The Chicago Bears couldn’t believe it. Any of it.
The Bears couldn’t fathom that they let a 10-point fourth-quarter lead get away, couldn’t comprehend that they kicked away a day-saving miracle on the game’s final play, couldn’t quite process that Sunday’s devastating 20-17 road loss to the Cleveland Browns torpedoed their energized chase of a playoff berth. Instead, they were left with another gut-wrenching disappointment to accept and another emotionally testing regrouping mission for Week 16.
On Christmas Eve, the Bears will play the hapless Arizona Cardinals at Soldier Field with every opportunity to get back on the winning track. But the sting of Sunday’s loss is going to leave a mark and could create some unwanted resignation as well. The coming week will challenge the Bears’ focus, unity and emotional stability.
As Tribune writers Colleen Kane and Dan Wiederer get their arms around it all, they engage in a “true or false” to sort through four significant topics.
True or false? The Bears’ loss to the Browns could make the end-of-season evaluations easier for GM Ryan Poles.
Kane: True. I don’t mean easy in that it would ever be a breeze to move on from coaches or players. Of course that’s difficult.
I mean that if Darnell Mooney had caught Justin Fields’ Hail Mary pass, the win could have put a positive spin on a Bears effort that was not really worthy of much praise, especially on the offensive end. Such an outcome would only muddle the conversation when the truth is the Bears were not good enough Sunday, just like they haven’t been good enough so many other times this season.
That’s on Fields. That’s on offensive coordinator Luke Getsy. That’s on Mooney and Robert Tonyan and any other number of players who didn’t make plays when they needed to. And that’s on coach Matt Eberflus, whose team has now blown three double-digit fourth-quarter leads in one season. It’s unacceptable.
And that’s where the evaluation becomes easier — knowing something needs to change. As we’ve talked about before here, it’s better to not be too reactionary about one game, this one against a good Browns defense. And maybe the conversation will change again in the final three games against the Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons and Green Bay Packers. But standing here now, Poles must know: Such a performance on offense can’t stand.
Wiederer: I was struck by Eberflus’ comments immediately after Sunday’s loss when he left a stunned and crushed locker room at Cleveland Browns Stadium and relayed the message he delivered to his players. “My main message to them was this, ‘Hey, you always fix your mind and fix your focus on the fundamentals and details of your position,’” Eberflus said. “That’s what wins football games.”
With players reeling and questioning several of the coaching decisions of the day, Eberflus’ message seemed a bit stiff and disconnected and didn’t feel like one that would resonate. It was also notable that, following his 31st game as Bears head coach, he was still stressing the need for his team to bring more focus, concentration and fundamental polish to the critical moments of close games.
That was supposed to be Eberflus’ calling card with a detail-oriented and effort-based approach to everything. Yet still, with games on the line, the Bears are consistently faltering. We’ll dive into the Fields performance review next. But Eberflus’ Bears are now 3-12 in one-score games over two seasons. They have had too many heartbreaking collapses and have consistently turned so many winnable games into dejecting losses. It would be difficult to ignore that in any big-picture evaluation.
True or false? Justin Fields’ inability to close out winnable games will accelerate his exit from Chicago.
Kane: I get that Flacco basically climbed off the couch to start playing again and that he’s more than a decade removed from his Super Bowl MVP run. But this is a guy who started 183 NFL games. So I don’t know that we should be surprised that his experience and poise showed up in the fourth quarter. Or that he can still make beautiful passes like the touchdown to Amari Cooper or heads-up plays like the third-and-15 pass to David Njoku.
I guess that’s only really on topic because it was another good example of what fourth-quarter clutch quarterback play looks like — and what has been missing in many games for the Bears.
There was a lot that went wrong in the fourth quarter on offense beyond Fields. He was under consistent pressure from the Browns. There were blocking issues. The run game went nowhere. There was that really bad Tyler Scott jet sweep on third and 1. It felt like a full-unit failure.
But the numbers you present cannot be ignored in the evaluation of Fields.
It has to be so frustrating for the Bears because everybody sees the amazing plays. The 5-yard touchdown pass to Cole Kmet in which Fields escaped pressure from Myles Garrett and delivered a great strike on the move was another stunner. But there weren’t enough simply good plays Sunday, especially in the fourth quarter. And that happens too often.
Wiederer: True. For Bears fans, this has been the elephant in the room for too long. But Sunday’s loss registered as Fields’ 13th one-score defeat over his three seasons starting and came with the Bears being outscored 13-0 in the fourth quarter.
The offense had five possessions that ended in the fourth quarter Sunday and the results were as follows: turnover on downs, three-and-out, punt, three-and-out, Hail Mary interception.
The Bears’ final two possessions Sunday came with an opportunity for a go-ahead or game-tying score. But Fields was just 2-for-7 passing for 33 yards on those drives and couldn’t help produce points.
The quarterback’s fourth-quarter passer rating is now 55.3 this season and just 62.4 for his career. In the final 8 minutes of games over the past three seasons, Fields has had opportunities to lead the Bears to a game-tying or go-ahead score on 23 possessions but succeeded just three times.
Overall, he has thrown 10 fourth-quarter touchdown passes while committing 18 fourth-quarter turnovers.
This is the NFL. More often than not, games are going to be close deep into the fourth quarter and the teams that have consistently productive quarterbacks who excel in the late stages of tight games are the ones that enjoy sustained success. The Bears, though, have been on the wrong side of that equation far too frequently and were outclassed Sunday by a 38-year-old quarterback playing behind a patched-together offensive line and with a middle-tier core of offensive playmakers. That made Sunday’s loss sting even more.
True or false? The Bears should have let Cairo Santos try for a 55-yard field goal at the end of the first half instead of attempting a Hail Mary.
Kane: False. I changed my mind on this one after reading our colleague Brad Biggs’ conversation with Santos after the game.
I do question the idea of having immovable kick lines set by the coaches in a situation like that. It seemed to me like it’s a much better bet that Santos — the kicker who has made all six field-goal attempts from 50-plus yards this season — could knock one in from 55 yards than the Bears could come through on a Hail Mary play. And that would have given the Bears a 10-7 cushion going into halftime.
But Eberflus noted after the game that the wind was blowing 15 mph Southeast at kickoff, and that field goal was toward the West end zone. And Santos told Biggs he felt like he maybe could have made one from 52 yards depending on the wind gusts. “I could have taken a shot too (from 55) but I still think that it would have been short with what I saw in pregame,” he said.
Santos is a 10th-year veteran who has made 93.1% of his field goals this season. If he’s saying it would have been short, we should probably trust him on that.
Wiederer: I spent some time down on the field during pregame and was struck by the wet and windy conditions, both of which obviously affect a kicking game. It didn’t feel like an afternoon where normal rules would apply and Santos acknowledged as much to his coaches after going through his own warmup test run. Thus, in the moment, I didn’t even really think twice about the Bears’ unwillingness to try such a long kick on that kind of day.
There is an argument, of course, that a kick may have a greater chance of succeeding than a Hail Mary pass. But what if the field goal attempt is blocked? Or falls short with a Browns returner waiting? Perhaps most discouraging about the sequence is that it came at the end of one of the Bears’ best offensive drives of the game. They put together an impressive march with admirable situational awareness and clock management but came up just short of Santos’ range. On a day where every yard mattered, the Bears needed just a few more in that situation.
True or false? Darnell Mooney could sign with a new team next spring and enjoy a bounce-back season in 2024.
Kane: Sunday was a rough game in a rough season for Mooney. He had just two catches on eight targets for 14 yards and had the winning touchdown in his hands — before it popped out.
I’m not the only one who has been waiting all season for Mooney to string together more consistent production after his 2022 campaign was cut short by an ankle injury. But his best game was five catches for 82 yards against the New Orleans Saints while playing with backup quarterback Tyson Bagent. He hasn’t had more than two catches in a game since.
It’s a popular topic of debate about whether that lack of production is on Mooney or Fields or the Bears offense or simply DJ Moore and Cole Kmet having good seasons and getting the football more. (It’s probably E: All of the above.)
But for Mooney’s four seasons here, coaches have talked often about how he works like a pro and handles the ups-and-downs with poise. If the Bears don’t bring him back, I think he certainly could go somewhere else and put together a bounce-back year, even though that’s probably not much consolation right now after such an outing.
Wiederer: True. Mooney is currently under an avalanche of criticism after failing to secure a final play, game-winning Hail Mary from Justin Fields on Sunday. That was the latest and greatest disappointment for a slumping receiver who is less than two years removed from an encouraging 1,000-yard campaign in his second season. But over the past two seasons, Mooney has had only 69 catches, 902 yards and three touchdowns. And with his rookie contract expiring in March, his future in Chicago remains uncertain at best, particularly with no clarity on who the Bears coach and quarterback will be for 2024.
Could the Bears give Mooney an extension before free agency begins? Absolutely. That ball is in Ryan Poles’ court. Is it also possible the team could allow Mooney to hit the open market in the spring? Yep. At this stage, if that were to happen, Mooney would likely be in line for a one-year, prove-it deal somewhere. But if he landed with a new team in a well-stocked offense, his ability to be a speed threat and enjoy a rebound year is possible.
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