After a 10th straight loss, the Chicago Bears are No. 1 — in the NFL draft. Now the real work begins. – The Mercury News

After a 10th straight loss, the Chicago Bears are No. 1 — in the NFL draft. Now the real work begins. – The Mercury News

The 103rd season of Chicago Bears football came to an end at 2:57 p.m. Sunday. Mercifully.

Minnesota Vikings 29, Bears 13 at Soldier Field.

That’s it and that’s all.

For those who need an official record of such proceedings, Bears quarterback Justin Fields wasn’t able to play, declared out earlier in the week with what the team said was a hip strain that wasn’t worth messing around with.

Thus Nathan Peterman, who made his last NFL start in October 2018, got into the driver’s seat and led an odd final-game quarterback rotation that also included Tim Boyle, who first walked into the Bears locker room Nov. 30 when they signed him off the Detroit Lions practice squad.

Reread that last sentence a couple of times for a true grasp of where we wound up this season.

Sunday’s finale became a glorified preseason game, with the NFC North champion Vikings yawning to a 16-point win.

The Bears defense, with guys like Greg Stroman Jr. and Harrison Hand starting, put up as much resistance as it could or wanted to. Stroman even got an interception.

We also got to see rookie Velus Jones score the penultimate Bears touchdown of the season on a nifty misdirection pitch play, 42 yards to the end zone in the first half. That was cool. So was Cole Kmet’s 11-yard TD reception in the third quarter with the third-year tight end barreling through three Vikings defenders and lunging across the goal line.

But enough about all that game detail from yet another trivial season finale for an organization that has become all too used to such insignificant season-ending affairs.

Now? Let the dreaming begin! Or more exactly, let it continue uninterrupted!

Now that we have all these darned games out of the way, now that the Bears have completed their successful nosedive, now that they have wrapped up a last-place, 14-loss season with a franchise-record 10-game losing streak, we can get on to what really matters.

Back to the future!

Onward now with a 2023 offseason that holds an abundance of promise and will offer Chicago its license to dream big. Like REALLY big.

To be honest, it was somewhat surprising there weren’t confetti cannons at Soldier Field on Sunday ready to enhance the celebration of what the Bears earned with their 2022 failures. They are now the proud owners of the No. 1 pick in the draft thanks to the Houston Texans’ jaw-dropping, 32-31 kinda-upset of the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC South’s Tailspin Bowl, a game won on a wild fourth-and-20 desperation touchdown pass in the final minute.

Thank-you notes to Texans coach Lovie Smith were being written across the Chicago area Sunday evening. Even the Bears’ official social media account quickly pushed out a story link to publicize the historic moment.

Think about the trade proposals that may be coming the Bears’ way from quarterback-needy teams hoping to climb the draft board to select Alabama’s Bryce Young or maybe Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. A potentially lavish gift basket of picks may be en route to Halas Hall soon. That has great potential to aid the Bears’ roster restocking efforts.

The Bears also will have north of $110 million in salary-cap space they’ll be able to shop with when the NFL’s free-agency flea market opens March 13. (Save the date!)

After Fields electrified Chicago this season with his record-setting big-play artistry, he’ll now turn the stage over to his general manager, Ryan Poles, who has essentially given himself a blank canvas to paint on in the coming months and will be expected by Bears fans to reward their 2022 understanding and forgiveness with a brilliant work of art.

To that end, Bears coach Matt Eberflus is energized to attack a roster-building offseason with his boss, confident their union and collective vision will propel the Bears toward success.

“You have a good understanding of where the organization is, where you are as a group,” Eberflus said Sunday. “You really have a clear-eyed view of that, which I think is really outstanding. Going in now this year for free agency and into the draft, I just think you’re ahead. You’re just ahead that way.”

But what about all the deficiencies and problem areas the 2022 Bears have given Poles to address?

Stopping the run? Opponents amassed 2,674 rushing yards this season, the most ever allowed by a Bears team. The Bears gave up 157.3 yards per game, second only to the putrid Texans.

Rushing the passer? The Bears’ 20 sacks were the fewest by any team, and rookie safety Jaquan Brisker was the team leader with four. That’s the Bears’ lowest team-leading sack total since it became an official statistic in 1982.

Protecting the quarterback? When Pat Jones mauled Peterman in the first quarter, it was the 58th and final time a Bears quarterback was sacked this season, another notable failure from an offense that used nine starting combinations on the offensive line in 17 games.

Throwing the football? That, too, continues to be a problem. A big one. Inconsistent protection. A pedestrian receiving corps. Deficiencies from Fields. The Bears’ season-ending average of 130.5 passing yards per game not only ranked last in the NFL by a country mile, but also put them in a small class of 11 teams in the past 25 seasons that have averaged fewer than 140.

For full context, the 2022 Bears’ passing average ranks sixth-worst out of 795 NFL teams during that span; meanwhile, 116 teams since 1998 doubled what the Bears did this season.

These are foundational things NFL teams must do to even begin to be competitive. Stopping the run. Rushing the passer. Protecting the quarterback. Throwing the football. And the Bears can’t check any of those boxes. That’s 0-for-4 if you’re keeping count. A golden sombrero if you’re into baseball comps.

So, yes, this will be a steep climb back to relevance.

“This is tough,” Kmet said after Sunday’s loss. “Three wins. That’s not good. There is a lot of work to do in the offseason. I think everybody knows that.”

It was no surprise that in the moments after suffering their 10th consecutive loss, current Bears players weren’t exactly blowing noisemakers to celebrate the team’s ascent to the top of the draft board.

“That’s for upstairs,” Kmet said. “I’m not going to concern myself with that. … I’m sure they’re excited upstairs about all that stuff. But personally, I have to take my own responsibility to do the things I need to do in order to become the best tight end for the Chicago Bears.”

Added Brisker: “You really don’t want to be on the side of having the No. 1 pick. But since we’re here, it’s that time — to make the team better, get the organization better and turn this thing around.”

Even Eberflus chose a “don’t really have a reaction” response when asked about the Bears earning their big consolation prize Sunday. That response might not have passed a polygraph test. But the Bears coach already was letting his imagination loose regarding the possible additions he and Poles can bring to Halas Hall this spring.

“We like long, lean, fast, physical players,” Eberflus said. “We both have been a part of that in our past, and we’re excited about getting that going.”

Goodness, they are not alone.

After enduring the franchise’s 11th last-place season in the past 30 years, Bears fans are more excited than ever about an offseason shopping spree and will monitor the developments with great passion and eagerness from the second week of March through the final weekend of April. The organization also will announce a new president soon, a pivot-point moment that will affect the team’s overall direction.

Given the current state of the roster, expectations should remain modest for how much can be fixed in one offseason, with an understanding of how far the Bears are from solidifying a team that can enjoy a sustained run of success.

But on Sunday afternoon, with the giddiness surrounding the Bears’ 14th loss and the Texans’ third win, dreaming season shot to a new level in Chicago.

Hop in the DeLorean and wait for the lightning strike. Back to the future we go.


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