(670 The Score) And on the first day of 2023, the Bears looked poised for big things in the new year.
Certainly not because of anything that happened in an embarrassing 41-10 loss to the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, a valley as deep as any the Bears have plummeted into the past decade. Acceptable, that wasn’t.
That was ugly and inexcusable, from the shoddy tackling by a talentless defense to the sloppy pass blocking by an overmatched offensive line. That was the worst moment in a miserable season. Remember, these were still the Lions, a .500 team after their resurgence but still not the Bills or Eagles or Cowboys or an elite team to be feared in the playoffs.
The only thing more disappointing than the Bears’ execution was their effort. Being kind, it lacked as obviously as in any game under first-year coach Matt Eberflus.
Nothing summed up that up more than Lions running back D’Andre Swift gaining 35 yards on third-and-18 on the opening drive of the third quarter and making tacklers look like traffic cones. On Sunday, the I in Eberflus’ HITS principle apparently stood for incompetence. Justin Fields played all four quarters despite every snap in the second half fitting the definition of “harm’s way” that Bears coaches have an obligation to ensure Fields avoids.
From coaching to playing the past month, the Bears have regressed badly.
What a weird season. The woeful Bears stand within one defeat of setting a franchise record for losses in a season, yet some people in Chicago will call this year a success. It wasn’t. It was the latest example of an unremarkable family organization in a so-called football city lowering expectations for decades to the point where the process has become more relevant and interesting than the outcomes, to the point where a 3-13 record by the worst team in the NFC qualifies as successful because of its NFL Draft implications.
I suppose I get it. After not seeing a playoff victory since Jan. 16, 2011, Bears fans have a PhD in Rationalization. It’s a reflex. The McCaskeys have slowly but surely numbed Bears fans with so much nothingness. But that pervasive mentality in town only underscores how heavily the future outweighs the present for the Bears, perhaps now more than ever.
In that context, a season that always was about next season can’t end soon enough. Let’s get on already with what looks like the Bears’ most significant offseason in recent memory. By the next New Year’s Day, the Bears expect to have announced plans for a new stadium in Arlington Heights, to have a new team president, a new roster infused with talent from draft picks and free agents bought with more than $100 million in salary cap space and the same quarterback in Fields, who's their most special player since Devin Hester. That’s an exciting calendar year ahead.
The term sleeping giant comes to mind, understanding that so much potential exists because so little production has taken place. Realistically, the franchise can go nowhere but up from this point, which made the recent headline about the Bears interviewing Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren scream even louder.
The Bears interviewed KEVIN WARREN?
You easily could make the argument that the Bears need Warren more than Warren needs the Bears.
Look at team history. The Bears traditionally hire people for big jobs who never have done them before arriving at Halas Hall. Besides Lovie Smith, it’s hard to find an example over the past 20 years when that approach worked. Phil Emery … Marc Trestman … Ryan Pace … Matt Nagy … Ryan Poles … Matt Eberflus. The list is long enough to wonder if the Bears know what they don’t know as an organization. They historically have hired men so happy to have their big jobs that they’re unlikely to make waves by challenging people to be better, an ode to inexperience that over time lowers standards and erodes excellence. That’s what made the ESPN report about Warren interviewing with the Bears to become team president so surprising.
Without knowing everyone else who has been interviewed, it’s hard to imagine any candidate having more impressive credentials than Warren.
His past NFL executive jobs included front office roles with the Rams, Lions and Vikings – where he played a major role in the construction of U.S. Bank Stadium, one of the league’s finest. As Big Ten commissioner since January 2020, Warren confronted the unforeseen challenges presented by the pandemic and led the conference through those dark days and into a period of unprecedented growth.
In the past year alone, Warren negotiated a media rights deal worth more than $7 billion for the Big Ten and expanded the reach of the conference by welcoming USC and UCLA. The scope of his experience makes Warren someone the Bears would be fortunate to hire. The success of his relatively brief tenure as Big Ten commissioner also makes it fair to wonder if Warren can accomplish anything more for the Big Ten than he already has, which in layman’s terms means it’s probably all downhill from here. The league having two of the four College Football Playoff teams this year supports that idea.
Is that why Warren would consider leaving one prestigious position for another? Why else? Both are legacy jobs, so only Warren can answer those questions. Only he knows what he wants. But two NCAA athletic administrators suggested that Warren might have more fans outside the conference than within it, lingering residue of the difficult decisions made in his first year on the job.
Warren initially canceled the Big Ten football season in August 2020 due to concerns over the spread of COVID, a controversial decision with coaches, ADs and university presidents that sparked a player revolt led by Fields, the then-Ohio State quarterback. Fields was the public face of a movement that got 300,000 signatures and put pressure on the Big Ten to salvage the season, which they did five weeks after its cancellation. (If Warren becomes team president, hopefully ChicagoBears.com can capture that first Fields-Warren meeting for the team’s website. )
Nobody besides Warren truly knows how much being comfortable or popular matters to him, but those factors could underscore why someone who has spent the bulk of his career in professional football would interview to be the Bears team president. It also might explain why Warren recently explored a similar leadership role with the Broncos, according to a source. Several people familiar with Warren from past stops have mentioned a longtime goal of becoming NFL commissioner that, while perhaps a longshot at 59, reinforces the notion that he prefers the NFL environment to the increasingly complex world of intercollegiate athletics.
If Warren’s Big Ten constituency never warmed up to his leadership style, that would justify his interest in the Bears position. It isn't the allure of money. Several reports have speculated Warren earns more than $5 million as the commissioner of the most lucrative conference in college sports, likely more than the McCaskeys want to pay a team president. Would the Bears ever pay their team president a higher salary than their football coach? For the right leader – and Warren checks every box – money can be no object for a franchise estimated to be worth $5.8 billion, according to the latest Forbes valuation.
Under Warren, the Bears could regain some of the credibility lost over the past decade. The Bears need what Warren offers, someone who raises the standard of every employee in the building and arrives with visions of a championship. He understands what’s required to build a new stadium and possesses intellect and leadership skills necessary for a family-owned team with a 99-year-old matriarch in Virginia McCaskey. If Warren wants to change the hierarchy of the Bears so that the general manager reports directly to the team president, chairman George McCaskey should let him. That wouldn’t necessarily be true for every candidate, but Warren isn’t every candidate. He just looks like the most qualified.
Sunday reminded everyone that the Bears are broken badly. Getting blown out by the Lions exposed everything. Having a high draft pick and salary cap space seems great, but the current sad state of affairs makes it difficult feeling encouraged about anything on the field. They look at least two offseasons away from adding the kind of talent it takes to make a serious playoff run, and that’s assuming general manager Ryan Poles makes all the right decisions drafting and signing.
Whether Poles has earned that benefit of the doubt depends on your perspective, but his first year didn’t prove he earned unconditional confidence in his decision-making. After a season like this, as much as the Bears players have stayed together, we still don’t know whether Eberflus can make a difference as a gameday coach or how Fields will progress as a passer – a point Poles himself addressed during a pregame interview Sunday with WBBM-AM. Questions outnumber answers by a wide margin when it comes to football matters.
We only know the Bears quickly are approaching a point that will dictate their direction for years to come – and I don’t mean the season finale against the Vikings.
David Haugh is the co-host of the Mully & Haugh Show from 5-10 a.m. weekdays on 670 The Score. Click here to listen. Follow him on Twitter @DavidHaugh.
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