A down NFL means things are looking up for the Bears — within reason

They should be able to make a decent jump in 2023, thanks to Justin Fields, significant cap space and a lot of mediocre teams. How does 7-10 sound?

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Bears coach Matt Eberflus reacting to a play against the Eagles on Sunday.

Bears coach Matt Eberflus has done a good job of getting the most out of his players this season.

Quinn Harris/Getty Images

There’s reason for hope for the Bears next season, and it has nothing to do with … OK, it still has everything to do with Justin Fields. But there’s reason for hope beyond a young quarterback with dazzling running skills, and it can be summed up in a single sentence:

The NFL isn’t very good right now.

The Bears cling to one statistic as if it were a therapy dog. Six of their 11 losses have been by seven points or fewer. Two others were by eight points each. You’re supposed to interpret that to mean the team is so close to turning things around that its nose is pressed against a thin pane of glass separating winners from losers.

Another interpretation is that the league stinks. A better one would be that there are so many underwhelming teams that the Bears have every right to think they could be one of them very soon. You’d take a jump from a three-victory team in 2022 to a seven-victory team in 2023, right?

If I know over-served Bears fans, the answer to that question is a very angry “no.’’ They see Fields, they see general manager Ryan Poles with $125 million in salary cap money to spend in the offseason and they see 10 victories next season. I’m not sure of the physiology that allows a person to make a leap in faith like that, but somebody should do a study on Bears fans’ legs. Those are some hops they have there.

No one knows about Poles’ acumen just yet – he’s in his first year as GM — but we do know that the league has a shortage of good teams that play good football consistently. I know I was supposed to be impressed by the Eagles when they came to Soldier Field over the weekend. Their 12-1 record told me to genuflect. But they beat the Bears 25-20 and looked commonplace doing it. If you point to the Eagles’ dominant pass rush in that game as reason to fawn, I’ll point out that the Bears’ offensive line isn’t known for its blocking. I don’t know what it’s known for. A cappella?

The Bears’ pretty bad defense made league MVP candidate Jalen Hurts look pretty average. He threw two interceptions, one fewer than he had thrown all season. Both those picks came before he hurt his throwing shoulder late in the third quarter.

I’ll concede that one blah game by the team with the best record in football doesn’t equate to the whole league being blah. But it sure looked like a reflection of a big problem — a problem of no truly excellent teams and too many pedestrian teams. The 10-4 Cowboys with Dak Prescott? Please. The 11-3 Vikings? They’re still being lauded for last week’s miraculous comeback against the Colts, but being down 33-0 to a 3-9-1 team — does that suggest greatness or weakness?

The once-good Packers, who will need outside help and a five-game winning streak to make the playoffs, have beaten one team with a winning record this season. That team was the Cowboys, whom ESPN tells us every day is good and interesting and worthy of obsession. Dallas, by the way, came into the season with the easiest road based on strength of schedule. So how good are the Cowboys, really? Probably not very.

It’s not just the top teams that disappoint. I’ve watched every Bears game this season. They aren’t overtly trying to lose — you can’t tell a bunch of NFL coaches and players to curl up and die — but the roster Poles put together during a rebuild was meant to make winning difficult, like trying to learn Chinese from a Russian-Chinese dictionary. Yet the Bears have been competitive against many favored teams.

Does the closeness of those games point to a team getting ready to do big things or does it point to a down year for the league? I know what I see when I see the Bears: A running quarterback the rest of the NFL has no idea how to stop. A mediocre receiving corps. A below-average offensive line. A defense that lost its top two players, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn, to trades during the season. What does all that mean? Probably a close game between the 3-11 Bears and the 11-3 Bills on Saturday.

Coach Matt Eberflus deserves praise for getting the most out of his players, but the Bears’ competitiveness is an indictment of a weak league. They upset the 49ers in the season opener, though that was in a monsoon at Soldier Field. You’d have to think the outcome would be different if the game were played today — or would it, given the state of the NFL? The Bears gave Miami, another top team, all it could handle in an early November game before losing 35-32.

On any given Sunday, anybody can be mediocre.

So, Rick, you’re saying the Bears have a chance next year? Yes, I am. I’m saying they have a chance to go 7-10.

Sorry. Oh, and Merry Christmas.

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