Surprise, surprise? Justin Fields an X-factor in Bears’ rebuild
The Bears seem destined for a losing season in 2022 as new GM Ryan Poles starts from the ground floor. But with a playable schedule, Fields’ development in coordinator Luke Getsy’s offense could give them a chance to exceed expectations.
Loss. Loss. Win. Loss.
Predicting the Bears’ game-by-game results when the schedule comes out is a joyful rite of the NFL offseason — especially when the Bulls and Blackhawks are out of the playoffs and there are still 130 games left in the baseball season.
Loss. Win. Loss. Loss.
It’s joyful but not always accurate. On average, more than four teams that finished with losing records the previous season make the playoffs, including some of those three- and four-win teams you have pegged as a Bears victory.
Loss. Win. Loss. Win.
And just as Bears fans have games against the Lions, Texans, Jets, Giants and Falcons as victories for the Bears, fans of the Lions, Texans, Jets, Giants and Falcons have the game against the Bears pegged as a victory for their team.
Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss.
And not just the fans. The last time the Bears made a coaching change, when Matt Nagy was hired to replace John Fox in 2018, the Bears were coming off a 5-11 season. When the schedule was released, ESPN.com had its NFL beat writers make game-by-game predictions for the team they cover. They compositely had the Bears going 0-16. The Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North. In 2019, the ESPN.com reporters had the Bears going 11-5. They went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
Under first-year general manager Ryan Poles, the Bears are in the midst of a significant teardown/rebuild that portends a difficult season. Gone are several players who would have been key contributors to a playoff/Super Bowl contender: linebacker Khalil Mack, defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, receiver Allen Robinson, guard James Daniels, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, defensive lineman Bilal Nichols, safety Tashaun Gipson and tight end Jimmy Graham.
Replacing them are rookies and heretofore supporting players: rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon, rookie safety Jaquan Brisker, center Lucas Patrick, rookie receiver Velus Jones, defensive tackle Justin Jones, receiver Byron Pringle, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad and linebacker Nick Morrow.
The Bears, in fact, have only three players on their 90-man roster who have been to the Pro Bowl: defensive end Robert Quinn (three times), safety Eddie Jackson (twice) and guard Cody Whitehair (once).
At the same point of the rebuild under former GM Ryan Pace in 2015, the Bears had 12 players with a combined 25 Pro Bowl berths. (All but three of them — Jay Cutler, Alshon Jeffery and Kyle Long would be gone by 2016 — but you can argue that’s still a point in Poles’ favor because he has cleaned house more quickly than Pace did.)
In their first year with Poles and coach Matt Eberflus, the Bears sure seem destined for a losing season. They’re installing new schemes on offense and defense, with new personnel throughout. There are just too many unknowns. And even in a smooth transition, it’s likely there will be a learning curve.
There’s one X-factor that might be a game-changer: Second-year quarterback Justin Fields gives the offense a chance for exponential growth, which would give the Bears a chance to be a surprise team.
It doesn’t appear likely now, with a modest-at-best receiving corps and an unproven offensive line on which only Whitehair has started more than two seasons in the NFL. But the quarterback can make all the difference. And if Fields clicks with offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, some of today’s losses could be tomorrow’s wins.
That said, a reasonable positive scenario is for the Bears and Fields to be better at the end of the season than at the beginning. At this point, the 2022 schedule sets up well for that. The Bears play the Lions (home), Falcons (road) and Jets (road) in Weeks 10-12, and four of their last five games are at home — against the Packers (Week 13), Eagles (Week 15), Bills (Week 16) and Vikings (Week 18), with the only road game during that stretch coming against the Lions (Week 17).
And if that scenario plays out, the Bears have a chance to give fans what they’re looking for from the 2022 season: a strong finish, with the arrow pointing up heading into 2023.