Eleven weeks ago, the Bears entered the season with big expectations. After an offseason of moves to help quarterback Justin Fields take the Year 3 leap.
The overhype cup runneth over.
Almost three months later, the Bears enter Week 11 at 3-7, with plenty of questions to answer about the state and direction of their rebuild in the final seven games of the season.
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Those questions start with Fields, who has missed the last four games with a dislocated right thumb but is set to return Sunday against the Lions in Detroit.
Can Justin Fields prove he's the guy?
The Bears' primary goal for the 2023 season was to get a complete evaluation of Fields. With the quarterback's fifth-year option needing to be picked up this offseason and the Bears likely to finish the season with two high draft picks, having a concrete idea of what Fields can be in the NFL was a must entering the season.
Fields got off to a horrific start before stringing together back-to-back starts against the Denver Broncos and Washington Commanders in Weeks 4 and 5. He entered Week 6 among the league leaders in passing touchdowns, but he threw for just 58 yards while compiling a passer rating of 36.7 in almost three quarters against the Minnesota Vikings before exiting with a thumb injury.
After missing four games, Fields returns needing to string together the best seven-game stretch of his career to show the Bears they should still place their faith in him.
Even if he rips off seven straight high-level performances as a passer to close the season, the die might already be cast as far as Fields and the Bears are concerned.
The 24-year-old entered the worst situation imaginable and has been unable to escape the organizational dysfunction that has consumed countless quarterbacks before him.
He has struggled with accuracy, pocket presence, and dissecting zone coverage. He hasn't been able to consistently throw with anticipation and has oscillated between positive performances and those littered with throws he either doesn't see or refuses to make.
Seven games won't be enough for the Bears to pass on Caleb Williams or Drake Maye if they land a top-two pick via the Carolina Panthers. Resetting their quarterback contract window with a top prospect whom general manager Ryan Poles can hand-pick will be too enticing to pass up for a second consecutive draft.
But seven games of consistent, high-level quarterbacking could allow Fields to keep the flicker of hope alive and perhaps give him one more year in Chicago to show he can reach his potential -- but that reality likely only exists if Maye or Williams isn't in the Bears' future.
The last ride for the H.I.T.S principle?
Head coach Matt Eberflus seemed like one of the few bright spots of a throwaway 2022 season. Given the Bears ' lack of talent, it was hard to gauge his coaching acumen, but the team played hard, didn't quit, and the staff was good at making in-game adjustments.
Eberflus' seat warmed quickly this year, thanks to an 0-4 start. He's 6-21 in his first 27 games, but it doesn't feel like the winds are blowing in the coaching change direction at Halas Hall.
Eberflus has the Bears' defense playing well. The unit got off to a horrid start but has slowly improved over the last six games. The Bears' defense currently ranks second in run defense and 15th in total defense. In the previous five games, the Bears have only allowed 16.8 points and 264.2 yards per game.
Poles gave a strong statement in support of Eberflus prior to the Bears' Week 9 game against the New Orleans Saints.
Despite the adversity this season, Eberflus appears to be on solid ground, and a few more wins while continuing to be competitive in losses should keep him safe.
However, if the Bears' defense regresses and a host of embarrassing losses fill the end of the season, a change of leadership could be in order.
How the final seven games play out will go a long way in determining what the future holds for Eberflus and his staff.
Braxton Jones has been honest that he still needs to prove to Poles and Eberflus that he can be a franchise left tackle.
The 2022 fifth-round pick out of Southern Utah struggled with penalties and hand placement early in the season before going on injured reserve with a neck injury before Week 3.
Since returning from injury, Jones has allowed just four pressures and one hit in 66 pass-blocking snaps across two games, per Pro Football Focus.
Jones had two penalties in Week 9 against the New Orleans Saints but played a clean game against the Carolina Panthers in Week 10. Jones has said he needs to work on not making mental mistakes later in the game as his stamina wears down.
With the Bears likely to have two picks in the top 10, Jones needs to stay healthy and play at a high level for the final seven games. If he does that, the Bears might feel comfortable with him and Darnell Wright being the bookends going forward.
But if Jones struggles, the Bears will have to take a long look at either Notre Dame's Joe Alt or Penn State's Olu Fashanu in the first round of the draft. Even if Jones plays well down the stretch, there's a case to be made that the Bears should still draft a left tackle early and make Jones a swing tackle.
Jones has a chance to squash that idea during the next two months.
Does All Pro equal extension?
Cornerback Jaylon Johnson and the Bears haven't found common ground on a contract extension. The fourth-year defensive back got permission to seek a trade at the deadline, but the Bears' asking price was too high for inquiring teams' taste.
Johnson has said he's done negotiating for the time being and wants to focus on playing at a high level and being named an All-Pro. Johnson has said numerous times that if he plays at an elite level and the Bears win, the money will take care of itself.
On the season, Johnson has given up just 16 catches on 31 targets for 141 yards and one touchdown. He has two interceptions, and opposing quarterbacks have a 47.9 rating when targeting him.
Among all NFL cornerbacks with at least 250 coverage snaps, Johnson ranks third in yards allowed, fourth in receptions, eighth in reception percentage, and third in passer rating against.
For comparison, Denver Broncos star cornerback Patrick Suratin has given up 28 receptions on 41 targets for 374 yards and two touchdowns. Per PFF, opposing quarterbacks have a rating of 103.1 when targeting Surtain.
Johnson said Wednesday that he has no doubt he is playing at an All-Pro level.
With matchups against Amon-Ra St. Brown and potentially Justin Jefferson in the final seven games, Johnson will have a chance to cement his Pro Bowl and potentially All-Pro status with a strong finish.
If he continues to play at a top-tier level and achieves his goals, it will be hard for the Bears to rationalize not closing the negotiation gap and inking him to a long-term deal.
Swan song for Mooney?
While Johnson's lack of an extension gets most of the attention, wide receiver Darnell Mooney is also in the final year of his contract and has yet to make significant progress on an extension with the Bears.
Mooney was a 1,000-yard receiver in 2021, but he has yet to find that level of productivity with this new regime. The season-ending ankle injury he suffered in Week 12 last year played a role, but Mooney has just 814 yards and three touchdowns in 22 games with this regime.
The Tulane product is a good slot receiver who would thrive as a No. 3 receiver on a contending team. The Bears like Mooney, but there doesn't appear to be any tangible progress in extension talks.
The Bears would probably like to bring Mooney back on a cheap deal. But is that something he'll be interested in? Can he put together his best seven-game stretch in two years to increase his value and show the Bears he should be viewed as a foundational piece of their rebuild?
Or will Mooney's time in Chicago end after a Week 18 trip to Green Bay, with a supporting role on a contending team likely waiting for him in the offseason?