10 thoughts after the Chicago Bears could not seem to capture a spark or enough momentum to build a two-game winning streak, if you can call something as brief as two a “streak.”
They fell behind early and there was no rally Sunday night at SoFi Stadium in a 30-13 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers.
1. The Bears (2-6) projected confidence in the days leading up to the game.
Blowout wins over the Washington Commanders and Las Vegas Raiders stood as evidence but the next step — the one that has been elusive — is putting together consecutive wins. They call it stacking wins but, again, if you’ve only got two of them, is it really a stack? It’s something the organization hasn’t done since Weeks 16-17 of the 2021 season, a Nick Foles start at Seattle and an Andy Dalton start at Soldier Field against the New York Giants a week before the previous regime was fired. Imagine that: Foles and Dalton, a couple of footnotes in the Bears’ quarterback issues over the past few decades.
It started as well as the Bears could have hoped for Sunday. The Chargers — and anyone else who spent time digesting Tyson Bagent’s first career start from Week 7 — were surely wondering if the rookie quarterback could cut it loose.
Go deep, kid.
It looked like the Bears had tight end Cole Kmet running the seam to occupy a safety and with Darnell Mooney streaking deep outside the numbers against cornerback Asante Samuel Jr., the throw was there.
When did Mooney learn offensive coordinator Luke Getsy was dialing up the long ball on the first snap?
“When we went over the walkthrough this morning,” he said. “We knew the first play of the game we were going to take a shot.”
With a shove from Samuel at the end, Mooney made a terrific grab as he went to the turf for a 41-yard gain. Officials called Samuel for pass interference on the play, a call which was obviously declined. Some wondered if Mooney was touched down, including the receiver himself.
“Didn’t think I was down,” Mooney said. “I thought I could have scored on that play. Would have been a big play for the first play of the game.”
I thought Mooney hesitated a little in getting off the turf.
“I was just making sure I caught the ball,” he said. “I feel I got up fast. And then I was just turning over and I started running and the whistle started blowing.”
Said coach Matt Eberflus: ” I told Mooney he has to get up and be convincing. That’s what I told Mooney afterward, he just needs to get up and go and go house the thing and then let them make the decision. Made a heck of a catch for sure and really good play.”
Did the contact Samuel made with Mooney just before the ball arrived lead to the officials’ judgment about the receiver being down? No matter what, let’s be real clear: the Bears didn’t play well enough to win this game. The deep ball to Mooney, something that has been missing from the offense, was the only play over 18 yards against a defense that entered last by a wide margin in passing yardage allowed.
A 1-yard run by D’Onta Foreman followed by an attempt to get wide receiver Trent Taylor on a run play around left end lost 2 yards, putting the Bears in a position they had largely avoided a week — behind the sticks. It looked like the Chargers ran a game up front and defensive end Joey Bosa was the triumphant one as he overpowered left guard Cody Whitehair for a sack and an 11-yard loss. The Bears went from a dynamic opening play to being on the fringe of field-goal range to punting just like that.
From there, it was really a compilation of issues far too much to overcome as Los Angeles (3-5) got points on its first five possessions. Quarterback Justin Herbert was super efficient, completing 31 of 40 passes for 298 yards and three touchdowns and hot from the start leading scoring drives of 10, 9, 8, 9 and 10 plays with the Bears rarely forcing the Chargers into third down.
Tackling was poor. Weak-side linebacker T.J. Edwards wasn’t able to settle his feet in time to stop running back Austin Ekeler from scoring on a 39-yard screen pass. If Edwards is under control, the play maybe goes for a loss. Instead, it was the first touchdown of the game.
“It’s been good the last three weeks, our tackling has been really good,” Eberflus said. “Today wasn’t what I wanted to be.”
The defense did a nice job against the run again: the Chargers had 25 rushes for 54 yards with a long of only 7.
“The run wasn’t working,” cornerback Jaylon Johnson said. “They used our aggressiveness against us, started running screens, throwback screens. They just found different ways to get their running back the ball.”
Eberflus pointed out penalties were an issue too. There were five that cost the Bears 43 yards in the first half. Take out a 15-yard call against Velus Jones Jr. for fair-catch interference — I couldn’t tell if he was possibly pushed on the play — you’re talking about four calls for 28 yards. The team had seven penalties for 53 yards for the game. Not ideal and not crippling for a good team, but the Bears really struggle overcoming self-inflicted wounds.
Where they really lost a grip on the game was at the end of the first half. The Bears trailed 17-0 midway through the second quarter before mounting a 75-yard, 14-play drive, converting four third downs along the way. Bagent completed passes on three of the third downs, connecting twice with wide receiver DJ Moore and once with Cole Kmet and then running back Darrynton Evans (on third-and-4 from the 11-yard line) He then took a pitch and made it to the end zone with right tackle Darnell Wright leading the way.
With 1:47 remaining in the half, the Bears had gathered themselves. Once again, the defense couldn’t get off the field. Herbert hit another big screen to Ekeler (seven catches, 94 yards for the game), this one for 23 yards. From the 11-yard line and with 10 seconds remaining, Herbert dumped a pass off to tight end Donald Parham Jr. who bruised his way through cornerback Tyrique Stevenson, Edwards and safety Duron Harmon. It was another example of how the tackling wasn’t on point.
When the Chargers drove for a field goal on the opening possession of the third quarter, the rout was on. The Bears weren’t going to experience any magic with the rookie Bagent in his second career start. Not with the Chargers able to play soft coverage and keep everything underneath.
“I don’t even know, man,” said defensive tackle Justin Jones when asked to explain where things went wrong. “I’m not even going to lie to you. I don’t even know what to tell you right now.”
Jones is usually pretty measured after games — wins or losses — but seemed pained by this one, which came against his former team.
“We’ve got a long season left,” he said. “We gotta go in there and just have thick skin and look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘What am I doing wrong? What am I doing bad that I can fix?’ Player to player, man to man, coach to coach, everybody. They were better than us today.”
More problematic than the penalties was the Bears’ inability to run the ball like they’ve been doing lately. Foreman finished with 34 yards on nine carries and Roschon Johnson had 21 yards on six carries. The offense totaled only 73 yards on 25 attempts a week after physically controlling the Raiders up front. Johnson was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 in the third quarter by Bosa.
“We could have done a much better job in the run game with our physicality,” Kmet said. “That’s our identity and that’s what we need to play into. I just didn’t feel like I did last week with the Raiders.”
Add it all up and not much felt like it did last week. Now the Bears are back in what has been a familiar position: being two weeks away from their next two-game winning streak.
2. Tyson Bagent played OK in his second career start.
Not good enough to win, but he battled and showed some poise in the second half by not forcing the ball into zone coverage. But the results — 25 of 37 for 232 yards with the one sack and two interceptions — was short of what was needed with the defense having no answers for Justin Herbert’s short passing game.
There was some type of communication error on the first interception between Bagent and DJ Moore that resulted in an easy pick for Ja’Sir Taylor.
“That’s completely on me,” Bagent said. “Just gotta get off it and go through my progressions.”
Bagent admitted there were sloppy elements to the offense.
“I can’t make it worse,” he said. “No bad plays, just neutral plays or good plays.”
The second interception came on a dig route to Darnell Mooney over the middle. The ball was on Mooney — and probably could have been caught — but he was hit hard by safety Alohi Gilman, sending the ball into the air for safety Derwin James to intercept.
“Did you guys feel like I dropped that one?” Mooney asked. “I seen (Gilman) coming down and I felt like I grabbed it, but it was just a bang-bang play, kind of smashed me. I’m looking for answers.”
Bagent said he was a little late on a quick hitch for Darrynton Evans on a fourth-down play that fell incomplete. Matt Eberflus said Evans could have made a better effort coming back for the ball. There were small things and plenty to learn from if Bagent starts again this coming Sunday at New Orleans. The Bears have yet to give an indication on what Justin Fields’ status is recovering from a dislocated right thumb.
“I try to take things from every game that I play in,” Bagent said. “This is all still new. I took a lot from last week. I’ll take a lot from this week and I’ll take a lot from next week and the week after that whether I’m starting or not.”
A decision on Fields has to be mostly health based. The Saints have their struggles, but entering Week 8 they were 12th on the league vs. the run (98.7 yards per game), fourth vs. the pass (187 yards) and second on third down (30.5%). That’s a formidable challenge for whoever is starting.
“It’s nothing for me to figure out,” Bagent said when asked about the QB situation. “That’s out of my control. I’m going to attack the week the same way I always do. Everything stays the same.”
3. A year after an aggressive move before the trade deadline to add help at one of the Bears’ weakest positions, will GM Ryan Poles be on the hunt to supplement the pass rush?
The Bears traded a second-round pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers last October for wide receiver Chase Claypool, eager to outfit Justin Fields with more playmaking talent. The deal wound up being regrettable for the Bears.
Claypool never got going after arriving — he dealt with a knee injury — and despite everyone saying all the right things in the offseason, things fizzled quickly. He was dumped last month in a pick-swap trade with the Miami Dolphins. Meanwhile, the Steelers walked away from the trade with the 32nd pick in the draft, which they used on cornerback Joey Porter Jr.
Of interest in the next two days are Washington Commanders defensive ends Montez Sweat and Chase Young. Both are in contract years for a team that fell to 3-5 Sunday with a 38-31 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles at FedEx Field. It was the Commanders’ fifth loss in six games.
Both have been rumored to be potentially available. Either would be an instant upgrade for the Bears, whose lack of a pass rush was on display again Sunday. Justin Herbert wasn’t sacked and the Bears registered only two quarterback hits — both by linebacker T.J. Edwards on blitzes. It was a rough game for the defensive line from a pass-rush perspective. They were not winning one-on-one battles and generating a push. Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who is tied for the team lead in sacks with Edwards at two, didn’t have any statistics. With 10 sacks, the Bears are last in the league and there’s a gap to close. Eight teams are tied with 15 sacks.
The Commanders sank a ton of money into their defensive line, paying tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. They’re believed to want to keep one of the two edge rushers. I’m told extension efforts were a no-go, however, because Sweat and Young are both represented by Klutch Sports. My source said that put the agency in a tough spot. If one player signed an extension, the Commanders could potentially control the other with the franchise tag.
Now the Commanders could trade one of them and direct offseason resources to securing the other and still feel pretty good about their defensive line.
So are the Bears in on this potential sale?
“As it sits right now I think it’s going to be fairly quiet for us,” Poles said on the WMVP-AM 1000 pregame show. “But at the same time we’re already going to be opportunistic in taking information and seeing does it work for our organization both short term and long term.”
The Commanders reportedly want a second-round pick to move either player. It could be a second plus a later pick if Washington can get multiple teams involved.
Why would it make sense for Poles?
- The pass rush remains the biggest need on the roster. Wide receiver was a huge issue in 2022, but you could make a legitimate case the pass rush was just as big of a problem. Adding Ngakoue hasn’t moved the needle. While a host of names could hit free agency after this season — Danielle Hunter, Brian Burns, Rashan Gary, Josh Allen, the two Commanders and more — it will be a much smaller list when mid-March rolls around. It’s rare a legitimate upper-tier pass rusher is on the open market.
- If Poles could add one now, he would have time to work on an extension. He could also consider the franchise tag, although that would be expensive. It was $19.7 million for defensive ends this season. I think he’d be more interested in a trade-and-sign deal in which he had a contract done with the player when the deal was executed. There isn’t a lot of time for that.
- With about half of the college season remaining, a dominant edge rusher could emerge. But right now it doesn’t look like there’s a can’t-miss pass rusher when you project the top 10 picks or so.
Why would it not make sense for Poles?
- He got burned with the Claypool deal and he’d be moving what projects to be a high second-round pick. That would be fertile area to consider a few positions — center and safety come to mind. He could get one of the better players at either of those positions with a high second-rounder.
- There’s no guarantee the Bears could have either player for the long haul without using the franchise or transition tag. Both options would be expensive and perhaps set a floor for negotiations, at least from the perspective of the player and his agent.
- Paying a second-round pick for a player in season would probably embolden the player in contract negotiations too. He would know the Bears don’t want to move second-round picks in consecutive years with nothing to show for it long term. That would naturally drive up the asking price. Yes, the Bears have a critical need when you’re looking long term. Overpaying for a good player can have ramifications.
Sweat, 27, leads the Commanders with 6 1/2 sacks and 11 quarterback hits to go with two forced fumbles. Young, 24, has five sacks and nine quarterback hits.
“Sweat is a more refined pass rusher,” an NFL evaluator told me. “He’s long. He has a little bit of lower-body tightness, but he can still bend and turn the corner. He’s a much more polished technician than Chase Young.
“Chase is starting to come on a little bit. He’s had production this year. He is finally healthy. He was out really a year and a half and he got really derailed in his development, and when he came back you could tell he was just going to try to win with his physical tools.
“Now he’s starting to do a little more. He looks to be all the way back. He’s super explosive off the ball. He’s a top-five pick for a reason. He can bend. Lower-body balance. Short-area closing speed. Violent and powerful when he wants to bull rush. The one who can help you the most right now is Sweat. The one with the most upside is Young.”
The evaluator admitted he doesn’t know the ins and outs of Young’s recovery from a serious right knee injury in November 2021. He suffered a torn ACL and ruptured patellar tendon, and that made it a long road back.
The Commanders are the only ones who truly know where Young is healthwise. He was out for 13 months before returning to play in the final three games last season. The injury led the Commanders to decline the fifth-year option for Young, who had just 1 1/2 sacks in the nine games before the injury.
The No. 2 pick in the 2020 draft, Young was the defensive rookie of the year that season, when he had 7 1/2 sacks, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries, one for a touchdown. He had a half-sack, three quarterback hits and a pass deflected in the Bears’ Week 5 victory at Washington. Sweat had 1 1/2 sacks in that game. So the Bears have seen them up close.
I’m not sure what the answer is here. I do know this: Poles can’t be motivated to make a trade for this season. He can’t be impulsive and push himself into doing something based on a frustrating night for his defensive line. The Bears are 2-6, and while they’re making improvements and you can see some growth, an in-season acquisition of a pass rusher wouldn’t change the trajectory of this season.
A move here would be about only the long view. How does Poles feel about the compensation required? What kind of valuation is he prepared to make on the player?
4. A lack of a contract extension for cornerback Jaylon Johnson before the 3 p.m. Tuesday trade deadline shouldn’t mean anything in terms of how the Bears feel about Johnson.
It would mean one thing: The Bears are happy to have Johnson on their roster for the remainder of the season. The only thing the deadline means is if the Bears are entertaining the idea of dealing Johnson, they have to move quickly.
I would be awfully surprised if the Bears even consider trading Johnson and I would be stunned if they were actively shopping him. It just doesn’t make sense when you consider how the defense has played lately and what Johnson could mean to the future of the team.
Just because there has been chatter about the possibility doesn’t mean it’s something the Bears have spent a minute on. It’s natural at this time of the season. Identify teams that don’t look to be headed to the postseason, find players on expiring contracts and put two and two together. Sometimes it doesn’t add up to four — and it won’t in this instance if the Bears aren’t adding their “two” to the equation.
Tuesday’s deadline has nothing to do with the Bears paying Johnson. They could write him a new contract on Wednesday, two weeks from now or anytime before free agency starts in March.
On Sunday, Johnson followed up his two-interception game against the Raiders last week with three tackles and one pass breakup. He was in man coverage on the 9-yard touchdown pass to Simi Fehoko but he got rubbed by tight end Donald Parham on the play. Johnson was in a tough spot.
”It’s just another man route, a little mesher,” Herbert said. “(Fehoko) did a great job of just running through it, beating man coverage. I kind of looked him off a little too early, came back to him and he caught and made a great play. I was glad that he was looking at me.”
Instinct tells me the Bears are intrigued about the possibility of keeping Johnson in their plans. Johnson switched representation in the offseason, hiring Southern California-based agent Christopher Ellison, who has 11 active clients in the league, including Bears practice squad linebacker Micah Baskerville. He doesn’t have extensive experience negotiating larger contracts. That’s not to say Ellison will have difficulty reaching the finish line with Johnson, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Johnson has played really well this season, and the former second-round pick doesn’t turn 25 until April. He’s the Bears’ best cornerback in a young position group with rookies Tyrique Stevenson and Terell Smith, second-year nickel corner Kyler Gordon and reserves Greg Stroman and Jaylon Jones.
Where Johnson slots in the big picture is important to consider. I spoke with a veteran personnel man a few days ago, and he was extremely positive about what Johnson has put on tape this season.
“He’s the key,” the personnel man said. “I don’t care about all the hype and the (lack of) interceptions. The guy has got really good ball skills. He hasn’t come up with the ball, but people are covered. He’s an outstanding athlete. He’s got good feet and speed, burst, quickness, tip-away skills, he’s feisty, he’ll attack the run.
“I haven’t watched him in the past. The games on tape this year, that guy is a No. 1 corner. Athletically, how he plays, how he competes, the swagger he has that you’re looking for, that’s a dude.”
If Johnson had played the last two years — especially 2022, when general manager Ryan Poles was in his first year with the Bears — like he has this season, a deal probably would be already done. Johnson missed six games last season with rib and finger injuries. A shoulder injury sidelined him for four games (including the playoff game) at the end of his rookie season, and he missed two games in 2021 with COVID-19. Johnson sat out two games this season with a hamstring strain.
He’s playing well, and even if some evaluators question whether he profiles as a top-flight No. 1 cornerback on a highly ranked defense, he’s the best the Bears have and they would have a sizable hole to fill in the offseason without him unless they believe the youth on the roster is ready to step up. That’s a big if.
A combination of continued top-level play and durability in the weeks ahead would buttress Johnson’s case to be paid. I would expect the Bears to engage with Ellison to see if something can be hammered out. I don’t believe the Bears have interest in listening to trade offers.
Can a deal be struck? That depends on what valuation Johnson has in mind and where the Bears see him in 2024 and beyond.
5. Two weeks ago, I texted a pro scout with another organization I’ve known for a long time.
“Any thoughts on this sign-stealing hubbub at Michigan and what happens in the NFL?”
He called back late the other night; I won’t use his name or team as he’s not authorized to talk with media.
“Yeah,” the scout said. “I’ve got a story for you.”
Boy, did he. If you’re into dark secrets in the NFL, this is right up your alley.
If you’re not familiar with the details, Michigan has been accused of having a staffer scout future opponents in person, in violation of NCAA rules. Yahoo Sports first reported the alleged violations. The school suspended staff member Connor Stalions, who allegedly purchased tickets to dozens of games over the past couple of years.
ESPN reported there is evidence someone using tickets purchased by Stalions had a smartphone to record sideline signals. If true, this would violate the NCAA rule preventing in-person scouting of future opponents. Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has denied any knowledge or wrongdoing.
That’s one area where the NFL differs. The league allows teams to send an advance scout to gather information on its next opponent the week before the game (or two weeks before in the event there is a bye). So Sunday night, the New Orleans Saints had a scout in the SoFi Stadium press box. I’d bet a month’s pay the Bears had a pro scout in Indianapolis earlier in the day to watch the Saints play the Colts.
These scouts can’t videotape the sidelines or anything like that, and they would need a high-powered camera to get a clear shot from the press box — which would be impossible if they were perched on the wrong side. But they come armed with a good pair of binoculars and are there to gather anything they can get. Perfectly legal.
Sign stealing has been going on since, well, the beginning of organized sports. The Philadelphia Phillies were caught in September 1900. Manager George Stallings had a backup catcher, Morgan Murphy, hide in the clubhouse beyond center field and use binoculars and a telegraph to relay pitches called by the opposing catcher to the dugout. It has continued ever since in baseball, with the Houston Astros getting busted for cheating in 2017.
Dave Campbell, a legendary Texas football writer, published an article in 1973 about how Texas deciphered Navy’s sideline signals in advance of the 1964 Cotton Bowl. The practice was going on before that in college and pro football; Clemson recently was lauded for its ability to pick up opponents’ signals.
In Ohio State’s 49-28 victory over Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Jan. 1, 2021, the Buckeyes huddled far more than they had all season.
“Yeah, we just didn’t want them stealing our signals,” quarterback Justin Fields told reporters afterward.
Which brings us back to the dark art of sign stealing in the NFL, something that has become less prevalent since the league allowed one defensive player to wear a speaker in his helmet beginning in 2008. The league implemented that same communication system in 1994 for quarterbacks to hear directly from a coach in the press box or on the sideline. It’s far more common in football for teams to attempt to decipher defensive calls because offensive ones are much more involved.
“It’s a fascinating topic to watch unfold,” said the pro scout, who was trained by a veteran sign stealer at the outset of his career.
Rewind to a game in the past decade — the scout told me ALL of the details, but I had to promise not to give away any revealing information — and he’s in the press box ready to go about his business.
To preface, all of this was totally within the scope of NFL rules.
“There isn’t a guy on every team that can do it,” he said. “It’s a special skill set. That guy at Michigan (allegedly) videotaping it makes all the sense in the world because he’s going to have to bring it back to look at it or give it to someone else to look at. Especially if you’re sitting in the stands, that’s got to be hard. You’re not in the press box with a work area.
“The interesting part of it from the NFL standpoint is you would think, OK, you passed the rule and you’ve got the speaker in the helmet for defense. It’s just going to go away. No, teams were still signaling for quite a while. Not everyone, but you would randomly run into one.
“Sometimes advancing can be boring … in terms of, all right, what am I going to get that’s not on tape? You get the tempo. You get the feel. You kind of get away from the ball stuff, sideline stuff, and then you get the personnel signals. Everybody signals personnel. It’s a little bit of an advantage but not that much.
“Coaches will tell you the benefits (of signaling personnel) outweigh what you’re giving away. Teams that don’t signal make it awfully hard. You’re going to get one or two screwups, especially for a young defensive coordinator. That’s a different story.
“I pack a voice recorder in my bag just in case. That’s the only way to be on top of it. If your head is down writing, you can’t do it. It’s too fast.”
The game starts, and the team the scout is advancing is on defense.
“This position coach looked nervous as hell,” the scout said. “He looked like the third base coach for a Triple-A team. Three plays in, it’s, ‘Holy (crap)! Are they signaling the defense?’ I whipped out the recorder and I just started going as fast as I could. ‘Play 4, touches the bill of his hat, touches his arm, touches his belt, swipes his left arm, blah, blah, blah.’ You go through the whole deal.”
The scout spent the entire game reciting the coach’s signals as they happened, filling his recorder with notes from about 60 plays. He returned to the office Monday morning and created a spreadsheet with all of the signals he saw, a laborious process.
“I type it all up,” he said. “And then I watch the tape.”
He added the coverages the opponent played on every passing down to the spreadsheet.
“OK, well they played Cover-6 here,” he said. “They played Cover-2. This was a cross-dog blitz. Cover-3. Every play. And I had a column for all of that and added it.”
Next, he conferred with the quality control assistants, who had no idea of the gold mine the scout had potentially stumbled upon, about their notes from watching tape. Did you have Cover-3 on Play 8? Check. Cover-2 on Play 9? Check. They married their scouting reports on which coverages were played on each snap. Their breakdowns were identical.
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. Did the original column, the signals, match the coverages for each play?
“Holy (crap)!” the scout said. “Everything was spot on. When they touch the bill and touch the elbow, it’s Cover-66 — every time. This signal is cross-dog blitz. Everything on the spreadsheet fit.”
The scout took his discovery to the offensive coordinator and expressed his confidence in knowing the signals of that week’s opponent. The coordinator was intrigued, but no one knew if the signals would change. Just a few tweaks could render the information useless. Maybe the team would switch to the in-helmet communication.
The game started and, yes, the opponent was signaling.
Thirty-three Buzz? Checkmark. Cover-2? Checkmark. Cover-6? Checkmark. All of the signals matched the coverages the scout’s report said were coming. They knew pre-snap what the defense was in.
Starting with the second series, the team got the quarterback to the line of scrimmage early in the play clock and told him if a pressure was coming and what coverage he was going to face. Sometimes it told him where to go with the ball or what to check to.
The scout’s team won the game and he earned plaudits from co-workers. He still packs his voice recorder for every road trip.
“But I haven’t seen it since,” the scout said. “I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying in my experience I haven’t seen it. It’s not like it was 20 years ago.
“Now, really the only fun you get to have is in two-minute. If a team you’re scouting has to defend no-huddle, they have to signal. We’ll steal them in two-minute, but the problem is the offensive coaches have to be open to it. Everything has to match. There have been times when you say, ‘Hey, I think I have these guys down,’ and you get, ‘Ah, we’re in a pretty good flow here. All good.’ That’s OK too.
“You don’t become pissed off because you understand the trust factor has to be through the roof. Like you say, ‘Here comes zero pressure,’ and the coach dials up a screen pass and it’s man coverage and they blow it up for a 5-yard loss, the head coach is (cussing) you for the next three weeks. You tiptoe your way into it. In a two-minute situation, in the (coaches) box, you are shorthand writing it and you are getting it live. You’re looking at it as it happens and do what you can to relay the information.”
I called a veteran national scout, who spends his falls traversing college campuses across the country, for his take on the Michigan situation.
“It’s very common to do that in-game in college,” the scout said. “If you’re not trying to do that, it’s probably neglect, to be quite honest. It can be an advantage. Now, over the last 15-plus years, it’s gotten a lot more complex with the big boards with multiple pictures or three-plus people doing different signals, trying to figure out which one it was. Back in the day, when it was one person signaling in, it was obviously a lot easier to crack the code and steal the signals and get an advantage that way. Both teams were probably doing it.
“I have never heard of a team going out and doing it in advance because of the rules. But I’d be shocked if this was the first time it’s ever happened. I can’t imagine, with the magnitude of the sport, the money involved and everything else, I would be absolutely shocked if this was the first time this has ever happened.
“What takes this over the top is the (alleged) videotaping and it’s happened over and over and over again.”
One former NFL player, who never suited up for the Bears, told me the coordinator for a team he played for hired people to sweep the hotel the opposing team stayed in immediately after it checked out to seek any pertinent information that may have been left behind. On a table in a restaurant. In a trash can next to the elevator. Anywhere.
“I believe that,” the national scout said. “And I’ve heard similar stories. Players, especially college players, back in the paper days, they were going to leave stuff out. Now things are more on iPads, so there’s less access to anything.
“It’s a lot more common than probably anybody expects or would admit. All is fair in love and war and football. I don’t know if it’s right to say if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying. But you better be doing every damn thing you can to try to win.”
The pro scout, the one who brought this story in the NFL to light for me, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Michigan and other college programs were up to high jinks.
“If you hired me as a personnel guy for a college team tomorrow and I am there for the first game and they are signaling their asses off, I’m going to be like a dog saying, ‘You think we can get away with this?’” he said. “It’s going to be like shooting fish in a barrel.”
6. Eddie Jackson had a look of pain on his face at his locker after the game.
The veteran free safety was in uniform after being held out last week and being limited to only 14 snaps in a Week 6 start in Week 6. He has a left foot injury that cropped up in the Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay and has been limited to three games, playing extensively in only the opener.
“It’s a frustrating thing,” he said. “Feel like I haven’t had to do this since I’ve been in the league. It’s just (hard) especially on top of the losing. Then not being out there and seeing plays that you know you can make, that’s the devastating part.”
Jackson’s issue isn’t the Lisfranc injury in the same foot that cost him the final five games of the 2022 season. He was healthy in training camp and the Bears were optimistic about him. He’d been durable, missing only five games through his first five seasons, and he rediscovered his knack for being a playmaker in the current scheme last year. The Bears had 15 takeaways in their first 12 games in 2022, and Jackson had four interceptions and two forced fumbles.
Although he was active after being designated as a full participant in practice Friday, he was only going to be used in an emergency Sunday with Elijah Hicks and Duron Harmon starting with Jaquan Brisker (illness) out.
“Next week,” Jackson vowed. “That was the plan. It was always another week. Last time — the Minnesota game (when he had to leave early) — we didn’t want to have another setback like that especially when you are so close. I’m right there. Just a few more days, but it’s so hard watching.”
When Jackson gets out there against the Saints, he’s hoping to make a difference.
“Lead by example with your play,” he said. “That’s the standard. The Go out there and ball. Guys seen me … it’s contagious. That’s really it.”
7. There wasn’t a player harder on himself after the game than wide receiver Velus Jones Jr.
He stumbled at the end of a route on second-and-8 from the Chargers’ 40-yard line in the second quarter. It should have been a long touchdown against a secondary behind cornerback Michael Davis and safety Derwin James that’s surrendered way too many plays like this all season. Instead, Jones stumbled, then juggled and lost the ball on his back in the end zone.
“When I got even with the DB (Davis), I knew I was gonna be open,” Jones said. “So I went to dig in. I had looked back for the ball and a little underthrown. So I started working back to the ball as I was running, trying to track it. I had lost my footing because I was running back to it at an angle. And almost ran past it so I tried to stop and I had slipped.
“But it’s not no excuse. It was a catchable ball. I mean, I had it. it’s real devastating when you prepare all week and put in the extra work that’s needed and you catch a ball like that 100 times after practice, 100 times on the Jugs. And it’s in that small window of opportunity you get to show what you can do and it don’t happen for you.”
Credit to Jones for being accountable. The drive did end in a touchdown, so the gaffe didn’t put the Bears in a deeper hole. But Jones has been struggling to get a lot of playing time even with Equanimeous St. Brown on injured reserve. He had only 27 snaps on offense entering the game with four rushes for 22 yards and two catches for 5 yards.
“This is a great opportunity for me to learn from it and get back to work, work on that same route when I get back to practice,” he said. “It definitely sucks. Everything went wrong and like I said, it was just routine play. Made it 100 times in practice but it just sucks, put in the work but you don’t get the results.”
He almost made an acrobatic play to reel it in.
“Yeah,” Jones said. “Almost don’t count.”
The route was a winner as he blew past the defense and Bagent lofted a ball that was good enough for a score.
“Just fade inside the numbers and then you get back outside the numbers,” Jones said. “Great call by coach (Luke Getsy). I can’t capitalize on it. You learn from your mistakes. You watch the film. What I could have done better? It just sucks you put in the work for that small window of opportunity. Things don’t go your way. I can dwell on this or I can get back to work and when the opportunity comes back my way I can capitalize on it.”
When Jones misses big plays, will the Bears hesitate to put him into those small windows of opportunity moving forward?
“I’m always going to trust the guys that are out there,” Bagent said. “I’ve got full faith in Velus. I’ve seen him make plays like that a million times. That happens again next week and the week after that, still gonna make it a point to get him the ball.”
8. There probably isn’t a greater expert on professional football in West Virginia than Pro Football Talk founder Mike Florio.
So I called him the other day to discuss the emergence of Tyson Bagent, the Martinsburg, W.Va., native who has joined an exclusive club as a starting NFL quarterback who was born and raised in the Mountaineer State.
“I remember when Randy Moss (from Rand, W.Va.) emerged back in 1998,” said Florio, who runs PFT from Bridgeport, W.Va. “It was such an amazing thing and such a rarity. It comes down to basic population. The fewer the people, the smaller the likelihood one of them is going to be sufficiently talented, motivated, driven — all the factors you need to reach the highest level of any sport.
“And it’s kind of that same vibe, but it’s not the same because there wasn’t a whole lot of hype about Tyson Bagent. Yes, everybody knew he was good at Shepherd University, but how often does a Division II player go and start an NFL game as a rookie?”
The West Virginians connected for the first time last week when Florio interviewed Bagent after the Bears’ victory over the Raiders. I was curious if Florio knew of any other quarterbacks from West Virginia — not players who were raised elsewhere and played at West Virginia University — to start in the NFL?
It was a stumper. After our conversation, Florio followed up with a text and shared that WVU play-by-play voice Tony Caridi told him Bagent was the first West Virginia high school quarterback to start in the NFL since … Len “Feets” Barnum in 1941.
You will have to excuse Bagent for omitting Barnum last week when he discussed the rarity of being a West Virginia-born and -raised NFL quarterback. Barnum played at Parkersburg (W.Va.) High School and West Virginia Wesleyan College before making it with the New York Giants (he was part of their 1938 championship team) and Philadelphia Eagles.
It was in 1941 with the Eagles that he started at quarterback. He completed 19 of 55 passes on the season for 260 yards with no touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Good thing he also was known for being a running back, punter and kicker — and, yes, he played defense as well. Barnum later served in World War II.
It’s more than understandable Bagent wasn’t aware of “Feets.” Few are.
“I was on the phone with a dude from Huntington (W.Va.) and he said he had done a bunch of research and that I was the first West Virginia-born and -raised quarterback to ever start in the NFL,” Bagent said Thursday when asked if the magnitude of his ascent had struck him. “I was sitting back on my couch like, wow, that’s pretty amazing.
“It’s wild to think about. You just think about how long they’ve been playing in the NFL, how many people have gone through the NFL. So when you can still be the first to do something in this league that’s been around so long and had so many people come through it, it’s definitely an honor and something that’s really crazy and wild to think about.”
The odds Bagent beat even to reach this point are enormous.
“It’s amazing regardless of where he’s from,” Florio said. “The fact that this needle in the haystack comes from the haystack that is West Virginia makes it even more amazing. If he’s from California Division II, Texas Division II, Florida Division II, it’s still incredible a guy goes from Division II one year to starting in the NFL and winning a game the following year.
“It really is a great story. We’ve got Division II programs all over the state, and every once in a while there’s a guy and it’s, ‘Oh, man, he may make it to the next level.’ It’s like, ‘He may, but he’s probably not going to because who ever does?’ That’s a creature of Division II generally. Who ever makes that leap?”
9. The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2008 Detroit Lions and 2017 Cleveland Browns won’t have company as the only teams in the Super Bowl era (non-strike season) to go winless.
The Panthers became the last team to earn a victory Sunday when ex-Bears kicker Eddy Piñeiro booted a 23-yard field goal as time expired for a 15-13 victory over the Houston Texans.
The hours leading up to Tuesdy’s 3 p.m. trade deadline will be very interesting to watch for more than just the Bears. Keep an eye on the Panthers. The Bears hold their first-round pick and if Carolina GM Scott Fitterer is a seller, it could certainly impact that team and its draft positioning.
The Panthers could sell to recoup draft capital the team shipped out to trade up with the Bears back in March to draft quarterback Bryce Young. The flip side is after trading away running back Christian McCaffery (San Francisco 49ers) last season and then wide receiver DJ Moore to the Bears, Carolina can’t afford to sell off any more top-tier players.
The Panthers currently own six picks in the 2024 draft: their own second- through fourth-rounders along with fifth-round selections from the Tennessee Titans and 49ers and a sixth-rounder from the Arizona Cardinals.
Cornerback Donte Jackson, wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., safety Jeremy Chinn (who is on injured reserve) and defensive end Brian Burns are names that have generated interest. Chinn, the Southern Illinois product, seems unlikely to be traded as he’s out with a quadriceps injury.
The big name is Burns, a former first-round pick from Florida State who is playing on the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. ESPN reported the Panthers have told teams Burns is not available and, if so, he’d be a good candidate for the franchise tag in March absent an extension. I’d be mighty surprised if the Panthers traded Burns. It would create another hole — a big one – and a draft pick can only fill so much if it hits. But if the Panthers do move any front-line talent, it could certainly enhance the Bears’ positioning with Carolina’s top selection.
With that, here is the race for the top pick.
The one-win teams
Next: at Cleveland on Sunday
The path to No. 1: After playing some tough ballgames — and stunning the Dallas Cowboys — the Cardinals became a lot less competitive. They battled the Baltimore Ravens — the game was tied at 7 until 20 seconds remained in the first half — and then they were in a 24-7 hole Sunday. They’re not built to rally from that. The wild card here is quarterback Kyler Murray should return from an ACL injury in the next few weeks. With Murray, can the Cardinals play their way out of the No. 1 pick?
Next: Indianapolis on Sunday
The path to No. 1: It’s really a struggle for the Panthers to protect rookie Young. He was sacked six times for 55 yards in losses in the game against Houston. Young is playing behind a poor offensive line and has taken 22 sacks on the season for a whopping 183 yards. That’s more than 8.3 yards per sack. Young has to learn how to minimize the damage when he’s under duress.
The two-win clubs (in order of strength of schedule for all 17 opponents from Tankathon):
- Bears (2-6)
- New York Giants (2-6)
- New England Patriots (2-6)
- Green Bay Packers (2-5)
If draft order was based on the current standings, the Bears would pick No. 2 and No. 3.
10. Darrynton Evans had a decision to make and didn’t have a lot of time to do it.
The Bears were interested in adding the running back to their 53-man roster after losing Khalil Herbert (high ankle sprain) and Roschon Johnson (concussion) in the Week 5 victory at Washington.
Evans was a member of the Miami Dolphins practice squad, and usually a 53-man roster offer is a no-brainer. But the Dolphins were playing well and he’d been led to believe an opportunity for promotion was coming soon, especially after rookie running back De’Von Achane suffered a knee injury the day before Evans left for the Bears. “Be ready,” the Dolphins had told him.
“Yeah, it was difficult,” Evans said. “Being in Miami, I was kind of getting into the groove of everything. Finally understood everything to where playing time was about to start happening.
“But once you get a call, a call with a guarantee, you’ve got to hop on the opportunity. Financially, it made sense (to sign with the Bears). It made sense for my career to get on the field and play. You’ve got to do what is best for you.”
He has made the most of his opportunities. Evans carried 14 times for 48 yards in the Week 7 victory over the Raiders. Holding penalties negated runs of 15 and 13 yards.
His most significant play might have been a check-down pass from Tyson Bagent in the right flat on third-and-6. Evans eluded a diving effort from defensive end Maxx Crosby and then spun out of the grasp of linebacker Kana’i Mauga to gain 2 more yards and move the chains.
“It was really an incredible play and a very important play for us to keep that drive alive,” offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said.
How long his opportunity exists with the Bears remains to be seen. They plan to get Herbert back; he has to spend at least one more week on injured reserve. Johnson was back against the Chargers with six carries. Evans had four rushes for 18 yards with the 11-yard score, the first rushing touchdown of his career. He will be ready if he gets playing time in the weeks to come and said it wasn’t as simple as coming back to an offense he knew from a year ago.
Players signed away from another team’s practice squad are guaranteed three game checks, so with Evans earning a prorated $940,000, joining the Bears meant roughly $156,000 guaranteed. He has been with them for three weeks now.
Maybe more important than the money — Evans was receiving $12,000 per week from the Dolphins — was the chance to get on the field for a player who has been bouncing around since spending last season on the Bears practice squad and briefly on the roster.
Evans signed with the Indianapolis Colts on March 31 and was released May 2. He joined the Buffalo Bills before training camp on July 25 and was let go Aug. 29. Two days later, he was on the Dolphins practice squad.
A 2020 third-round pick from Appalachian State with 30 career carries before the Bears’ Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings, Evans needed a shot. Drafted by the Tennessee Titans, he played behind Derrick Henry and thought he would get a shot in Year 2 when a PCL injury in his left knee limited him to one game. He saw spot duty for the Bears in six games last season, carrying 14 times and catching one pass.
“The thing for me now is to get out on the field and show everybody what I can do,” he said. “I feel like they already know. But everybody’s thing is, ‘We haven’t seen you do it yet.’ It’s like, ‘Shoot, give me an opportunity.’”
10a. After Cole Kmet wasn’t featured a lot in the passing game in Tyson Bagent’s first start, the tight end was targeted 10 times and caught all 10 throws for 79 yards.
10b. The Bears activated defensive end Khalid Kareem (hip) from injured reserve and used him to replace Dominique Robinson in the rotation. Kareem had a nice rush on the first third down of the game but didn’t get home. He dropped what would have been an interception later.
10c. Keep an eye on middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who left with a right knee injury and returned briefly only to be later ruled out. He got tangled up with defensive tackle Gervon Dexter on the play and will likely need testing to see where he’s at physically.
10d. Good news for rookie cornerback Terell Smith, who I spotted him on the practice field Thursday. He’s back in the building, but not participating, after overcoming mononucleosis. Matt Eberflus said Smith would be sidelined three or four weeks and he’s missed three games. With any luck, Smith will have the strength to get back on the practice field this week.
10e. The CBS crew of Andrew Catalon, Tiki Barber, Matt Ryan and A.J. Ross will call the Bears-Saints game.
10f. The Saints opened as a 6 1/2-point favorite over the Bears for Sunday’s game at the Caesars Superdome at Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas.