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PALM BEACH, Fla. — After a two-year hiatus, the NFL (mostly) Annual Meeting was back in action this week and Bears employees named George, Ryan and Matt spoke with reporters.
It all felt very familiar, and yet, things are actually very different with the Chicago Bears since the last time owners, general managers and head coaches congregated at the Arizona Biltmore in 2019. Back then, the Bears were the defending NFC North champions and the Ryan and Matt GM/head coach combination consisted of completely different human beings.
This time, the new Ryan and Matt are overseeing what they hope is a quick rebuild, but a rebuild nonetheless. And with that in mind, let’s jump into a loaded 10 Bears Things from sunny Florida:
1. New structure at Halas Hall still a work in progress
The Bears not only have a new general manager and a new head coach, but they also have an altered structure at the top of their football operations. The general manager now reports directly to chairman George McCaskey and, from the sounds of it, McCaskey is still settling into what he referred to as “my new role.”
“I’m learning. Ted (Phillips) has been a good teacher and Ryan’s been a patient recipient, I guess is the best way to put it. So far it’s gone very well,” McCaskey said.
The new structure means that new general manager Ryan Poles will meet with McCaskey regularly, with the chairman indicating that they are still working on the best schedule for those meetings. He expects they’ll meet more frequently as the season moves closer.
Team president Ted Phillips, meanwhile, is supposedly being distanced from those football conversations, although as McCaskey admitted, he’s still advising the chairman in his new role.
It’s not like Poles has to run everything by McCaskey, but the Khalil Mack trade is a good example of a big move that needed to come across the chairman’s desk.
“Khalil is a great player and showed on many occasions for us how he can take over a game, so when you have a player like that, you want to have a good discussion,” McCaskey said. “(Poles) explained to me the reasons why he thought the Bears should do it and it made sense to me.”
At the same time, McCaskey reiterated a common refrain in his seaside chat with reporters Tuesday, saying: “The goal every year is to win a Super Bowl.” He even cited the Bengals going from last place to the Super Bowl as an example. That doesn’t exactly jive with trading Mack and taking a very measured approach in free agency.
The more realistic expectations from the owner came in the next few sentences: “What we’re looking for is progress. How are they putting the team together? How are they working together? Are we moving forward? Are we doing the right things? Are we doing them in the right way? And again, looking forward to seeing the results.”
And it’s not like McCaskey is standing in Poles’ way. Another significant change in the front office was allowing Poles to hire an assistant general manager, the first time the Bears have ever filled such a position. Poles hired Ian Cunningham from the Eagles and they are working as a close tandem in rebuilding the roster.
“We wanted to give Ryan the freedom to structure the department the way that he wanted, the way he thought it would best suit the Bears, so this is a new position for us,” McCaskey said. “If it’s another trusted voice in the room, in Ryan’s circle, I’m all for it.”
2. Poles scored an early victory with a candid media session
We’re still getting to know Poles, who has only spoken to reporters three times since getting hired in January, but he made a positive impression with a candid and entertaining visit next to the Atlantic Ocean on Monday.
The GM took ownership of Larry Ogunjobi’s failed physical and admitted that it cost them the opportunity to sign other players. He didn’t hesitate to say Trevor Siemian is a better fit as a backup quarterback and expressed a desire to trade Nick Foles. He called new center Lucas Patrick a “prick.” OK, there’s more context to that last item, but still.
It was refreshing to hear an NFL general manager acknowledge realities that are obvious to the common football fan and not treat every subject as if it is classified information being held at the Pentagon. And while the “prick” comment came with some shock value, that’s only because it was said with recorders rolling. That’s a common word used by scouts when talking about playing demeanor, and it’s OK to be real when talking football with reporters too.
“(Patrick) is a prick, and he knows it, and that’s how he survives, and that’s what we need up front,” Poles said.
It’s exactly what the Bears need up front. They’ve needed it for a while.
Sources inside Halas Hall have described Poles as determined and extremely serious. One source even painted him as “hard to read.” But no one has questioned the amount of work Poles is putting in to remake the Bears’ roster, even if the number of early moves in free agency were limited.
“I’m especially impressed with Ryan’s demeanor, very self-possessed, very confident, patient, disciplined,” McCaskey said.
3. So what exactly happened with Ogunjobi?
Monday was the first time Poles spoke publicly since his first big free agency signing fell through due to a failed physical. And there were three major takeaways from the conversation:
- Poles was gutted about having to back out of the deal with Ogunjobi.
- The Bears were caught off guard by the failed physical and it probably cost them the opportunity to sign other free agents.
- Poles isn’t opposed to still signing Ogunjobi.
“The toughest thing I’ve had to go through — it was emotionally draining — was to deny someone an opportunity when you have this verbal agreement that that’s what’s going to happen.” Poles said. “That tore me to pieces. I sat in the back of the car and I had a conversation with the kid and let him know just from what my job was and from my perspective what we had to do. That was hard. Really hard. Because I was excited about him.”
Poles didn’t want to go into too many details about the medical situation, but he confirmed that the failed physical was related to the foot Ogunjobi had surgically repaired in January. The Bears’ scans showed something different from what had been communicated to them prior to agreeing to terms on a contract.
“It wasn’t what it should have been, if that makes sense,” Poles said.
And to the GM’s credit, he didn’t shy away from the reality that the three-day delay in getting the physical done probably cost the team an opportunity to sign other players who went elsewhere.
“Yeah I would agree on that,” Poles said. “I almost feel like the process is flawed a little bit where I wish we could have some of these images and some of the physicals done before. And again, that’s going to be some type of rule change. I don’t know the process in getting that done. It’s probably something at a meeting like this in the future. But yeah, I think a lot of people were hurt just with the whole timing of it.”
Also worth noting: The door might not be completely closed on Ogunjobi. Poles said he’s open to signing Ogunjobi on different terms. The defensive tackle is still on the open market.
“We haven’t crossed that bridge yet but it’s a conversation I would like to have,” Poles said.
4. Plan at offensive tackle: Jenkins and Borom
The Bears haven’t signed any offensive tackles and unless that changes, the plan is to roll with second-year tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom.
But which side will they play on?
“We’ll move them around and we’ll let them compete and see what’s the best fit,” Poles said. “I know Teven was right in college, Larry was left in college, so there’s a comfort level there, but Teven played some left last year coming off his whole medical situation, so we’re going to play with that, and we’ll see what the best fit is.”
I’ll be putting this high on my list of developments to watch during OTAs and especially training camp when the pads go on.
5. Linebacker spots could be interchangeable
As the Bears switch to Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defense, the new head coach indicated that Roquan Smith and newcomer Nicholas Morrow could play both the MIKE (middle) and WILL (weak side) linebacker spots.
It’s notable that he considers those positions “inside linebackers” and it sure sounds like they can be interchangeable. As for the SAM (strong side) backer, Eberflus said that due to the amount of nickel the Bears will need to play, the SAM will only end up playing 11-12 percent of the snaps on average. Ideally, that player will be able to back up the MIKE and SAM too.
One thing is obvious to me, though: Whether he’s playing MIKE or WILL, expect Roquan Smith to have the headset in his helmet and operate as the quarterback of the defense on the field.
6. A ‘fresh slate’ for Jackson
Eberflus said it in passing and it was nearly missed, but he questioned whether Eddie Jackson is a strong or free safety.
“We had a good conversation, just about how this is a fresh slate for him, and to just go out there and work and show us what you can do,” Eberflus said. “And this is really for everybody. Show us your skill set, show us what you can do, and then we’ll fit you into the pieces we need to fit you into. Sure, you’ve got to run basic plays, but we’ve got to be able to see, for example at that position, can you cover tight ends? Can you cover backs out of the backfield? Are you efficient playing half or quarters or playing in the middle of the field? He’s done all those things, but we want to see his skill set now. What is his skill set right now at this time, and we’re excited to do that.”
Eberflus mentioned that he likes Jackson’s instincts and he thinks the safety times up his blitzes well. Perhaps this defense can get more out of the safety who has been plagued by missed tackles and has failed to get his hands on the football a lot in recent seasons.
7. Excitement about Byron Pringle
At various points of the NFL Annual Meeting, Poles, Eberflus and even Chiefs head coach Andy Reid expressed a lot of love for new Bears wide receiver Byron Pringle. Due to a few injuries and a lack of opportunity in Kansas City, Pringle was forced to sign a one-year, $4.125 million prove-it contract with the Bears, but there’s optimism about the 28-year-old’s upside with more targets.
“I think just adding that element of a big target on the other side of Mooney and giving that to Luke and his staff, I feel really comfortable about that,” Poles said. “And again, when I say chip on the shoulder, he’s dying to prove he can show that he can play in this league, and those are the types of players that we want, so I’m looking forward to his production.”
Pringle managed 42 catches, 568 yards and five touchdowns in 2021 and I was surprised Poles referred to him as “a big target” considering he’s only 6-1 and 201 pounds. Maybe he didn’t mean it literally, but some wide receivers play bigger than their actual height, so I’m interested to see what Pringle looks like on the practice field. His speed and quickness are certainly a weapon, even at 6-1.
8. Eberflus lays out high expectations for Justin Fields
It’s no secret that everyone in the organization expects Justin Fields to make a significant jump in 2022, but it was interesting to hear Eberflus detail what he wants to see from his second-year quarterback:
“The development of him for the second year should be a big jump. It should be. That’s what we’re looking for,” Eberflus said. “We’re looking for better technique, better fundamentals, better decision-making, better timing, everything. He’s all on board on that. He’s excited about where he is and he’s been working his tail off. That’s what we want, just that big jump from Year 1 to Year 2.”
It can certainly be argued that the Bears haven’t given Fields enough help to realize that big jump, but it’s also obvious in talking to Poles and Eberflus that they believe the scheme change and coaching change will make a big difference.
And while there was some initially some confusion about it, Eberflus confirmed that new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy called plays in 2018 when he was the OC at Mississippi State under Joe Moorhead. His experience calling plays at the NFL level is limited to the preseason.
9. Staley offers advice for being a first-year head coach
Former Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley, who just completed his first year as head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers, offered up this advice for Eberflus and others who are now going through their first year in charge:
“I think you need some grace and patience because you’re not going to know it all. You’re not going to have it all figured out. I feel like what I thought I knew and what I know are two different spaces. But I know what I was trying to do was every day give everything I had to our organization and I know I did that. I told a lot of people last season that I was doing everything for the first time all the time. And that’s the first time I can say that in a long time. So I think when you going through that process, what I tried to do every day was try to learn quickly. Make sure that whatever I needed to improve on, I made sure I fixed it right away.”
10. Virginia McCaskey doing better after medical scare.
There were rumors the last couple of months that Bears matriarch Virginia McCaskey was ill. Those rumors were true, but according to George McCaskey, his mother is doing much better despite not being able to travel to Florida for the meetings.
“She’s doing very well. She wasn’t able to be here. She had a medical issue in January, which has been resolved.” McCaskey said. “We’re all very grateful that she’s back to her regular routine, but she didn’t feel up to making the trip. She really feels bad about it, No. 1, because she really likes this place and, No. 2, didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Ryan and Katie and Matt and Kelly and their families a little bit better.”
Bonus Thing: Bears could have joint practices again this year
Eberflus said he would like to have joint practices with another team in training camp, but it will depend on the preseason schedule, which is still being finalized. With only three preseason games, those joint practices really need to happen against one of the first two opponents. This year, the Bears will play two of their three preseason games on the road, but they are now capable of hosting teams at Halas Hall too. Last year, they hosted the Miami Dolphins for joint practices before their first preseason game.
My selfish request to the NFL: Schedule the Broncos for a preseason game so the Bears can practice in Englewood, Co. again. They previously practiced at the Broncos’ facility in 2018 and were scheduled to do it again in 2020 before the pandemic wiped out the preseason. The Broncos have great facilities, great weather, and Colorado is a great place to visit in August. Most importantly, it sets up a great opportunity for DNVR and CHGO to join forces at the DNVR bar in Denver.
First round is on me.
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