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It’s been an oddly fun season considering the Bears aren’t a very good football team. And the credit goes to Justin Fields. That’s where we’ll start this week’s Bears Things newsletter.
The Lead: 2022 sets Bears up for brighter 2023
Can a 3-10 season be considered a win? In the Bears’ case it can — as long as Fields stays healthy and continues to develop in the final four games of the season.
I admittedly did not see a scenario in which Fields took a giant step forward in his development while the team nosedived defensively into a top five draft pick. In some ways, the best-case scenario has played out for a rebuilding franchise, although it would be naive to think general manager Ryan Poles doesn’t have major work to do to fix what he has torn down on defense.
The vibes at Halas Hall certainly don’t reflect what you would expect from a 3-10 team. There are few distractions. Players aren’t throwing tantrums. There aren’t rumors about coaches getting fired. Overall, everyone in the organization seems to understand the big picture, which isn’t as easy as it sounds because many players inside that locker room are smart enough to realize they probably won’t be here when the Justin Fields-led Bears start winning football games.
On Monday, I asked Bears head coach Matt Eberflus what he’s proud of this season — what he feels like has been accomplished.
“Just laying the foundation. I think that’s evident to everybody that watches our games,” Eberflus said. “The foundation we’re laying in terms of how we play, the intensity of which we play. You can see a spirited team out there — a team that perseveres through adversity, which is what you need.”
Even in Sunday’s 28-19 loss to the Packers, that foundation was evident with how a completely out-manned defense played for the majority of the game. The end result wasn’t good, but the effort was there. The Bears certainly haven’t quit.
“We’re trying to build championship habits,” Eberflus said. “I keep telling the guys that. It’s championship habits. Every single week, one week at a time. And that’s what we’re trying to build. Because we’re building a champion. That’s what we’re doing. So it’s very important for us to go about the process of that.”
Granted, most first-year coaches get the benefit of the doubt, but there’s something to be said for the lack of cracks in the foundation during a 3-10 season. The same can’t be said in Denver right now in Nathaniel Hackett’s first season. Dennis Allen isn’t exactly being given a pass in New Orleans either.
The coaching microscope will become more intense when the Bears become more competitive again, but for now, there’s not much to question about the foundation laid down in Lake Forest this year.
A positive sign of development
Don’t look now, but the Bears’ offensive line is quietly getting better. From a run blocking perspective, it’s been a good unit all season, but the pass protection — while still far from great — is getting better.
And perhaps the best example? Every Bears fan’s favorite punching bag, Sam Mustipher. Since getting (very briefly) benched in Week 7, Mustipher has played like a starting caliber center over the last seven games. Now in his fourth season with the Bears, he appeared to lose his starting job during the mini-bye in October. Lucas Patrick was moved to center, but quickly suffered a season-ending toe injury early in the team’s next game in New England, throwing Mustipher right back onto the field. He played well in that game and hasn’t slowed down since.
“I just kind of looked at it as what can I improve? And for me, the pass protection was my area of improvement that I wanted to focus on,” Mustipher told CHGO. “From then on out, I just kind of honed in on that and focused on what I could do in regards to cleaning that up.”
For Mustipher, the wakeup call actually came in Week 4 in a matchup against Giants defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. It was easily the center’s worst game of the season.
“Dexter Lawrence is an animal. But my job is to help the Bears win football games so in 1-on-1 situations with that guy, I gotta be able to block him,” Mustipher said. “And so I tried to clean up and tailor my pass set to when I’m going to face the best guys in the NFL. It’s still a work in progress, but that’s something I’ve been focusing on.”
For a young, rebuilding team like the Bears, development is crucial. And on the offensive line, there have been positive results with players like Mustipher, Teven Jenkins and rookie left tackle Braxton Jones.
“I think all these guys will tell you when we talk in there, it’s not just about sticking around,” Bears offensive line coach Chris Morgan told CHGO. “We talk about it as coaches, players, program, like what we’re hunting, what we’re working on, trying to work on our craft.”
The fact that Mustipher is still here is a testament to his work ethic. As an undrafted free agent who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, Mustipher has already smashed external expectations, even if he tends to take a regular beating from Bears fans on social media.
“I’ve never been the most athletic, strongest whatever, so it’s something I had to work on and improve over my offseasons, getting better athletically and stuff like that,” Mustipher said. “I always knew I was going to have to study angles better. I knew I was always going to have to work a little bit harder than everybody else.”
One thing no one questions is Mustipher’s intangibles, which his teammates and coaches rave about.
“How do you succeed in this league? You better be consistent, you better be tough, you better have great intangibles and hey, he has all those things,” Morgan said.
While frequently a target of criticism outside the walls of Halas Hall, the view inside the locker room is much different.
“He’s basically willing to be in a fistfight for a whole game and that’s something I respect very much,” right guard Teven Jenkins said. “He’s willing to lay it on the line for all of us no matter what it is.”
Morgan, in his first year on the coaching staff, came to appreciate Mustipher very quickly.
“Sam is a tough, hard nosed, smart, productive football player. Sam is on everything,” Morgan said. “The command he has of the line, of the huddle, of the offense, the understanding — he’s selfless, he grinds, he works. You get the same consistent dude, worker, leader, every day. He’s earned all that respect. He’s earned all that because every single day he works and shows it and puts himself out there. So he’s easy to love as a teammate.”
Does all this mean Mustipher will still be the Bears’ starting center next year? Not necessarily. He’s currently slated to be a restricted free agent next year, which means another team could set the number the Bears would have to match. Meanwhile, Patrick, who was signed this year to replace Mustipher at center, is still under contract for 2023.
Regardless of what the future holds, it says something that Mustipher is still here, still working, still getting better. And it’s an encouraging sign for the development of offensive linemen under this coaching staff, both now and in the future.
Here’s your weekly dump of notes on Justin Fields’ performance after watching the coaches’ film:
Nice rhythm throw downfield to Equanimeous St. Brown off play-action … Threw high to Cole Kmet on crosser and was fortunate not to be picked off … Good 3rd-and-5 rip to Kmet in the flat … Put his foot in the ground and broke Keisean Nixon’s ankles on insane 55-yard touchdown run … Bad sidearm throw to Chase Claypool that was nearly a disastrous lateral … Third down anticipation throw to Claypool on corner-stop route … Strike to Claypool on over-route on next play … Bomb to St. Brown in stride while taking a massive hit to his chin … Failed to hit check down and took unnecessary tackle for 1-yard-gain when he could have thrown the ball away … Really good job of climbing the pocket and resetting his feet to hit Kmet on left sideline on 3rd-and-10 (not really sure how he even saw his tight end) … Nice job to navigate the pocket and not take a sack on 3rd-and-24 before hitting Dante Pettis to setup a field goal … Recognized Jaire Alexander driving the hitch, pumped, spun out of pressure, flipped his hips and threw an accurate bomb downfield to N’Keal Harry … Inaccurate throw to Montgomery in the flat that he couldn’t hold onto … Strike to Kmet up the seam for a first down … Didn’t get any help from St. Brown on first interception, but probably should have passed on a bad matchup and hit a check down instead … Bad decision and a late throw on second interception (should have just hit a check down to set up a needed field goal).
Next up: The bye week
Enjoy it. I know I will. We’ll talk next week.
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