It always sounds too bad to be true. There’s no way the Bears could actually be as awful as the Lions.
The harsh truth is that the Bears have barely been better over the last decade, and they’ve been much closer to slipping below the Lions at the bottom of the NFC North than overtaking the Packers at the top.
The Lions are in their 10th decade of doing nothing, and they seem to be perpetually rebuilding. They were expecting to show some modest progress this season but sit at 2-6 heading into their visit to Soldier Field on Sunday. It’s the first time the Bears, just a hair better at 3-6, have been favored since Week 3 against the NFL-worst Texans.
New general manager Ryan Poles’ task is to make sure the Bears don’t end up like the Lions. His predecessors couldn’t manage to clear even that incredibly low bar.
From 2013 through last season, under the watch of Ryan Pace and Phil Emery, the Bears went 8-10 against the Lions. Each team made the playoffs twice and got knocked out immediately. They had identical .421 winning percentages — only five teams were worse.
The Lions provide a template of how to get everything wrong. If Poles or any other general manager used “Do the opposite of whatever the Lions would do” as a guiding principle, they’d probably be fine.
They don’t have a quarterback other than pricey placeholder Jared Goff and haven’t drafted one since sixth-rounder Brad Kaaya in 2017.
They don’t know if they have a coach. Dan Campbell certainly is entertaining, but he’s off to a 5-19-1 start, and the last time the Bears saw him, he was getting flagged for calling consecutive timeouts as Matt Nagy outfoxed him for a 16-14 victory.
Their drafts have been a mess, and that’s usually how teams get here. The Lions have drafted 58 players the last seven years, and four made a Pro Bowl. Of those four, only offensive linemen Frank Ragnow and Jonah Jackson are still on their roster.
That’s an unsightly portrait. And it looks a lot like the Bears did as they sputtered along with draft misses and coaching duds.
That’s the mess Poles walked into. He’s searching for solutions that stumped Pace and Emery, and the question is whether he has the Bears in any better shape than the Lions as both franchises try yet again to climb out of the pit they dug with their incompetence.
The answer seems to be yes. The Bears have good reason to believe Poles has them on course.
It always starts with quarterback, and Justin Fields has pumped optimism into the organization with his play the last five games. After posting the NFL’s worst passer rating through the first four weeks at 58.7, the 99.7 he has put up since ranks eighth. He gave the Bears a combined passing and rushing output of 154.5 yards per game through Week 4, then 261.2 since.
As for the coaching, Matt Eberflus still has a lot to prove, but at least there hasn’t been anything clownish. His CEO-style approach to running the team is sensible, and he and offensive coordinator Luke Getsy made meaningful adjustments to the offense rather than refusing to change a la Nagy. The Bears look organized, and that’ll serve them well once they’re fully stocked with good players.
That’s where Poles has work to do, and it’ll take another couple of years to evaluate how good he is at picking personnel. This year wasn’t particularly telling because he had to begin by demolishing the ramshackle house Pace left him. He had to bulldoze before he could build.
While some of his moves have been debatable, like going too cheap on the offensive line and at wide receiver, as well as trading potential franchise pillar Roquan Smith, there haven’t been any wild misses yet. Even the questionable decisions have had clear, credible logic behind them.
Poles’ first real opportunity to construct a roster will come at the end of the season. The Bears will have the most salary-cap space in the NFL by far, and even after giving up a second-round pick to acquire receiver Chase Claypool, the Bears have one pick in each of the first three rounds and two in the fourth.
In the meantime, the way they play matters more than whether they win — for the most part. This week would be an exception.
While it’s unreasonable to expect the Bears to go punch-for-punch against good teams, they need to show they can knock down opponents in their weight class. They host the Lions this week and visit the Falcons next week, and neither of those teams has the kind of personnel advantage the Bears typically face.
When they take on teams at their level, they need to win. That’s one of the ways Eberflus is up for evaluation even in the early stage of a rebuild. Regardless of the roster, he needs to squeeze the most out of it.
The Lions provide a favorable opportunity all around. Fields will love that they’re allowing a league-worst 29.3 points per game and a 99.8 opponent passer rating. No team gives up more yards per pass than the Lions’ 8.1. They’re also the second-worst run defense.
And as Eberflus tries to stabilize a defense that has said goodbye to Smith, Robert Quinn, Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks since he took the job, the Lions are highly stoppable.
Goff is a league-average quarterback with 10 turnovers in eight games. Their top rusher is running back Jamaal Williams, who has 267 yards in his last four games. With three decades of experience as a defensive expert, Eberflus should have some answers for that.
And that’s a good step for the Bears toward proving they aren’t the Lions: Furthering their own progress while hindering Detroit’s. Even in a season like this, the Bears need to establish that they’re decisively better than the league laughingstock.