Behind Justin Fields and Matt Eberflus, 2022 Chicago Bears will be better than you think

Listen, I don’t try to live my life as a contrarian. That’s not true — I kind of do. I’ve spent a lot of time in public houses and taverns, and I’ve heard a lot of the sports world’s most popular opinions. Sometimes, I think it’s best to take a look at the other side.

In this space, I articulate positions that are the opposite of what most people think — unpopular opinions, if you will — and explain why, well, my unpopular opinions are right and everyone else is wrong. Below, I explain why the Bears will catch some off guard this season:

The Bears are not the worst team in football.

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I’m sorry. This is not the unpopular opinion I thought I was going to be defending here in Week 1 of the 2022 NFL season. As a Bears fan, I figured folks wouldn’t expect much from them, given that they replaced their head coach and general manager and didn’t make any headline-generating roster additions coming off a six-win season. But I have been surprised by just how low some have set the bar for Chicago.

Let’s start with a certain former offensive coordinator calling this Bears offense the worst he’s seen since the 0-16 Lions in 2008. Of course, I’m talking about Mike Martz, who, during his tenure with Chicago, infamously decided FUTURE HALL OF FAMER Greg Olsen wasn’t good enough for him, so you’ll forgive me if I don’t really give a [naughty word] about his opinion. The only thing I would be less interested in are parking suggestions from Cade McNown. This is a dated, obscure reference, I know. But the real ones get it, and that’s who I’m speaking to right now.

Closer to home, the Bears landed at No. 32 on Dan Hanzus’ Week 1 Power Rankings, and Adam Schein pegged them as the team that will be picking first overall in the 2023 NFL Draft. All due respect to my NFL.com colleagues, but I want to remind them that we exist in a world where the Falcons, Jets and Seahawks are also football teams. While one can argue Atlanta, New York and Seattle have more talent at certain spots than Chicago, when you look at the quarterback position, I’d take Justin Fields over any of the options on those squads.

Which brings me to the commonly expressed criticism that the Bears didn’t do enough to help support Fields heading into the 2021 No. 11 overall pick’s second pro season. I get it. They let Allen Robinson walk. They didn’t ink any marquee free agents. They used their first two draft picks on defensive players. Even so, it really feels to me like new GM Ryan Poles did a great job making smart additions to this roster that suggest he’s trying to install both a competent organizational structure (they finally have an assistant GM, Ian Cunningham) and approach.

Sure, the Bears could have tried to throw $90 million at a receiver like Christian Kirk. But that would have likely hampered their ability to spend on free agents in the future — it’s not a prudent way of doing business. Instead, they are going to maximize what they have: a roster that includes undervalued running back David Montgomery (one of six players to top 800 rushing yards in each of the past three seasons) and tight end Cole Kmet, who is destined to break out this year. (Kmet might not become the next George Kittle, but he doesn’t need to.) Vets like Byron Pringle and Equanimeous St. Brown (and, eventually, N’Keal Harry) might not move the needle much in terms of star power, but between those additions, rookie Velus Jones Jr. (as soon as he’s healthy) and the ascendant Darnell Mooney, the Bears’ receiver room is, top to bottom, better than the Falcons’ — and, yes, even better than the Packers’ (you know this is true).

Then we come to new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, a product of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, via Matt LaFleur, Getsy’s boss with the Packers the last three seasons. Getsy has installed a system that — hold onto your butts — was designed to actually focus on Justin Fields’ strengths. I can’t imagine we’ll see a lot of four verts at the 5-yard line. No 5-yard hooks on third-and-long. And get this: Unlike last year, they even allowed Justin to practice with the 1s this offseason. Fields put up encouraging numbers in preseason action. But don’t just take my word for it: NFL.com colleague Bucky Brooks is also high on the QB.

As for the offensive line, well, it wasn’t great last year. But, to the relief of anyone who saw what happened to Fields in Cleveland last season, Poles has addressed this. Chicago signed Lucas Patrick out of Green Bay (where Patrick worked with Getsy). Fifth-round pick Braxton Jones, meanwhile, won the left tackle gig. When the Bears added veterans Michael Schofield and Riley Reiff, it looked like they would join stalwart Cody Whitehair as starters, but Schofield has since been released, while Reiff seems headed for a reserve/swingman role, suggesting the youngsters up front — including Jones and second-year pro Larry Borom — are more ready than you might think. Teven Jenkins may not start in Week 1, but it’s not outlandish to think he’ll help in a major way this season, and ex-Raider Alex Leatherwood was absolutely worth taking a flier on. They won’t be the 1990s Cowboys, but a mid-level offensive line that can help get Fields out of the pocket, where he’s at his best, is going to greatly improve this team.

Oh, but wait, I forgot — the Bears hired an ex-defensive coordinator as head coach! History has shown that defensive-minded coaches DEFINITELY can’t help young quarterbacks. Think of Bill Belichick and Tony Dungy, who ruined the careers of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning — that is, if you can even remember those guys played in the NFL. And look at the disaster Brandon Staley was last season for Justin Herbert.

In all seriousness, doesn’t fielding a good defense sort of help a young quarterback? I mean, forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball at midfield seems more advantageous than giving up long drives and limiting your offense’s time with the ball. But what do I know?

What we can’t dispute is that the man at the helm, Matt Eberflus, was able to develop some of the best defenses in the league with under-the-radar players as the Colts’ coordinator the past four seasons. Shaquille Leonard is a household name now, but he was a relatively obscure second-rounder. Kenny Moore II became a top corner in Eberflus’ scheme.

I understand the Bears lost Khalil Mack (via trade) and Akiem Hicks (via free agency) during the offseason. Those are two players I love, but it’s not like they were tearing it up last year, when they missed 10 and nine games, respectively. But their replacements, Trevis Gipson and free-agent signee Justin Jones, hold plenty of promise, with Gipson producing more sacks (seven) than Mack last season (six), and Jones (three sacks in his final year with the Chargers) nearly matching Hicks (3.5). The Bears still have Robert Quinn, and while things were looking rocky with Roquan Smith for awhile, the linebacker was named a team captain (along with Fields, Whitehair and Quinn) and seems ready to get to work. After Chicago gave up a league-high 103.3 passer rating in 2021, second-round picks were spent on corner Kyler Gordon and safety Jaquan Brisker, and now the rebuilt secondary might be the strength of the team.

Again, I am a Bears fan. I wish I could say they will be Super Bowl contenders in 2022. I’m not saying that, though. They might not even be good enough to knock off the Packers.

But if the defense is competitive and Fields takes a step (or two), they should NOT be at the bottom of the barrel this season.

A quick rant about baseball’s MVP race: I know this is a football column. But it’s funny to me that people think the Yankees’ Aaron Judge is the MVP of the American League. Yes, he leads the majors with a jaw-dropping 55 homers. But imagine if somebody last year made the case for Jonathan Taylor being the MVP because he had more rushing yards than Aaron Rodgers. Which he did. But it doesn’t really tell the whole story. The moral here is Shohei Ohtani of the Angels — who, yes, happen to be my baseball team of choice — is your MVP not only of baseball, but probably the world.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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