The 3-13 Chicago Bears mercifully close out their season this weekend against the Minnesota Vikings. Already the intrigue and interest is more about what happens off the field in the coming months than what happens on it this coming Sunday. The Bears are poised to get a top draft pick and have lots of money to spend to improve a last-place team, but can they use the draft well and spend wisely?
Below is a Q&A with James “Big Cat” Williams, offensive lineman for the Chicago Bears from 1991 to 2002 and host of the “No Name Football Podcast.”
WTTW News: So give me your overall assessment. The Bears are 3-13, but strangely it seems Bears fans aren't as angry as you would think. They almost seem optimistic going forward. What do you make of this season?
James “Big Cat” Williams: Well, I think they're optimistic because they realized that going into this season, it was going to be a rebuild year. You know there were a lot of pieces that were needed that were pieces that you weren't going to get during this past offseason. So you kind of knew coming in that it was going to be a struggle no matter who they put on the field.
How do you assess head coach Matt Eberflus? In the context of a 3-13 season, do you think it is possible for the coach to have a good season?
Williams: Yeah, I do. I think that this is a great example of a coach and GM having to work hand-in-hand in order to put players on the field that you can win with … . He knew the lack of talent that they had and that they were going to be putting on the field after getting rid of Khalil Mack, getting rid of Roquan Smith, getting rid of Robert Quinn. You get rid of those pieces — which were your main pieces going into the season — and your defense is going to look a little different. And right now, some of the young guys that are trying to prove themselves, you really don't have much out there. You have to suspect some of these guys are going to be back next year, but they're going to be back in substitution roles, not the starting roles that they played this year.
How do you assess what seems to have been a breakout year in a losing season for second-year quarterback Justin Fields?
Williams: Justin Fields is a must-watch footballer right now. I mean Justin Fields is that guy, you know me being a former player, when you came off the field there were certain players ... you went and stood on the sideline, took a knee and a helmet and you wanted to watch these guys perform. He is one of those guys.
We already know he's out for the last game, but given Justin Fields is such a dynamic player and rusher, is there a downside that he might shorten his career because of injuries or something like that?
Williams: Yeah, I think whenever you're dealing with a quarterback who has had to run as much as he has — look at Baltimore right now, Lamar Jackson being injured and them still trying to get their position in the playoffs. Will he be back for the playoffs? These are a lot of questions, and these are things that you have to deal with when you're dealing with a running quarterback. Not only that, but it makes the backup quarterback situation a lot different. You have to find a backup quarterback that can run a similar type if not the same type of offense that Fields is out there running right now. Otherwise you're putting yourself behind the eight ball as far as having to learn two separate offenses.
It looks like the Bears are going to get a very high draft pick. How do you think they should use that? What areas should they prioritize?
Williams: Well, that's a (GM Ryan) Poles question because you need an entire defensive line. You need linebackers. You have a good secondary but you're going to need some more pieces in your secondary. Wide receiver is an issue. Offensive line is an issue. You don't know what they're going to do at running back. I mean, you have a good one-two punch there, but with David Montgomery's contract being up … with Poles and Eberflus being so new on the job — yes, they have one draft under their belt — but they're still new on the job. We really don't know what their mindset is. Is it in their mind, and is it more beneficial for them to go out and get the best player available at No. 2? Or is it more likely that they'll trade that pick and try and accumulate more picks maybe later in the first round, a second-round pick to go along with it, a couple of fourth-round picks to go along with it, you know, whatever the market is for that early first-round pick that they're going to have to try and bolster the roster. They have a lot of money under the cap, and they're going to be able to get some guys in free agency, but you have so many holes to fill right now.
What would you like to see them do?
Williams: Well, if they keep the early first-round pick ... there are some good defensive linemen out there that you can take that early and probably get on the field the beginning of the season. That will make a difference now. If they don't feel that way, then you trade back and you start plugging those holes ... maybe an interior guy. They need a three technique (the defensive pre-snap positioning in which the defensive linemen position themselves on the outside shoulder of the offensive guard), they need an edge rusher, and those are the type of guys for this type of defense if you can get a great one, you know, nothing is guaranteed.
Bearing in mind that this is still a rebuilding job, how long should fans be patient? How much improvement would you want to see next season to feel like everything's trending in the right direction?
Williams: Well, I think you have to see improvement from this year. You can't go three and 13 or three and 14 again. You have got to be able to put more wins on the board … . With the Bears being as inefficient as they are on both sides of the ball, this is not a one-year rebuild.
Beyond the Bears, the story of the week in football has been the Damar Hamlin situation in which he suffered a cardiac arrest on the field after a seemingly routine play. What did you make of what happened, the game being canceled, and what are your general thoughts on player safety?
Williams: I think it was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before. You know, as a football player, I've seen things happen on the field. I've seen one of my fellow offensive linemen lying on his back and his foot turned the opposite way of which the way it was supposed to be turned. These are things as athletes, you learn to get past. You see a guy take a hard hit and you know, it's not funny, but you pray it's a concussion and not a serious head injury, not a serious neck injury that could paralyze a person. You know, these are the things that run through your head. So I can only imagine being a player on the field and watching them have to resuscitate a person. I give them all the credit in the world for not continuing that game, not trying to get those players back out on the field because you could see by the looks on their faces and by their emotions that was something no one had ever dealt with before.