The Bears’ rebuild under general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus is all about improving the talent level, establishing a championship culture and, of course, developing the quarterback.
But it’s also about the competition.
Therein lies one of the biggest keys to the Bears’ recovery from a 3-14 season in 2022 to possible playoff contention in 2023. The NFC North, by almost any analysis, is wide open until further notice.
- The Packers could be headed for a fall with quarterback Jordan Love taking over for Aaron Rodgers. This is a team that finished 8-9 and 14th in scoring even with Rodgers last season, so even if Love is better than expected, it might not be enough to prevent a further slide.
- The defending division champion Vikings are expected to drop even with Kirk Cousins and Justin Jefferson returning. Their 13-3 record last season, built on an 11-0 record in one-score games, is considered a fluke that seemed to be confirmed by a home loss to the Giants in the playoffs.
- The Lions are a popular choice to win the division after going 8-2 in their final 10 games last season under Dan Campbell to finish 9-8. But their history as a franchise that — like the Bears — chronically disappoints already has analysts backing off. They’re the Lions until further notice.
- The Bears finished 3-14 in Matt Eberflus’ first season, but fortified support around quarterback Justin Fields and shored up weaknesses on defense. They’re a popular pick to finish last, but also a popular pick to be a surprise team in the NFL because of Fields’ high ceiling.
With Rodgers traded to the Jets, the Packers no longer are getting much if any benefit of the doubt. The sportsbook win totals for the NFC North reflect the uncertainty — the. Lions (9 1/2), Vikings (8 1/2), Packers (7 1/2) and Bears (7 1/2). The range of two games from top to bottom is the smallest in the NFL.
That parity as the Bears feeling even better about themselves after an offseason of roster upgrades and a year of experience in offensive and defensive schemes.
“You look at the landscape of your division … that’s certainly the first thing you look at,” Eberflus said. “And then you look at your conference. We like where we are in the division.”
With Brett Favre and Rodgers around over the past 30 seasons, making a worst-to-first leap was difficult. The Bears, in fact, are the only team to make that jump in the Favre-Rodgers era. They did it in 2004-05 under Lovie Smith (from 5-11 to 11-5) and in 2017-18 in the transition from John Fox to Matt Nagy (5-11 to 12-4).
The division has to cooperate. Since the Patriots established the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era by going from worst-to-first in 2000-01 (from 5-11 to 11-5 and the Super Bowl), only one team has gone from last place to first place in the AFC East – the 2008 Dolphins, when Brady missed virtually the entire season with a knee injury.
Nine teams have gone from last place to first place in the last 10 NFL seasons. Last year, both the Jaguars (from 3-14 to 9-8) and the Bengals (from 4-11 to 10-7) accomplished the feat. Parity played a big role, obviously, but so did up-and-coming quarterbacks — the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence and the Bengals’ Joe Burrow.
It remains to be seen if Fields — the 11th pick of the 2021 draft — can spearhead a similar rally. But it helps to have a dynamic quarterback with the potential to maximize the talent around him.
“We just have to keep getting better every week,” Eberflus said. “We have some young players that are going to be exciting to watch, and exciting to grow. But you certainly feel good with where you are in the division.”