This one hit differently.
The Chicago Bears have blown fourth-quarter leads under coach Matt Eberflus before. They had a doozy of a meltdown seven weeks ago, when they led the Denver Broncos 28-7 with a little more than 15 minutes to play at Soldier Field. The Broncos scored the final 24 points to escape with a victory.
The Broncos are middle of the pack, at best. The NFC North rival Detroit Lions represent something the Bears want to become — a young and rugged team with swagger, physical players on both sides of the line and a knack for closing out games.
This was the kind of game Eberflus and his coaching staff needed in the worst way. More than halfway through their second season, the group can’t point to a signature win.
Improvements have been made — and the Bears are showing some strides — but progress that matters comes in the form of victories, and getting one against the division-leading Lions would have been progress for Eberflus. Leading 26-14 after Cairo Santos booted a 39-yard field goal with 4 minutes, 15 seconds remaining, this should have been a victory as the Bears dominated the game thoroughly, controlling the ball for more than 40 minutes in regulation for the first time since a Dec. 7, 1997, win over the Buffalo Bills.
10 thoughts after a disastrous final four minutes Sunday at Ford Field led to a 31-26 loss — and what it potentially means for Eberflus.
1. Matt Eberflus’ record as Bears coach stands at 6-22, and the losses continue to mount.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to make a case for why he should remain in his position in 2024. The Bears are again two games away from their first two-game winning streak under Eberflus. They have yet to defeat an opponent with a winning record. They are winless against NFC North teams since the beginning of the 2022 season.
That’s why this game, with quarterback Justin Fields returning from a right thumb injury that sidelined him the previous four weeks, loomed so huge. It was a step up in class coming off a narrow Thursday night victory over the bottom-feeding Carolina Panthers. It was an opportunity to show how the program is evolving.
It turned into a total embarrassment. Given multiple opportunities to close out the game — for both the offense and defense — the Bears failed. Players sat at their lockers in stunned silence afterward. Some draped towels over their heads.
“I’m kind of at a loss for words for what just happened, honestly,” tight end Cole Kmet said.
Told the Bears’ time of possession was 40 minutes, 24 seconds, Kmet was shocked.
“That’s unbelievable,” he replied. “Felt like we won the game physically, for sure, out there. We’ve just got to finish. That’s tough. It’s tough. It’s tough.”
“We should have beat that team,” wide receiver Tyler Scott said.
“This is an ugly loss right here,” defensive end DeMarcus Walker said. “I feel like this is the worst one. I don’t know, man. I’ve seen a lot of football, but, damn, you know. I don’t know, man. Honestly, I couldn’t answer your questions. I’ve got to watch the film. Because I really want to see, like, what the (expletive) happened.”
That’s what makes it disingenuous to sort through a game like this and pull out the positives — and there were plenty — while glossing over the “what the (expletive) happened.”
Fields ran for a season-high 104 yards as the offense posted a season-high 183 on the ground. Fields had a beauty of a 39-yard touchdown pass to DJ Moore. The Bears got four takeaways for the first time since their Week 7 victory at New England last year, as cornerback Tyrique Stevenson had an interception and forced a fumble on a kickoff return and linebackers Tremaine Edmunds and T.J. Edwards also picked off Jared Goff.
It wasn’t enough in the end as the Lions ripped through an improving Bears defense with their two-minute offense. Goff directed a 75-yard, 10-play touchdown drive in 96 seconds at the end of the second quarter, with a 7-yard scoring pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
At the end of the game — when the Bears managed to take only 15 seconds off the clock on three snaps, unable to get a first down — Goff marched the Lions 75 yards in six plays for a touchdown in only 76 seconds. Then the Lions toppled the Bears with a 73-yard, 11-play drive that took 124 seconds.
The Bears will talk about having to learn how to finish, one of those hard-to-define qualities you recognize when you see it. They will talk about execution and missed opportunities. They will circle back to highlight some of the better elements of this game.
But what they’re doing, repeatedly, is failing to make plays at game-defining moments. We’ll get into some of the decisions and what happened in a bit.
“Obviously very disappointed in the loss and really disappointed because of the way we played in the beginning,” Eberflus said.
It wasn’t just the beginning. With the exception of the Lions touchdown drive at the end of the second quarter, the Bears controlled the first 55 minutes.
They were physical. They did a nice job against the Lions ground game. They flustered the heck out of Goff. They moved the ball successfully — 25 first downs for only the second time under Eberflus (they had 26 in the Week 4 loss to the Broncos). They got the takeaways Eberflus covets.
And in the end, they blew it.
I’d be stunned if the organization made a move with Eberflus during the season. It would take something far more irregular than giving away a game like this in excruciating fashion. The Bears are already down two coaches, as defensive coordinator Alan Williams resigned under bizarre circumstances and running backs coach David Walker was fired. Eberflus is coordinating the defense, and they lack someone who could fill in as the head coach.
Canning the coach in season is a great way to get the entire staff to check out and start networking to find jobs for 2024 instead of helping to develop a young roster. An in-season move would only add chaos to a team that’s had its share already.
But with an improved roster — and it is better this season — the results need to start coming with at least some regularity, and this team cannot sustain any momentum. The Bears haven’t won consecutive games since the Matt Nagy era. Their three wins this season have come against the Washington Commanders, Las Vegas Raiders and Panthers.
I don’t know if there’s a shot at a signature win the rest of the way. Beating Joshua Dobbs and the Vikings next Monday night in Minnesota wouldn’t qualify. Dobbs has a great story. Unbelievable. He’s also 2-10 as an NFL starter.
Beating the Lions at Soldier Field after a bye week would be a really good win, maybe a signature victory. None of the final four opponents — at the Cleveland Browns, home against the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons and at the Green Bay Packers — could provide a signature victory. The Browns are using rookie Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback.
So unless the Bears start ripping off wins in the final six games, how could Eberflus make the case that he’s making the necessary progress with the roster? What case can he make for himself? It will be difficult — and it might seem next to impossible right now — because this team cannot do anything with the consistency required to win on a weekly basis.
“We’ve had a lot of adversity as the Chicago Bears and it’s only going to make us tougher,” Eberflus said. “And to me, there’s a lot of things you can build off of this game right here, and really the last six weeks, you can build off of and we’re going to look at it.
“We’re going to get better from it and then we’re going to move on — the 24-hour rule, we’re going to move on to the next week.”
Before moving on, they have to discover “what the (expletive) happened.” Unfortunately, they might discover it was too much of the same ol’ same ol’.
2. Justin Fields returned from his longest injury absence since high school, and the Bears offense got a boost.
Fields missed the previous four games after suffering a dislocated right thumb in the Oct. 15 loss to the Vikings at Soldier Field. Coincidentally, that was also the last time the Bears were coming off a Thursday night victory and hoping to build a little momentum against an NFC North foe.
Offensive coordinator Luke Getsy had Fields on the move from the beginning Sunday, and it clicked as the Bears went 75 yards in 10 plays for a touchdown on the opening possession.
Fields ran a sweep around the left end for 11 yards on the second snap. He picked up 7 yards on a zone-read keeper to the right on the next play. He scrambled to his left and went sidearm to make a nice throw to DJ Moore for 14 yards on the fourth snap. Another read started left and he worked all the way back to the right side to tight end Cole Kmet for 11 yards.
It was a little bit of everything and it worked as the offense avoided a third down on the possession. Later the Bears had possessions of 15, 10 and 14 plays. Unfortunately, all three of those resulted in field goals. The point is the offense operated relatively well in a rowdy environment — the Ford Field crowd hadn’t been this fired up for a Bears game in a while — against a good defense.
Fields finished 16 of 23 passing for 169 yards with the 39-yard touchdown pass to Moore in the third quarter. It looked pretty darn similar to a second-quarter play on which Fields missed Moore. Moore had a step, maybe a step and a half, on cornerback Jerry Jacobs for what would have been a 44-yard touchdown, but the ball was overthrown.
Fields carried the ball 18 times (tying a career high) for a season-high 104 yards. That sounds great until you crunch the numbers and realize 18 carries per game over 17 games would be 306 carries in a season — more than enough to get a quarterback broken.
Yes, I realize he won’t reach 18 carries every week and his previous high in 2023 was 11 (twice). I’m just not sure where the fine line is between Fields being able to play freely and being protected. He has missed 10 games in a little more than 2 1/2 seasons because of the thumb issue and prior injuries to his ribs, ankle, shoulder and hip.
“Shoot, I felt like it was the first game of the season out there,” Fields said. “My body felt good. I was just trying at practice to just keep my conditioning, running wides and (things) like that. Felt good, 100% going into the game.”
Fields’ longest run of the game — a scramble for 29 yards on third-and-14 from the Bears 40-yard line — looked like it might wind up being one of the defining plays in the game. Alim McNeill had sacked him for an 8-yard loss on the previous play with the Bears in position to put the game away, leading 23-14.
What you really wanted was to see Fields make that play. From the Lions 26 after the long run:
- First down: Khalil Herbert run to the left side for 2 yards
- Second down: Fields keeper on a zone read for 1 yard
- Third down: Roschon Johnson run straight ahead for 2 yards
On fourth-and-5 from the 21-yard line, Matt Eberflus made the easy decision to have Cairo Santos kick a 39-yard field goal that pushed the advantage to 26-14.
From there, the Bears had only three more snaps with the lead. There were two handoffs to Herbert, one a zone read on which Fields appeared to make the right decision giving the back the ball. Then on third-and-9 from the Bears 26, a deep shot on a go ball to rookie Tyler Scott was incomplete. More on that play and the play call in just a little bit.
Poof. Just like that, a chance for Fields to lead the Bears to victory in his first game back vanished.
“He did good,” Moore said. “Managed everything well, commanded the huddle well and he put us in the best possible position to win, so that’s what you want out of our starting quarterback.”
Fields played a turnover-free game. The safety at the end, when rookie right tackle Darnell Wright was beaten by defensive end Aidan Hutchinson for a strip-sack, is not officially counted as a turnover even though the Bears went from having possession to the Lions getting two points and the Bears kicking off. I’m not blaming Fields for the fumble there, just expressing that you learn something new every day. I would have sworn it would have counted as a turnover.
It’s too bad there wasn’t a play at the end to lift the team to victory. To blow a 12-point cushion in such a short period of time, there’s an awful lot of blame to go around. Fields was good, no question.
“It hurts,” he said of the mental state, not his right thumb. “It hurts a lot. You’ve just got to take the positives out of it and learn from the loss. We did a lot of good things this game and just have to build on that.”
3. Fourth-and-less-than-a-yard seemed like the perfect spot to put the Lions away.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, Fields was stuffed for no gain on third-and-1 from the Lions 23-yard line on a QB sneak.
“I was kind of on the bottom of the pile there,” said center Dan Feeney, forced to step in when Lucas Patrick left in the first half with a back injury. “I was just trying to get that yard with everything I could. We’ll see it on film. Lot of guys on the sideline said we got it. Sometimes you get the short end of the stick. That’s ball. Just got to make it more defined and not leave it in anybody else’s hands but ours.”
Said right guard Nate Davis: “I felt like he definitely had it. That was a tough one.”
Officials spotted the ball on one side of the 23. The line to gain was just over the 23. So we’re talking a foot and a half, maybe less. The Bears led 20-14. Their defense had been playing very well. Eberflus opted to have Cairo Santos kick a 40-yard field goal for a 23-14 lead with 14:12 remaining.
“You’re always giving thought there (to going for it),” Eberflus said. “But going up by (nine) was our thought process there and we liked that.”
I don’t have a huge problem with that call. The kick gave the Bears a two-score lead. There were way bigger problems in the final 14 minutes. I do agree that linebacker Alex Anzalone stopping Fields on the sneak was huge for the Lions.
“That was as big as they come,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “There’s really no secret to it. It’s about leverage and get-off … and normally the offense has the upper hand on those things, and then you need a guy who can really push. He gets the football, he can leg drive.
“So I don’t know the secret that Philly does a really good job of it, and that quarterback (Fields) does a good job too. But we stopped it today, so it was big.”
Anzalone told me defensive tackles Benito Jones and Quinton Bohanna had the push up front.
“When the quarterback becomes a runner like that, you try to hit him pretty good,” Anzalone said. “We were able to get a really good knock back on the interior of the D-line. You have to get that surge. Philly has it down to a science. Justin is big, 6-foot-3, thicker build.”
Anzalone thought the Bears would go for it on fourth-and-1 and he and his defensive teammates would have to rise up again.
“Looking back on it, it sort of falls into their … well, I wouldn’t say conservative approach,” he said. “They were playing well defensively and they were getting turnovers. Sometimes you just take the points. It was probably a sound decision. Obviously it didn’t work out in the end. Those decisions are hard to make.”
If you recall, Eberflus was aggressive back in Week 4 against the Broncos. The Bears had a chance to reclaim the lead in that ugly affair after coughing up a 28-7 advantage and allowing Denver to tie. With a little less than three minutes to play, the Bears faced fourth-and-1 at the 18-yard line. Khalil Herbert tried the left side and got stuffed by linebacker Alex Singleton for no gain. The Broncos took possession and got a game-winning field goal from Wil Lutz.
So Eberflus has been aggressive at times. It just seems that too often he winds up damned when he does and damned when he doesn’t.
4. Tyler Scott sat facing his locker in silence.
My guess is he would have preferred to remain that way, but he was engaging when I asked him about the go route with 2:51 remaining and the Bears leading 26-21.
It was third-and-9 and they were on their 26-yard line. You can see Scott’s route-running savvy that attracted the Bears to him as a fourth-round pick out of Cincinnati. He smoked cornerback Cam Sutton off the line of scrimmage. Scott faked a corner route at about the Bears 40 and kept motoring downfield.
Said Sutton: “They will try to get you sleeping. They had been doing certain things throughout the game. He had a cut split. It’s either two things, you try to work outside and most times it’s that quick jab and try to get vertical. He had pretty good speed. It was a long ball.”
“Just by the release,” Scott said, “I knew the ball was coming my way. From there, I put my head down, you know, like it’s routes on air. I looked up for the ball, just trying to judge it. It was a high ball. I just misjudged it. I probably have to look at the film and see where it landed. I misjudged it. It’s something to learn from.”
Justin Fields’ pass traveled almost 50 yards in the air beyond the line of scrimmage, falling incomplete at about the Lions 27. Scott made the mistake of stuttering when he reached the Detroit 43 as he struggled to track the ball in the air.
“Just more reps at it,” Scott said. “Just playing the game. That’s one of those things where you want to go back and catch a million balls thrown a million feet in the air and just keep catching them. It’s the frustration of that. Clean route. Just like it was in practice. Good off the release and then just hurts that you go out there, you practice something and it looks good. Come game time, you don’t get to make that play.”
If Scott makes the play, and let’s say he’s tackled at the Detroit 27, the Bears have a first down, the five-point lead and the Lions were down to one timeout.
“If that thing connects, yeah, I think that seals the deal in my opinion,” Fields said.
So why target Scott, who was probably the fourth guy in line to make a play on third-and-9 when DJ Moore, Darnell Mooney and Cole Kmet were also on the field? Why weren’t the Bears looking at something a little more high-percentage on third-and-9?
“(It) was a crosser over to DJ,” Matt Eberflus said, explaining the primary read for Fields. “It was a crossing route and if the free safety (Tracy Walker) comes down, which he did to take away the crosser, then we were going to throw it over the top.
“I thought he had a nice read there and I thought he just missed it by a step and thought it was a good ball. Just have to run it to the catch.”
If Scott doesn’t break stride, he’s probably in position to catch the ball. Easy play on a 50-yard bomb downfield with strong safety Kerby Joseph close to arriving? No. But a play you expect a pro to make with the game on the line. The kind of play the Bears needed in the moment. The kind of play that would have spawned all sorts of storylines for the week ahead. If Scott draws Walker’s attention at the start, Moore might move the chains. Instead, the Bears wound up punting.
“He’s a young player with a bright future in this league and he’ll be good and bounce back from that,” Fields said.
5. Tyrique Stevenson is getting baptism by fire.
It’s happening week after week. Rookie cornerbacks get it throughout the NFL every season. Rookie cornerbacks with a teammate opposite them playing at a high level — see Jaylon Johnson — get it even more.
Stevenson entered Week 11 having been targeted 73 times, third-most in the NFL and just behind the Vikings’ Byron Murphy (75) and the Baltimore Ravens’ Brandon Stephens (74). Those numbers are according to Pro Football Reference, whose data had Stevenson allowing 49 receptions (67.1% completion rate when targeted) for 513 yards. By comparison, Johnson had only 36 targets, tied for 82nd in the league.
Stevenson has been getting better, though, and this is before his two-takeaway game. He had the first of three interceptions of Jared Goff in the first quarter. Goff was throwing for tight end Sam LaPorta, who appeared to get knocked off his route by strong safety Jaquan Brisker. Stevenson finished the route and made the play.
“It was just something in base coverage,” he said. “They put the tight end out there. Just knew that the last few weeks, the game plan was go at 29 (Stevenson’s number). I got the up-and-out against Washington. I knew that (LaPorta) is the receiving tight end. They put him out there. He ran a simple slant. I don’t know what occurred. He stopped running. The ball was right there.
“Happy to get my first pick. Definitely feels good. But it doesn’t matter, to be honest with you. We just got a loss. I am more worried about getting back to the drawing board. I am worried about my guys. Interception is great but it is what it is.”
Later, the Lions looked to be in business with a long kickoff return by Craig Reynolds. He was out to the Lions 34 and it looked like there was more room when Stevenson stuck his body in there, drilled Reynolds and jarred the ball loose. DeMarquis Gates fell on the fumble.
Getting Stevenson locked in on defense — and having him contribute on special teams — is the kind of development the team has to be happy to see in the second half of the season from the second-round pick.
One reason to say he has been improving even as the numbers look a little skewed: It’s not like opponents have been taking the top off the defense going at him lately. The defense is doing a good job of reducing and, in the case of the win over the Panthers, eliminating explosive plays. The 32-yard touchdown pass to Jameson Williams by the Lions was away from Stevenson.
“Real big emphasis, you know,” Stevenson said. “We play one of the hardest positions. They’re going to catch balls. Make sure the ball is caught in front of you and tackle. Don’t let the ball over your head.”
Things are still moving fast for the Miami alumnus, and that’s all part of the process. There are still mistakes. He can get caught with his head in the backfield at times. He has bitten on a few too many double moves.
“My senior year of college, I understood what the offense was going to try to do or the receiver just because of the traits they had,” he said. “I’m working to getting back to that habit in the NFL, where all of this and all of the players are new to me.
“At the end of the day as a corner and a rookie corner, I am playing the guy across from me and the offensive coordinator. I’m just doing the best job that I can so that when I go out there, I understand everybody has tendencies and when I can pick up on one of those, I am in position to make a play.”
Sounds like what he did against Goff for the interception. When I told him he was the third-most targeted cornerback in the league, he was surprised.
“I love the challenge,” Stevenson said. “Bring it on. I want everything. I want every throw and every challenge that is coming this way. This is doing nothing but prepping me for the rest of the season and giving me some motivation for the offseason and what’s coming next year.”
6. With Nate Davis returning, the Bears got their offensive line in what they believe is the best position it’s been in all season.
With Davis sliding back in at his familiar right guard position after missing four games with a high right ankle sprain, Teven Jenkins flipped to the left side giving the team its seventh starting combination on the line — three short of the number of different lineups the team had in the trenches last season.
It’s possible there will be an eighth combination next Monday as center Lucas Patrick left in the first half with a back injury forcing Dan Feeney (not Cody Whitehair) into action.
A weakness from last season has been improved and while the Bears aren’t where they want to be up front right now, they’re on their way to being significantly better as Darnell Wright has emerged as a pretty darn good right tackle in his first season. It was a pretty quiet game for Aidan Hutchinson until his strip-sack at the end, something Wright can learn from.
The only questions surrounding Jenkins now are whether he can prove to be durable, and he’s now started and played 100% of the snaps in six consecutive games. That’s something he accomplished only six times total in his first two seasons.
Justin Fields was sacked two times and the Lions were credited with four QB hits. Factor in how the running game worked and it was a decent day for the line. Good enough in every situation? No. The line was stalemated on the third-and-1, as I wrote about above. But this group is doing OK.
It’s fair to wonder how Jenkins will settle in at left guard where he worked throughout the offseason but started only once back in Week 6. He looked so good paired next to Wright when he was at right guard. But more importantly, in my mind, is how left tackle Braxton Jones closes out the season. In his third start since returning from a neck injury that sidelined him for six games, Jones got a brief scare when officials made him leave the game for two snaps in the third quarter.
“I just got dizzy,” Jones said. “I needed like 2 seconds and I guess the clock was running down. I had tumble rolled and then got up like immediately. So, I just needed to take a second to gather my equilibrium. That was literally it. Other than that, I was fine.”
Jones is the big domino on the offensive line when looking ahead to the offseason. I fully expect the Bears to part ways with Whitehair, who was pushed to the sideline in the latest switch. Credit to Whitehair for being a versatile team player for so long but there’s no way the team is going to pay him $10.25 million next season. Patrick, 30, is in the final year of his contract and I envision the team signing a center in free agency or drafting one. They might do both unless they feel really strongly about Doug Kramer, who was re-signed to the practice squad Friday.
The question is, how does Jones project moving forward? I’ve written about the significance of the second half of the season for him recently and this cannot be overstated. If the Bears feel good about Jones as the left tackle, they’re in a great spot with him as a cheap starter for at least one more season before they would have to entertain the idea of giving him a new contract. If the team is lukewarm about Jones, the time to replace him would be this offseason when they have two high first-round picks with a couple of good prospects at left tackle. To get a top-tier left tackle in free agency — if one is even available — you’ve got to overpay a position that is already at a premium. That means carving out a huge chunk of salary cap space and writing a mammoth contract.
“That wouldn’t be a priority in my mind as I look at it,” said a pro scout I chatted with the other day. “They better keep No. 70 around. That is a legitimate starter there. He’s a very good pass protector. He’s had some outstanding games. At minimum, he is a sufficient run blocker.”
The scout described Jones as “more athleticism than power,” and that certainly matches with what you see when you watch him. Athleticism is probably the first trait you’re seeking when you evaluate a left tackle too.
“He sticks his face in there,” the scout said. “He’s aggressive, tough, competitive, he’s developed. To me, the Bears have four starters. They gotta find a center. They have a swing tackle (Larry Borom). I like (Ja’Tyre) Carter too.”
If the Bears feel comfortable with Jones, it would provide flexibility for them in the draft. They could consider a defensive lineman, if one emerges who they like, or perhaps go with a wide receiver. Ultimately, it’s going to be a decision that Jones helps them make with how he performs the rest of the way.
“I feel like it has gotten better maybe a little bit every game (since returning),” Jones told me. “Still taking too long to throw my hands and letting people get into my chest a little bit too much. That’s frustrating. I’m doing a lot to work on it on my own and just drills by myself so I can get the extra work. I still feel like I am giving Justin (Fields) and the team enough to win. I need to be more precise. I’m hard on myself.
“I’m definitely 100%. I feel the best I have felt in a long time playing the whole season last year. I just think when you’re out for that many weeks, it’s hard to come back and get it right back. It just takes a while. That was my first good week of having a full week. Hopefully another one of those and an extra day with the Monday night (game at Minnesota) will be good for us to have another full week.”
7. With the Lions one year ahead of the Bears regime, it’s worth wondering if there’s anything to be learned from their rise from the ashes.
Detroit hired GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell in 2021 while Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus took over at Halas Hall in 2022.
Detroit, out in front in the division, is now 8-2 for the first time since 1962, the year before the Bears won their final championship with George Halas as head coach. The Lions have yet to win the NFC North, which was formed in 2002 when the league expanded to 32 teams, and have finished in last place 10 times. It’s as if Bobby Layne miscalculated back in 1958 when the Lions traded him to the Pittsburgh Steelers for Earl Morrall and a couple of draft picks. Legend has it an incensed Layne, who won three titles with the Lions in 1952, 1953 and 1957, said the Lions “wouldn’t win again for 50 years.”
Detroit hasn’t had a championship since and the organization’s lone playoff victory since Layne’s exit came after the 1991 season when running back Barry Sanders was in his prime. The Lions own the second-best record in the NFC now, with the Philadelphia Eagles (8-1) playing Monday night. Detroit is 16-4 in its last 20 games.
So maybe it’s instructive to look at how the Lions have built a competitive roster after three consecutive last-place seasons for former coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn:
- Holmes has drafted very well and the Lions are getting significant contributions from all three of his classes. Right tackle Penei Sewell (first round, 2021) is one of the best offensive linemen in the league. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (fourth round, 2021) is a bona fide playmaker. Derrick Barnes (fourth round, 2021) has been good enough at linebacker to keep Jack Campbell, a first-round pick this year, on the sideline. Aidan Hutchinson (first round, 2022) is a talented two-way defensive end. Kerby Joseph (third round, 2022) is a solid safety. Edge rusher James Houston (sixth round, 2022) has been out with a broken ankle since Week 2 but he’s got eight sacks in his career. Linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (sixth round, 2022) is a starter. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs (first round, 2023), tight end Sam LaPorta (second round, 2023) and safety Brian Branch (second round, 2023) are all major contributors.
- The Lions have gotten a little lucky in the draft. Sewell was the best lineman in the 2021 and fell to the Lions at No. 7 with quarterbacks Zach Wilson and Trey Lance going ahead of him. Hutchinson was sitting there at No. 2 the following year after the Jacksonville Jaguars chose the wrong edge defender — Travon Walker — at No. 1.
- Sure, there have been some misses. Wide receiver Jameson Williams (No. 12 in 2022) has yet to click. Defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike and defensive end Josh Paschal, both second-round picks, had injury histories … and have both been injured. But Holmes and his staff don’t get enough credit for rapidly restocking the roster with young talent and in some cases finding cheaper players that are as good or better, in the case of LaPorta replacing T.J. Hockenson (traded to the Minnesota Vikings) and Gibbs replacing D’Andre Swift (signed with the Philadelphia Eagles in free agency).
- The Lions have largely been small-time players in free agency and Holmes has resisted the urge to splurge, hardly signing any players to multiyear contracts. He’s gone shopping for guys willing to play on one-year contracts or prove-it deals. The exceptions have been running back Jamaal Williams, who left for the New Orleans Saints in free agency, and cornerback Cam Sutton ($33 million, three years) and running back David Montgomery ($18 million, three years) this year. Those are modest signings when you consider what the first wave of free agency can look like.
“No, it really doesn’t,” Holmes told Detroit media in January when asked if his free-agency approach needed to change with the core of the team in place. “We’re always going to be very strategic and selective with our approach. Regardless of how many resources you have, how much money you can spend, we always are very selective and strategic with how we go about free agency, and that’s upcoming (unrestricted free agents) that are on our team, as well as external adds. It’s always going to be the same approach.”
Plenty of other factors have contributed to the turnaround. Quarterback Jared Goff, acquired with draft capital in the trade of Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams, has been even better than imagined. Campbell has proven to be a terrific manager of players. He connects with the men in his locker room. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has emerged as a bright young mind, a guy who could become a head coach in a few short months.
But when you look at the roster and analyze how a rebirth was spawned, it goes back to the draft. Holmes stacked draft picks and then hit on many in the middle and late rounds. He’s done so with minimal staff turnover. It’s not like there have been wholesale changes in the team’s scouting departments on the pro or college sides.
It’s important to recall the Bears were short on draft capital when Poles was hired. They were paying the bill due on the trade up to draft quarterback Justin Fields. As a result, and because of some trades, the Bears had only three selections in the first 167 picks in 2022. Fortunately, the Bears own two first-round picks in 2024 and they project to be high selections, with both possibly in the top five.
8. The Bears appear to be in a good position with their backup quarterback for the foreseeable future.
This doesn’t solve the No. 1 issue that has been handcuffing the franchise for decades but hear me out: through a combination of good scouting, maybe a little luck and the right decision in late August, Tyson Bagent was a 2-2 as a starter and the undrafted rookie free agent from Division II Shepherd University should only improve.
The need for a capable No. 2 quarterback is a storyline that has played out for many clubs this season with injuries forcing a lot of changes. Joe Burrow’s season ended Thursday night in a loss at Baltimore with a torn ligament in his right wrist. That will force No. 2 Jake Browning into action as the Bengals attempt to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Josh Dobbs has turned into a terrific story in Minnesota filling in for Kirk Cousins, who is sidelined with a torn Achilles tendon, although he suffered his first loss as Vikings starter 21-20 Sunday night at Denver. The Cleveland Browns announced Wednesday that Deshaun Watson would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a broken bone in his right throwing shoulder. That cast Dorian Thompson-Robinson into a starting role for a 7-3 Browns team that is only a half-game behind Baltimore in the AFC North after defeating the Steelers on Sunday. The New York Jets season appears to be fading — fast — with former No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson struggling mightily to fill in for Aaron Rodgers, also out with an Achilles injury.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick declared the backup quarterback job a top-30 position on NFL rosters, and there are more teams that can attest to the need for competence in the role.
Tommy DeVito, the former Illinois quarterback, became the 10th rookie quarterback to start last week when the New York Giants were demolished at Dallas. DeVito was sacked nine times by the Washington Commanders this week and still managed to record a 137.7 passer rating with three TD passes in a 31-19 victory. Ten rookie starters is a record number for one season, and not all have been backups. The Carolina Panthers (Bryce Young), Houston Texans (C.J. Stroud) and Indianapolis Colts (Anthony Richardson) rolled with their high first-round picks from the start. Injuries forced Aidan O’Connell (Las Vegas Raiders), Will Levis (Tennessee Titans), Clayton Tune (Arizona Cardinals), Jaren Hall (Minnesota Vikings), Bagent, DeVito and Thompson-Robinson into action. O’Connell and Levis look like they will start for the remainder of the season.
The Bears will face Dobbs next Monday night at Minnesota. Dobbs was traded from the Browns to the Cardinals in August, and again to the Vikings before the deadline. The Watson injury sets up a Week 15 game for the Bears at Cleveland against Thompson-Robinson and the Browns.
There have been a total of 48 different starting quarterbacks across the league. A lot of shuffling will be required to break the record set last year when 64 starting quarterbacks were used. Browning will become No. 49 this coming week and if the New England Patriots replace Mac Jones coming off their bye week, that will push the total to 50 with seven weeks to play.
Circling back to Bagent, it was apparent in his four starts for the Bears that the moment wasn’t too big for him, that he wasn’t going to disintegrate from the beginning as you sometimes see from untested quarterbacks pressed into action. Entering Week 11, he had the lowest sack percentage at 3.4%, just ahead of Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills.
That’s evidence the clock in Bagent’s mind is moving quickly. That’s going to be a much easier thing to work through than if his internal clock was too slow. Yes, there’s a lot for Bagent to clean up and three touchdown passes with six interceptions isn’t going to work but, again, there’s reason to believe there’s room for growth.
“We never put a ceiling on players,” Matt Eberflus said. “But we certainly like where his floor is. The sky’s the limit for everybody. Guys can grow into certain spaces that they didn’t even think they could. So you have to give them that opportunity, but we certainly like where he is right now.”
I asked Bagent, with a little distance from his four-game opportunity, to assess what he learned most.
“I think I have realized how important every little detail is,” he said. “At first, I wanted to have a broad idea of what was going on every single play and being able to execute it. Just understanding it is so much more than that and how really important every single play is. Kind of learned that in the New Orleans game. Can’t play really well for 3 1/2 quarters and then let any plays go. That was probably the biggest thing I took from it. You gotta be locked in for all 60 minutes.”
Having started for a month puts him in a better position now to serve as the backup and an extra set of eyes for Justin Fields.
“Makes me a lot more comfortable in the No. 2 role,” Bagent said. “In the beginning, I was comfortable but the thought of, you know, you hadn’t taken that first snap live against a non-preseason opponent. Now, I just feel that if my number gets called for whatever reason, I’m a lot more comfortable. There’s no nervousness about getting that first snap. It’s all under my belt.
“Probably be able to accomplish a lot more. I thought there was a lot on my plate when I was the backup. And then I was the starter and you realize how there wasn’t really a lot on your plate. Now, it will be a lot easier to help.”
Ultimately, Bagent learned that there is a place for him in the NFL — a valuable spot when you look at how some teams watched their seasons turn tumultuous with their backup quarterback forced into action.
“This is end all, be all, the NFL,” he said. “There is no level higher than this. This is the pinnacle of football. Learned that I can fit in with the best of the best. I had an idea that I did, but just kind of really proved that to myself.”
There’s value for the Bears having control of Bagent on a cheap contract for the next two years with the chance to use a restricted free-agent tender on him in 2026. Now, they just need to get the starting position figured out.
9. If you are eyeing the draft already, it was a significant Sunday.
For the Bears, it’s going to start with what the Carolina Panthers do — and that right there remains a mess.
Coach Frank Reich reclaimed play-calling duties for the offense after handing them off to offensive coordinator Thomas Brown for three games. The Dallas Cowboys — and their fans — invaded Carolina on Sunday and it was a 33-10 romp. Rookie quarterback Bryce Young continues to struggle, and Reich and GM Scott Fitterer could be in jeopardy.
The other notable development was the down-and-out New York Giants came to play. They had scored a total of 33 points in their previous three games — and had scored more than 17 only once (all the way back in Week 2) — but Big Blue got rolling at FedEx Field in a 31-19 victory over the Washington Commanders. Tommy DeVito threw three touchdown passes and the defense picked off Sam Howell three times as the Giants improved to 3-8 with just their second win since Week 2. That means the Giants are now two games behind the Panthers (whose pick belongs to the Bears) for the No. 1 pick.
You have to keep an eye on the Panthers, who play at Tennessee (3-7) on Sunday. The Titans have lost three straight and five of the last six and were pummeled 34-14 at Jacksonville. I tend to doubt Titans coach Mike Vrabel will have a locker room quitting on him — quite the opposite — but if you’re looking at games where Carolina could be competitive, this might be one.
There is another game that could affect the top of the draft. The 2-8 New England Patriots are coming off their bye and head to face the Giants at MetLife Stadium Sunday. If New York wins, hard to figure the Giants have a shot at the No. 1 pick any longer. But the Patriots could be in the mix if they continue to struggle.
The Arizona Cardinals (2-9) are right in the thick after a 21-16 loss at Arizona. I think veteran quarterback Kyler Murray finds a way to win another game or two. The Cardinals host the Rams this week and will be at Soldier Field on Christmas Eve.
According to tankathon.com, the Bears would be picking first and fourth if the draft order was set based on the current standings.
10. You might have seen Dan Campbell say some positive things about the Bears leading up to the game.
He said he thought the Bears were more talented than the team Detroit had just beaten, the Los Angeles Chargers.
Coaches are always saying glowing things about opponents — present and future — especially in front of cameras and recorders. I asked linebacker Alex Anzalone if Campbell was working that same message in team meetings. Yes, he was, Anzalone said. Then, I asked for the veteran’s assessment.
“100%, they have a good team,” Anzalone said of the Bears. “You could see it on film. They have a great team.”
Hold on, I said. It’s a 3-8 team. We have to rethink how we throw around the word great, right?
“I would say great personnel,” Anzalone replied. “I think defensively, they have two really good corners. I know (Tyrique) Stevenson. I train with him. I watch the defense a lot (when studying offenses the Lions will prepare for). They have some money in the linebacker room and they’ve got Eddie Jackson back there (at safety). They’ve got a physical D-line and they got (Montez) Sweat. Defensively, they have great personnel in my opinion.
“Offensively, getting Justin Fields back will help them a ton. They have Cole Kmet and DJ Moore. The personnel is there. It’s just about putting it together.”
The whole has not been greater than the sum of the parts to this point. Don’t think the Bears will sneak up on the Lions when these teams meet again Dec. 10 at Soldier Field.
10a. Looked to me like running back Khalil Herbert in his first game back since suffering a high ankle sprain was lacking explosiveness. He had 16 carries for 35 yards with a long gain of nine. Maybe the coaches viewed it differently, but the Bears took a hit with D’Onta Foreman left with an ankle injury.
10b. Rookie defensive tackle Gervon Dexter appeared pretty active. He was credited with one tackle, two QB hits and a pass deflection on Tremaine Edmunds’ interception. I asked Dexter about getting a hand on the ball on the play that led to the pick. He looped around Montez Sweat and Dexter instinctively knew what to do — it wasn’t a designed twist or stunt.
“It was a natural game,” Dexter said. “I saw (Sweat) go inside. I made him right. It was a natural game so I looped outside once I saw him.”
In doing so, Dexter was in position to help make a play.
10c. Jaylon Johnson only got credit for one pass breakup, but it looked like there were two to me. It could have been a different game if he corralled an interception on either of them. Difficult plays? You bet. The kind a guy who wants a big ol’ contract needs to make on occasion? No doubt.
10d. Kicker Cairo Santos is now 19 of 20 on the field goals for the season and 5-for-5 from 50 yards and deeper. Next week’s game at Minnesota will be the last game indoors and not in potentially bad weather. The final six games will have Santos kicking at Soldier Field three times and on the road at Cleveland and Green Bay.
10e. The Minnesota Vikings opened as a 3 1/2-point favorite over the Bears for next Monday night’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.