The Bears’ rebuilding season is on tilt. But it’s going to take a little more than five consecutive losses, eight losses in their last nine games, an injury to Justin Fields, the departure of two respected captains, a defense that has allowed an average of 29 points over the last five games, concussions to rookie starters Kyler Gordon and Jaquan Brisker and serious injuries to team leaders Darnell Mooney and Eddie Jackson to break them.
“This team is closer than you think,” said defensive tackle Justin Jones, a team captain. “So morale is never the problem. That’s the one thing I don’t worry about. I know guys will play hard. We’ve just got to make sure we’re prepared when your number is called. That’s the only thing.”
Throughout a difficult rebuilding season, the Bears indeed have held up well. It’s not that they’ve accepted losing, but they’ve accepted the notion that losing is part of the rebuilding process. But after Sunday’s 31-10 loss to the Jets at MetLife Stadium, they run the risk of inching closer to a breaking point. They need to hold this thing together.
“I can’t look at it like that,” linebacker Nick Morrow said. “No matter who is on the field, we’ve got to play the best we can play. That’s just got to be the mentality, no matter who it is.”
The defense will be hard-pressed to do that. They started Sunday’s game against the Jets without Brisker and Gordon (concussions) and lost Jackson in the first half to a foot injury. After Jackson and Dane Cruikshank (hamstring) left with injuries, the Bears had just two safeties available, both of them back-ups — DeAndre Houston-Carson and seventh-round rookie Elijah Hicks.
Football players are wired to ignore the impact of a departed player, whether it’s Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn being traded or Jackson getting injured. “It’s gotta be next man up,” Jones said.
But the Bears’ current plight is stretching that to the limit.
“Eddie’s a great player. It’s hard to replace a guy like that,” Morrow said. “He’s instinctual. He can make every play. He can make every tackle. When the ball’s in the air, it’s his.
“It makes it hard. You’ve got to put a young guy in there, a guy who hasn’t played as many snaps. You’ve got to adjust. It’s tough, but they [opposing teams] don’t care. So we’ve got to adjust and make plays. I think Elijah did a pretty good job of making a couple of plays that helped save bigger gains than what they were, and that’s what a free safety has to do.”
If Fields returns against the Packers, or even after the bye week, the Bears will have a chance to right their listing ship. The loss of Mooney — who is likely out for the season with torn ligaments in his ankle — is painful, but Chase Claypool could fill that production void after playing 39-of-57 (68%) snaps against the Jets, with two receptions for 51 yards.
But as the injuries and losses accumulate, it’s going to be more difficult for the Bears to finish strong and head into a key 2023 season on an upswing. This thing can’t go off the rails. There’s still six weeks left in the season.
Center Sam Mustipher is ready for that challenge.
“That’s what you’re called to do as a center. You’ve got to be the glue guy — keep everybody going in the right direction,” said Mustipher, who has started 34 of the Bears’ last 35 games. “But we’ve got a lot of great guys on this team and great coaches that preach morale and preach the right things. So I don’t really have to do much. These guys are going to keep this ship going in the right direction.”