1st-and-10: More wins? Bears need to check these boxes in 2023

Not only do the Bears need more wins in their second season under GM Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, they need good wins — beating division rivals, beating playoff teams and winning the close ones top the list.

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San Francisco 49ers v Chicago Bears

The Bears and Justin Fields (1) beat the playoff-bound 49ers 19-10 at Soldier Field in last year’s season opener.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Bears general manager Ryan Poles wasn’t going to box himself in with precise expectations for this season, but “more wins” was playing it a little too safe. The Bears could finish 4-13 or 5-12 and have more wins than they did last season.

With coach Matt Eberflus in his second year, quarterback Justin Fields in his second year in coordinator Luke Getsy’s offense and Poles having the draft and salary-cap capital to mold a roster to fit his needs, the teardown is over, the rebuild is on, and expectations for significant improvement in 2023 should be high.

With that in mind, here’s a reasonable checklist for the Bears to meet those expectations:

Win eight or more games. The 2022 Bears, in reality, were a six-win team that won only three because they were in teardown mode. So anything less than eight wins is marginal improvement at best.

Have a better record in the final nine games than the first eight. The Bears are in a formative stage on both sides of the ball. Against the Packers this Sunday, they’ll have only four starters on offense and four on defense in the same positions they were in last year in Week 1. Whether they’re good or bad early, they should be better in the second half. (In coach Lovie Smith’s second season in 2005, they started 1-3 but won 10 of their last 12 to finish 11-5. In Mike Ditka’s second season in 1983, they were 3-7 but won five of their last six to finish 8-8.)

Win more than they lose in one-score games: The Bears were 1-7 in one-score games last season (they beat the Texans 23-20). Failure to finish was arguably the biggest knock on the rebuild. They have to prove they’re not only better in 2023 but can win games they don’t necessarily deserve to.

Beat a playoff-bound team, preferably later than earlier in the season. The Bears defeated the 49ers last year, but that was in Week 1, with Trey Lance starting at quarterback. You can make the playoffs in the parity-racked NFL by beating the teams you should beat, but ultimately you have to rise to the occasion to beat a team that’s better than you.

Beat every NFC North team at least once. The Bears have done that just five times in 21 seasons of the current divisional set-up: 2018, 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2005. They made the playoffs in four of those seasons and came one game shy in 2008.

It’s true that coach Matt Nagy’s first team checked all of the above boxes in 2018, yet was only a one-hit wonder. But that team relied on a dominant defense under coordinator Vic Fangio throughout a breakthrough season. This team likely needs to be better balanced (with a better quarterback) to reach those landmarks — and isn’t as likely to be a house of cards if it does.

2 What about Fields? More than Mitch Trubisky in 2018, he figures to be a big part of any significant improvement or giant leap the Bears take in 2023, especially when it comes to winning one-score games or beating a playoff-bound team.

Fields has to pass the eye test this season — we’ll know it when we see it. But one statistical barometer figures to be at the root of any Fields breakthrough: completing 65% of his passes with 7.5 yards per attempt.

He completed 60.4% of his passes last year (7.1 yards per attempt). A step up in accuracy with receiver DJ Moore is where it has to start, similar to the improvement Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts took with A.J. Brown last season (61.3% to 66.5%) and Bills quarterback Josh Allen took with Stefon Diggs in 2020 (58.8% to 69.2%).

3 Fearful predictions:

Fields: 333-for-481 passing (69.2%), 3,787 yards, 24 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 100.6 rating, 423 rushing yards, five rushing touchdowns.

Moore: 84 receptions, 1,108 yards, eight touchdowns.

Darnell Mooney: 58 receptions, 762 yards, five touchdowns.

Chase Claypool: 40 receptions, 492 yards, two touchdowns.

Cole Kmet: 48 receptions, 517 yards, six touchdowns.

4 Facing Jordan Love instead of Aaron Rodgers at quarterback will be the obvious focal point of Sunday’s game. But the Bears’ run defense against the Packers’ Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon might be the bigger indicator of success. The Packers rushed for 378 yards (5.4 average) and three touchdowns in two games against the Bears last season. Dillon and Jones combined for 33 carries for 193 yards and a touchdown in a 27-10 victory at Lambeau Field and 27 carries for 119 yards and a touchdown in a 28-19 victory at Soldier Field. The Bears were 31st in rushing defense last year, allowing 157.3 yards per game.

5 The list: Besides the obvious newcomers (Moore, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds), the Bears need some key self-upgrades from 2022. The top five: 1. Fields; 2. Claypool; 3. Cornerback Kyler Gordon; 4. Left tackle Braxton Jones; 5. Safety Jaquan Brisker.

6 Rookie Tyson Bagent backing up Fields is not a best-case scenario, but it’s the best scenario the Bears have entering the season, with Nathan Peterman the only other option. Playing Bagent in the middle of a competitive game would be ideal. When a big reason for keeping a quarterback on the roster is his “moxie,” you probably should trust him to handle a tough situation. That’s what moxie is all about.

7 Quick hits: The last time the Bears faced a Packers No. 1 quarterback besides Rodgers or Brett Favre was Don Majkowski in 1991. . . . Moore and Edmunds are the sixth and seventh players to be named captains before playing a game for the Bears in the last five seasons in which the team has named permanent captains. The others are Mike Glennon, Quintin Demps, Danny Trevathan, Antrel Rolle and Pernell McPhee. . . . The Bears have lost seven of their last nine season-opening games. . . . The last three times the Bears beat the Packers in the season opener, they made the playoffs: 2006 (26-0 at Lambeau), 1979 (6-3 at Soldier Field) and 1963 (10-3 at New City Stadium).

8 Marvin Harrison Jr. Watch: The presumptive first non-quarterback to be taken in the 2024 NFL Draft had a modest 2023 college debut: two receptions for 14 yards in Ohio State’s lackluster 23-3 victory over Indiana. Harrison also scored a 24-yard touchdown that was nullified (he stepped out of bounds before making the catch inbounds) and returned after injuring his shoulder in the first half.

9 Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Defensive end Trevis Gipson, waived by the Bears despite having two sacks, an NFL-high 14 pressures and a forced fumble in the preseason, signed a free-agent contract with the Titans, who had previously claimed cornerback Kindle Vildor on waivers.

Gipson was the odd man out with the Bears but figures to be a better fit in the Titans’ 3-4 heavy defense under coach Mike Vrabel. Gipson had seven sacks as an edge rusher in the Bears’ 3-4 defense under coordinator Sean Desai in 2021. He had three in Eberflus’ 4-3 last season, when he faced the fifth-most double-teams in the NFL, according to Next Gen Stats.

10 Bear-ometer: 8-9 — vs. Packers (L); at Buccaneers (W); at Chiefs (L); vs. Broncos (L); at Commanders (W); vs. Vikings (W); vs. Raiders (W); at Chargers (L); at Saints (L); vs. Panthers (W); at Lions (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Lions (W); at Browns (L); vs. Cardinals (W); vs. Falcons (L); at Packers (W).

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