1st-and-10: Keeping Justin Fields healthy is Job 1 for Bears in 2022

This is a huge ask for the Bears, but here goes: Any chance Justin Fields can start all 17 games this season?

The Bears’ 2022 rebuilding season is all about modest expectations, and the potential franchise quarterback going an entire season without getting injured or benched actually is setting the bar pretty low.

Over the last 10 years, more than half the starting quarterbacks in the NFL have started every game each season (16.8 — including starters who sit out the final week of the regular season before the playoffs).

Obviously, Fields has to show some development in Luke Getsy’s offense, but first things first. The Bears have not had a quarterback start every game of a season since Jay Cutler in 2009.

Cutler actually was a durable quarterback whose toughness was a strength. He played in 15 of 16 games four times with the Bears. But even some of those single-game absences were symptoms of bigger issues — like getting sacked nine times and concussed in the first half against the Giants in 2010; or getting benched by Marc Trestman in Week 15 as Halas Hall dysfunction was exposed in 2014.

With the Bears, there’s always something, which is why Fields playing every game would be a nice indicator that general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus will not only produce success, but success that has a longer shelf life than Marc Trestman’s 8-6 start in 2013 or Matt Nagy’s 12-4 playoff season in 2018.

From Fields on down, the Bears can give Poles a better chance by staying relatively healthy. By this point of Ryan Pace’s rookie year, wide receiver Kevin White –his first-round draft pick (seventh overall) — already was all but out for the season with a mysterious shin injury..

Poles retained trainer Andre Tucker, but has revamped the Bears’ health-maintenance staff — hiring a director of high performance (Brent Salazar), a director of sports nutrition (Blair Hitchcock) and a sports science expert (Al Lamb).

That proactive approach could be tested quickly. Eberflus is a staunch believer in tough, physical, high-tempo practices that build mental and physical toughness. It’s not quite like the knock-down, drag-out practices of the Ditka era, but the thinking is the same –if you practice hard, you’ll play hard.

That’s an old-school style that has benefits. But as Tom Thibodeau found out with the Bulls a decade ago, while that mental toughness can take a team to another level, there’s also a price to pay. That’s what makes Poles’ job even tougher than it looks. After hiring all the trainers, strength-and-conditioning coaches, nutritionists, physical therapists and sports scientists, you still have to keep your fingers crossed.

2. And that goes double for the offensive line. The Bears’ line has been in flux since Eberflus was hired and it’s still uncertain whether Lucas Patrick will play center or guard against the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field.

After all the mixing and matching during the offseason and training camp, continuity is vital to the offensive line. The last time the Bears started the same five lineman for all 16 games was in 2013. Not coincidentally, the Bears finished second in the NFL in scoring that season.

Since then, the Bears’ longest streak of starting the same five linemen is seven games — in 2018, when they finished 12th in offensive points scored. They’ve changed offensive line lineups 50 times in the last eight seasons –not good.

3. Poles’ 53-man roster for Week 1 will include just 19 of the 77 players he inherited from Pace — a massive housecleaning, especially for a team that technically has been in the playoffs two of the previous four seasons. The other new GMs aren’t even close — the Giants (Joe Schoen) have 25 holdovers, the Raiders (Dave Ziegler) have 27 and the Vikings (Kwesi Adofo-Mensah) have 31.

4. When Pace was hired in 2015, his 53-man roster for Week 1 included 31 players he inherited from Phil Emery. That was considered a housecleaning at the time, but Poles already is ahead of Pace in that regard.

In 2015 under John Fox, the Bears’ top offensive players were quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, wide receiver Alshon Jeffery and tight end Martellus Bennett. All of them would be gone by the start of the 2017 season.

Poles already has building blocks in those spots — Fields, running back David Montgomery, wide receiver Darnell Mooney and tight end Cole Kmet. All but Montgomery are certain to be in for the long haul if they produce in Getsy’s offense.

5. That the McCaskeys are celebrating Ted Phillips’ accomplishments while Bears fans are celebrating his retirement is a perfect snapshot of the Bears organization in the McCaskey era.

Phillips was the ultimate loyal soldier who got things done off the field — like the Soldier Field reconstruction in 2002-03. But the legacy of George Halas is about football, not franchise valuation and the Bears’ record in Phillips’ 23 seasons as team president is unflattering — six playoff appearances (tied for 22nd in the NFL in that span), three playoff victories (tied for 25th) and seven winning seasons (tied for 23rd).

Phillips pointed to the Jerry Angelo era as his biggest success and indeed it was — playoff appearances in 2001, 2005, 2006 and 2010. But that relatively modest highlight is yet another example of the low bar at Halas Hall in the McCaskey era. Let’s put it this way: The Bears’ best six-year run in the post-Ditka era (three playoff appearances) is the Packers’ worst six-year run in the same span.

6. With that said, there is optimism that Poles can succeed where previous GMs have failed — and timing could play a big part of it. When Pace was hired in 2015, Aaron Rodgers was 31. Now he’s 38.

Don’t discount that as a factor. Most of the Bears’ success in the last 60 years has coincided with a Packers downturn — from the 1963 championship when Paul Hornung was suspended for gambling to the post-Lombardi funk lasting into the mid-1980s to Brett Favre’s worst seasons in 2005 and 2006. Timing is everything.

7. Fun Fact: Braxton Jones, a fifth-round draft pick, will be the first rookie to start at offensive tackle since Troy Auzenne, a second-round pick in 1992. Auzenne started all 16 games as a rookie, but was injured in 1993 and quickly faded. Jones has responded to every challenge so far. If he responds to the next one, the Bears might be in business.

8. It’s not likely to be a part of the Bears’ unveiling of conceptual plans for the Arlington Heights site Thursday at Hersey High School, but the ambitious project is a great opportunity to give Chicago something it is missing — a Chicago Sports Hall of Fame Museum.

There actually is a Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame, but few people know about it and it literally doesn’t even have a home — it’s currently virtual, which is a shameful in a great sports city.

Chicago deserves a world-class museum celebrating the city’s sports history. And George McCaskey, the biggest Chicago sports fan among the city’s professional team owners, is the right guy in the right place at the right time to get behind this project. He’s a Chicagoan. He’s a sports fan. He has an appreciation for history. He has the cachet and connections as an owner. And he’s about to get the land.

9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky was named a team captain Monday and was named the starter for the season opener against the Bengals, coach Mike Tomlin announced Tuesday. He immediately was installed as the favorite (3-1) to be the first starting quarterback benched this season, via SportsBetting.ag. We’ll see about that.

10. Bear-ometer: 6-11 –vs. 49ers (L); at Packers (L); vs. Texans (W); at NY Giants (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Commanders (W); at Patriots (L); at Cowboys (L); vs. Dolphins (L); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (W); at NY Jets (W); vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (L); vs. Vikings (W).

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