(670 The Score) When Ryan Poles was hired by the Bears as their new general manager one year ago, he was blessed with patience from the team’s board of directors.
With consulting help from Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian, Bears chairman George McCaskey had recognized that Chicago's roster needed to be overhauled. Poles was entrusted to oversee the rebuilding process, which has included the Bears parting ways with key veterans and going 3-14 in 2022, which landed them the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft.
The Bears are now well-positioned in the draft and with the most salary cap space of any team in the NFL, but those resources must be handled carefully.
“The expectation is to take that next step,” Poles said recently. “I want to stair-step this thing to the top and then stay up there as absolutely long as possible.”
As Poles plans for the Bears’ pivotal offseason, he can look toward the NFL playoffs for examples of what his team can aspire to be.
The Jaguars serve as perhaps the most promising example for what the Bears can hope to be next season. In 2021, Jacksonville went 3-14 as prized quarterback Trevor Lawrence struggled with a poor supporting cast — and amid the dysfunctional culture under then-coach Urban Meyer.
The Jaguars then committed around $260 million, including $155 million guaranteed, in the early days of free agency to add playmakers like receiver Christian Kirk, receiver Zay Jones and tight end Evan Engram for Lawrence as well as protection in the form of five-time Pro Bowl guard Brandon Scherff. A Jacksonville defense that ranked near the bottom of the NFL in 2021 also steadily improved after the additions of cornerback Darious Williams and linebacker Foye Oluokun in free agency and with the continued development of pass rusher Josh Allen and defensive end Travon Walker, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
One year after finishing with the NFL’s worst record, the Jaguars won six of their seven games to finish 9-8 and win the weak AFC South. The Jaguars then beat the Chargers in the wild-card round before losing 27-20 to the Chiefs on Saturday in the NFL divisional round. With a foundation now in place around Lawrence, Jacksonville appears set to have sustained success.
What the Jaguars accomplished in 2022 should be a goal for the Bears in 2023 – a turnaround season that ends with a winning record as a young quarterback continues to show strong growth. Quarterback Justin Fields could showcase similar improvement if the Bears make the right investments around him this offseason.
The Eagles are a year further than the Jaguars in their trajectory and are another example that the Bears can look at. After going 4-11-1 in 2020, Philadelphia went 9-8 in 2021 and reached the playoffs. The team invested around quarterback Jalen Hurts entering his third NFL season in 2022, trading a first-round pick for star receiver A.J. Brown, a move that helped transform the offense.
That was a critical decision for the Eagles, who believed in Hurts' future as their franchise quarterback despite some past inconsistency. Now, Hurts is one of the game's most prolific passers and a dynamic rusher. His ascension is a reminder of the patience required in Fields' progression.
The Eagles also continued to invest in a defense that was top 10 in scoring defense, total defense, takeaways and pressure rate in 2022. Philadelphia is set to host San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday and looks to be a formidable championship contender for years to come.
In the AFC, the Bengals have returned to the conference championship for a second straight year. Cincinnati hit with the No. 1 overall pick in 2020 by selecting quarterback Joe Burrow, then went 10-7 in 2021 and embarked on a surprising Super Bowl run before coming up just short against the Los Angeles Rams. The Bengals didn’t peak there, going 12-4 this season while continuing to build an identity on both sides of the football.
It isn't just Burrow driving the Bengals' success. Cincinnati boasts playmakers on defense, including the pass rushing duo of Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard and arguably the best safety tandem in the NFL in Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates. The Bengals play complementary football, including in a dominant 27-10 road win over the favored Bills on Sunday in the divisional round.
While the Bears are look at the Bengals, how about a future with Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins? He’s a strong candidate to be traded this offseason as a contract year looms for him in 2023.
No team has enjoyed recent sustained success in the NFL quite like the Chiefs, who have won seven straight AFC West crowns and are set to host their fifth consecutive conference championship game at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.
The Chiefs' success is defined by more than just star quarterback Patrick Mahomes being an alien at his position. The Chiefs have also hit on many draft picks since selecting Mahomes in 2017 and made wise moves in free agency to work around the 10-year, $450-million contract extension that he signed in 2020.
The Chiefs haven’t let their roster bottom out elsewhere while paying Mahomes on his megadeal. Poles observed that toward the end of his time in Kansas City’s front office, noting how Mahomes’ contract hasn’t become a burden because of shrewd scouting and salary cap maneuvers.
Poles recognizes that the Bears’ best path forward – even with all the resources currently at their disposal – isn't to go on a spending spree ahead of the 2023 season. He needs to be careful with those resources, because the hope is to climb back to contention next season and to keep stepping up the stairs to a championship level from there.
As Poles and the Bears continue their journey, this NFL postseason has been filled with shining examples of what the team is striving to be — an organization that can stay on top as long as possible.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.