Chicago Bears players cleaned out their lockers Monday morning at Halas Hall and headed into their offseason, turning the page on a 3-14 last-place season that earned the organization the No. 1 overall pick for this spring’s draft.
A day after a 29-13 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings ended a 10-game skid, Bears players spoke about what was accomplished in the first season under coach Matt Eberflus and what will be needed to turn things around. Here are five things we heard in Lake Forest.
Defensive tackle Justin Jones said this didn’t feel like a 14-loss season.
“Kudos to the guys in here,” he said, “because they make this (stuff) fun.”
On Sunday afternoon, Eberflus stated his belief that players established standards for work habits and a collective buy-in that will carry forward.
“(It’s) the feeling you have with the brother next to you, that you can trust in him that he is going to do his very best to be the best version of himself,” Eberflus said.
That is not to say everything was rosy or perfect in the first season of a new regime. Jones said Monday that players took the opportunity to communicate with coaches their “grievances and issues” from within the season.
“I thought it was huge for the coaching staff to hear some constructive criticism from the players and vice versa,” he said.
“Guys feel different ways,” Jones said. “A lot of guys are on one-year deals here, and the season didn’t go the way they planned it to. Some guys are frustrated. Some guys just want clarification on certain things. You have to give them the answer they are looking for and you have to tell them exactly what this was and the things they could have done better at. And go about the business like that. It’s healthy for both sides.”
Jones also emphasized the lines of communication between players and coaches can improve for 2023 and beyond and requested more opportunities for players to openly speak their minds.
“When you’re going through a tough season, players tend to look at themselves and are like, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ he said. “With that, (as coaches) you kind of have to reiterate like ‘Hey, my door is always open if you want to talk.’ Reiterate, ‘Hey, things aren’t going the way we planned. I know it looks kind of bad right now. But if you really need to understand where you stand, come and talk.’ Really make it just that and don’t make it seem like it’s a punishment if you come to the office.’ But instead (have it be), ‘Hey, it’s tough right now, come talk to me and we can hash it out right there.’ “
Defensive end Trevis Gipson said he appreciated the opportunity to offer feedback to general manager Ryan Poles and Eberflus on Monday.
“Our organization and people are higher than the players, they are open to change,” Gipson said. “They ask us for our opinions. ‘What could we do better? What did we not do as well?’ That’s something that’s important because it’s a level of transparency. You’re not hiding behind closed doors and you’re not doing things, ‘It’s either my way or the highway.’ It’s not that type of relationship between us and upstairs, so I think that’s a strong bond.”
In the five months since trade rumors surrounded Jenkins in training camp, the 2021 second-round pick successfully moved from tackle to right guard and played in 13 games at the position. He said he was happy with how he played but believes he needs to be better overall.
“I’m a guy who flashes a lot,” Jenkins said. “I had some great plays. One thing I need to improve on is my consistency on the field. Like I’ll have great plays, driving somebody like 10 yards or so, and the next play I might only do it for a yard or not be as great as the play before.”
The Bears also need Jenkins to get healthy. After missing most of last year with a back injury, he missed time with a hip issue and a neck strain this season.
He said doctors told him the neck injury is a short-term issue. He will use a neck machine to strengthen his muscles and he also plans on doing Pilates to strengthen his core to avoid future back issues.
“I’m disappointed in myself a little bit because I wanted to finish the season with my brothers this year, especially missing how many games I did last year with my back surgery,” Jenkins said of sitting out the finale with a neck injury. “Coming back this year and getting injured again, it’s not something I want to deal with. But I feel like in a couple of weeks I’ll get over it because I’ve got to get back to work and start work for next year.”
Jenkins said he is interested to see what the Bears do in the offseason, including watching what the Poles do to bolster the offensive line. Jenkins said he won’t take his spot on the line for granted.
“We have a lot of cap space and a lot of opportunities in this draft, so I really don’t know how it’s going to go,” Jenkins said. “I don’t ever want to be the person to say, ‘Yeah, I have a spot.’ I don’t want to do that because I always want to stay hungry and feel like I still have to chase my job, even if I have it secured.”
Montgomery’s girlfriend is set to have their first child in mid-January, so that big moment is taking precedence over reflecting on the season and what’s ahead for the soon-to-be free agent.
“I’m taking a load off,” Montgomery said. “It’s been a long year, a long season, and I got hit a lot. So I’m going to rest, let my body rest and really the main thing on my mind is my child and hoping that my girlfriend has a healthy birth. That’s what’s on my mind.”
Montgomery took a postgame photo with his family in the center of Soldier Field after Sunday’s game and said Monday that it was just him “soaking it all in, reminiscing on everything, just being grateful for everything.”
Montgomery is among the Bears’ biggest free-agent decisions this offseason after he totaled 3,609 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns and 155 catches for 1,240 yards and four touchdowns in four seasons.
Montgomery said he would love to play in Chicago next year.
“The city and the fans are crazy in a big way,” he said. “As you know we haven’t been the hottest in the last four years, and the fans and the support around this team and the way they still show love it’s crazy. It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen before. … It’s an incredible organization. It’s amazing here.”
Most notably, Santos expressed satisfaction in his 21-for-23 effort on field-goal attempts, ranking him seventh in the league in field-goal percentage (.913) among kickers with at least 15 attempts.
“The main thing is that I am proud to finish above 90% in Chicago for another season,” Santos said. “It’s a grind to keep that up. And with (Patrick) Scales and (Trent) Gill, we did that.”
After a mini-slump in November and early December in which he had five misses in a five-game span, Santos finished the year making his final eight kicks — three field-goal and five extra-point attempts — and acknowledged he felt like a golfer who finished his round with a couple of pars and a birdie over the final three holes.
Santos also said the alteration he made to his point-after-touchdown setup, moving from the right hash to the middle of the field, is something he will likely keep in 2023. That change came midgame in Week 15 after Santos missed his fifth PAT try of the season.
“With some of the frustrations I experienced, I learned many lessons too,” he said. “I dreaded forever kicking from the middle. I always liked kicking my game-winners from the right hash, extra points from the right hash. When I decided to go from the middle on extra points, it improved my ball striking, actually, because I had to be more dialed in. It was just something that I, frankly, had just feared before. Kicking from the middle now is no big deal. It’s working. So I won’t change that yet.”
Gipson went from seven sacks and five forced fumbles in his second season in 2021 while playing alongside Khalil Mack and Robert Quinn to three sacks and 11 quarterback hits in 2022 as Mack and Quinn were traded.
He had two sacks in Week 2 and didn’t have another until Week 17 in his first year under Eberflus and defensive coordinator Alan Williams.
“I felt like it was a season of transition, this being a new scheme, new coaching staff. It was pretty new for me for everything,” Gipson said. “Coming out of this season, I can only be encouraged, honestly. There are a lot of things I could have done or should have done, and now that I know that within this new scheme, it sort of shaped out my offseason schedule. It was a lot of missed opportunities I had out there.”
Gipson said he has “a mountain of things” to work on, starting with his change of direction and dropping body fat to become leaner.
“Quicker, faster, stronger, just things that are helping me get to the quarterback faster and become a better player overall,” he said.
Gipson was part of a Bears defense that had just 20 sacks, something Poles is likely to address this offseason. But while the defense did not accomplish what it wanted, Gipson said watching young players such as Jaquan Brisker, Kyler Gordon and Jack Sanborn built hope.
“Seeing those guys step up, I’m nothing but encouraged for our future as the Bears,” he said.