign in Week 3, with multiple sources indicating that exit was conduct-related. The team also dismissed running backs coach David Walker six weeks later for what Poles called a failure to meet workplace standards.
All the while, the Bears skidded to a 2-7 start.
Just think, with even one more victory in September or October, the Bears could be heading to Lambeau Field this weekend with their own playoff hopes alive. Instead they’re left to embrace the spoiler role while lamenting their missed opportunities.
Understandably, questions continue to circulate among fans about whether Eberflus is the right leader to carry the team forward. Those questions will be asked inside Halas Hall as well, ultimately answered by Poles and Warren.
Both men are intent on taking a detailed, methodical approach to their evaluation. It would not be a surprise if the Bears don’t reach a final verdict on their coaching situation until the middle of next week, wanting time to deliberate and sort through everything.
4. While Poles has consistently supported Eberflus, the Bears also must evaluate performance.
Poles has propped up Eberflus as a steady leader with the ability to bring a team together and keep it united during duress. But it’s also fair to acknowledge Eberflus’ .303 winning percentage through 33 games, his 2-9 record in the division and a career-best winning streak of two games (current).
One league source scoffed at how much emphasis the Bears place on “culture strength” when they haven’t won a playoff game in 13 years and counting. That same source stressed that in two seasons, Eberflus has one true signature victory — in Week 14 this season over the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field.
“Everyone in an organization has to scrutinize what qualifies as achievement,” he said. “There are tiers in the NFL. So who have you beaten? … You have maybe 10 teams every year living in that top tier. (Those are) good to great teams that, when they play each other, create phenomenal games.
“But then you have that lower tier with everybody else, those 20 to 22 teams that know by mid-October that they have no shot at winning the Super Bowl. So be honest. Which tier are you in? And how have you done when playing top-tier teams? That should tell you something.”
At a minimum, another source added, the Bears should be performing due diligence on whether an upgrade at head coach is available.
“The Bears can’t gravitate toward what’s comfortable,” the source said. “Both Kevin Warren and Ryan Poles owe it to that entire organization to improve wherever possible, if in fact you can. Chicago shouldn’t be a city known for lowering the bar.”
Warren and Poles remain allergic to the thought of lowering the bar. Don’t forget, both Bears leaders have Super Bowl rings from previous stops with the St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively. Both also experienced extreme lows with those franchises. That provides valuable perspective on the difficulty of the climb.
5. Further complicating the Eberflus evaluation are the deliberations on whether to start anew at quarterback.
If the Bears choose to replace Fields and draft a quarterback at No. 1 — or even if they double down on Fields — they’ll have to do so with a crystallized vision for how to develop their quarterback.
That’s why some in the league wonder whether Poles will be lured by the temptation to hire a new offensive-minded, quarterback-centric head coach who can help his young quarterback become a star.
Multiple sources highlighted Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator Brian Callahan and Houston Texans offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik Jr. as quarterback-friendly candidates who should be on the Bears’ radar. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, meanwhile, may have an inside track on the Los Angeles Chargers job if he chooses to leave Ann Arbor.
The Bears also must be conscious of the opportunity to put a coaching staff and a new quarterback on similar timelines.
Said one former AFC offensive coordinator: “In my mind, if you’re going to choose a quarterback at No. 1, you have to blow it up. There’s no choice. Unless you really believe in Matt Eberflus to develop a quarterback. Which, given his history, I’m not sure anyone would.
“If I’m Kevin Warren, if I’m Ryan Poles, I may only have one shot like this to get it right.”
Added another veteran executive: “To me, you have to ask yourself, are we going to stay with a defensive (head) coach? Which I’m fine with. But if you do, are you keeping the offensive coordinator? Or do you feel compelled to find another one? The biggest priority has to be, is this the right combo at coach-coordinator-quarterback? And are we sure?
“If you’re sticking with Fields, you stay with it to preserve continuity. But if you draft a quarterback, what you don’t want to do is have a single question about who is coaching him. The last thing you want to do is draft a guy, start him Year 1 with this coach, then bring in a new staff in Year 2?”
Sound familiar, Chicago?
The exec went on: “If I’m Poles, whatever I do, I’m making a commitment and not fence-sitting. We’re all on board. It’s either Eberflus and (Luke) Getsy or we change one or both out. But you can’t be considering change next year.”
6. Warren’s presence as a sounding board and overseer should be valuable to the decision-making processes.
Warren figures to be heavily involved but not overbearing as Poles makes his plan on the football side. One source emphasized the need for Warren to find that healthy balance in his guidance.
“You want Kevin Warren to have a voice in the room,” the source said. “For sure. But you also want him to empower the GM to do his job.”
In short, the source said, Warren should be a resource for Poles on all football-centric decisions while resisting the urge to apply pressure to have everything done his way.
“At the end of the day, if you are having consistent disagreements with your GM and you continue to be at odds with him, then maybe there are fundamental disagreements in the overall view of football,” the source said. “At that point, if you don’t see the biggest-picture items the same way, then maybe you don’t have the right general manager. Because even if the conversations have to be difficult and contentious, you have to wind up on the same page.”
By all accounts, Warren and Poles have had no such discord, instead building a harmonious relationship in their first nine months working together. That unity can galvanize a franchise — as long as good decisions consistently follow.
7. An NFC assistant said it’s critical that whoever is the Bears coach in 2024 feels connected to Warren and Poles.
“That’s paramount, man,” the coach said. “One of the biggest questions from the outside is how levelheaded is Kevin. How patient is he willing to be?
“Look no further than their own division in Detroit. Look what the Lions did. That organization was patient and they waited and they let (GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell) execute their plan. It takes probably three years to get to the end of that plan.”
“Now, there will always be extreme circumstances that can change things (for a team),” the coach continued. “But if you feel like you have the GM piece wired properly and you have faith in your coach, just make sure the reporting structure is clean and then trust what you say.
“That’s the biggest (bleeping) thing these owners fail at. They aren’t always willing to take a small step back to make a big leap forward. Once you have your plan? Let it go. Put it in the oven and let it cook. Walk away.
“My encouragement to Kevin Warren would be to unite on that plan with Ryan and then have the toughness to follow through. And when it’s not perfect? When there are bumps? It’s going to get loud. But you have to be tough enough on the inside that you can hold the ship together and maintain belief and keep growing.
“That’s what has to happen in Chicago. And Kevin has to be the guy who provides that cover and that belief.”
8. In many ways, the Bears leadership tree already has held together through this season’s storms.
The vibes in the locker room and inside the building reflect that. All the tumult of September and October, all that frustration and dismay, has now turned into optimism and confidence. The Bears believe their collective determination has propelled this late-season rebound.
Linebackers coach Dave Borgonzi credits Eberflus, Poles and the team leaders for establishing such strong resolve within the team.
“In the NFL, times are going to be hard,” he said. “Nobody’s ever going to have a perfect season. There are going to be trials and tribulations, and you’ve got to have a foundation of what you stand on to weather the storm a little bit.”
And when that foundation is unstable at the top of an organization, particularly with discernible tension between the most important decision makers?
“The players always know,” the NFC coach said. “They know. It’s just like kids in the house when the parents are fighting. Everyone may be smiling at the dinner table, but they know it’s bad. The players always know. They just inherently do.”
The ripple effect when that happens?
“The belief shrinks,” the coach said. “The trust shrinks. And when the trust and the belief shrink, my effort goes down. I’m not going to give you effort if I don’t believe or trust what you’re doing. That eventually shows on the field.”
Many inside the league agree the Bears are showing belief, trust and effort. The goal now is to find the best ways to build on their momentum. The outside world likely will want answers by dawn on Monday.
The Bears, however, will proceed deliberately and with proper urgency, understanding how much is at stake with their next series of decisions and making every effort to avoid rash and rushed conclusions.
What happens in the coming days and weeks has the potential to affect the direction of the franchise for the next decade.