CHICAGO -- Long after their meltdown Sunday against the Denver Broncos was complete, three Bears veterans sat stunned in the corner of the Soldier Field locker room.
President Kevin Warren had long since cut through the locker room after the Bears surrendered 24 unanswered points in a 31-28 loss to the Broncos to fall to 0-4. Quarterback Justin Fields sat in his locker with his pads and jersey on for quite some time. But by this point, the third-year quarterback had changed and taken the podium. Wide receiver Chase Claypool's locker sat empty, with only a nameplate adorning it as perhaps the final memory of a failed tenure.
Running back Khalil Herbert, who couldn't get a yard on a critical fourth-and-1, stared off into space. Fullback Khari Blasingame whispered in his ear for a few minutes before the two exited.
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Edmunds was still in his game pants, and his gaze barely left the empty lockers across from him. Edwards stared at the ceiling as Johnson talked, although his vacant eyes suggested he was looking inward or back in time and not forward. Searching for opportunities missed or lost and answers the Bears need them to deliver.
Johnson was inactive Sunday with a hamstring injury. But he stayed there long after the devastation had set, trying to plot a response with two linebackers he hopes to share the field with for years in Chicago.
Ten feet away, inactive safety Eddie Jackson and defensive backfield mate Jaquan Brisker were having a conversation of their own, dissecting a historic letdown in the 31-28 loss.
Through four weeks, the Bears have lost in every possible way.
Frustration in Week 1 led to anger in Week 2 and desperation in Week 3. After letting a 21-point lead slip away Sunday in 15 minutes, only despair remained.
How the Bears respond -- if they respond -- will tell us a lot about the makeup of the franchise cornerstones and the direction of this rebuild.
"I think everyone is pissed off man," Edwards said long after his 20-plus minute conversation with Johnson and Edmunds ended. "I think we're ready to win. Everyone wants it and everyone can feel this thing moving. We just got to keep working, man. It's coming. It really is. I think we learned a lot from this thing. We learned a lot, not only as a team, but you learn a lot about yourself. You learn a lot about how you can get right back to work tomorrow and get right back to it. That's what we got to do."
Sunday's loss to the Broncos felt different from the Bears' first three defeats.
Fields and the offense were firing on all cylinders through three quarters. The protection was good, the run game strong, and Fields was slicing up a Broncos defense dying to be put out to pasture. The third-year quarterback started the game 23-of-25 for 285 yards and four touchdowns to propel the Bears to a 28-7 lead.
Despite being shorthanded, the defense showed fight in the first half. Head coach Matt Eberflus mixed things up. The Bears played more base than nickel, and sent different blitzes at Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson.
It seemed the Bears had finally found who they were supposed to be.
That everything went wrong at once, and a much-needed win was washed away in a tidal wave of poor execution and unacceptable mistakes, puts this Bears' locker room and Eberflus' tenure firmly under the microscope.
Perhaps that's why Edmunds, the $72 million linebacker who was seen as the perfect fit for Eberflus' defense, was the final Bear to head to the showers Sunday. He's a defensive captain and a long-term piece of what general manager Ryan Poles is building in Chicago. Edmunds was light on answers after the loss. To be fair, nothing could absolve the Bears of the sins of a monumental meltdown. But out of a humiliating collapse will come purpose and direction. It's up to Edmunds to help chart a course out of the rubble.
"We just got to put our head down and keep putting one foot in front of the other and continue to work," Edmunds said. "That's the only way to look at it. That's our emotion right now. That's what we are faced with. That's adversity. Adversity builds character. We've been hit with adversity prior to this game and I think that's built even more this game.
"They said it best: Judge a man by how he stands in times of challenge and controversy. That's what we are standing with now. We just got to put our head down and we got to work."
After the meeting between Edmunds, Edwards, and Johnson ended, only running back Roschon Johnson, Jackso, and Brisker remained. Johnson's stare didn't leave the floor for some time as Brisker continuously shook his head at the events that had just unfolded.
The second-year safety blamed himself and the defense for letting the Broncos storm back.
The Bears have been searching for answers for a month. They looked for them in scheme fixes, personnel changes, and a sharper focus.
After Sunday's debacle, their only hope for answers is to look inward. At 0-4, the goals must be refocused. Pride must take over. Fight must emerge.
What the Bears showed for three quarters Sunday, albeit against a bad team, was that they have the tools -- maybe not all of them, but enough to compete and win games. The next 13 games will determine whether or not this group, specifically its leaders, can find that inner strength and draw it to the surface.
Can they harness the good from Sunday and project it forward? Can Fields have an encore performance in Week 5? Will the defense show more grit as it gets healthier? Can Edmunds, Edwards, and other big-name defenders make the game-changing plays that lead to wins? Or will the 2023 Bears disintegrate in front of our eyes and bring into question the direction of a rebuild still in its infancy?
"Keep going. Never stop. No matter how hard it gets, never stop," Fields said after the loss. "We're playing for each other. I'm playing for each and every guy in that locker room. They know that I'm going to give my all, and you know, I know I'm going to get the same thing back from them. So keep going, don't be discouraged, and play every play and every game like it's your last."
If the Bears don't respond to this, that last game -- at least for this core group -- could arrive sooner than anyone, even the most ardent detractors, could have ever anticipated.