Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson was leaving Halas Hall on Monday afternoon when he caught wind of the shocking news. Linebacker and team captain Roquan Smith was traded to the Baltimore Ravens. Johnson froze.
His immediate reaction?
“WTF,” he said.
For the second week in a row, the Bears dealt a respected team leader, playmaker and well-liked teammate. Smith’s exit, five days after defensive end Robert Quinn was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles, felt like an upper jaw cut after a Week 7 punch in the gut.
“You can be good one day and the next day it can be rough for you,” Johnson said. “There really isn’t a clear way to process the loss.”
By Wednesday morning, the emotional drain for Bears players was undeniable. Safety Eddie Jackson, who was promoted to captain Quinn last weekend, came to the team’s walkthrough and was quietly stunned.
Wow, Jackson said to himself.
“You could hear a pin drop,” he added.
Smith’s absence was conspicuous. So, too, were many bears feeling. Eventually, Jackson decided to speak up, gathering the defense for a quick pep talk.
“I went in there like, ‘Come on, man. Come on!'” Jackson said. “‘I know it’s sad. I know you’re feeling it right now. But now is the time to surround each other. Now it’s time to grow up.”
The Bears still have more than half the season to go and play this week, welcoming the 5-3 Miami Dolphins to Soldier Field on Sunday. It will be the first of nine remaining matches for the team whose GPS has suffered a sudden shock.
Counting again. Counting again.
That’s some of the discouragement and confusion about this week at Halas Hall.
“Thoughts go through your mind like, ‘What are we playing for?’ ” Jackson said. “Is their vision (in the front office) still the same as the players? We’re trying to make it to the Super Bowl, get to the playoffs, things like that. Like I said, I’m not over it. I understand. I understand. But it just hits different.”
It’s also affected differently by the likes of Quinn and Smith, veteran leaders who had very different ways of connecting with their teammates. Both players bring a different energy to the group and enhance the camaraderie for a team that is fully invested in their quest to become champions.
The sudden disappearance of the two standouts felt depressing.
“Especially for young guys, they’re looking at us like, ‘Yo, is that normal? Did that really happen?’ ” Jackson said. “But that’s the kind of thing that goes on. You just have to rally around each other and get the older guys to step up.
Now coach Matt Eberfels — and to a lesser extent Ryan Paul — must shift into troubleshooting mode. As encouraged as they are by getting draft capital in exchange for Smith and Quinn and then adding receiver Chase Claypool to the offense through another trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Eberflis and Paul, they understand the buy-in from their players. Efforts should be made to maintain. And keep the level of trust strong in those relationships.
To that end, Eberfels called a session Monday with his 13-player leadership council and explained the Bears’ big-picture push to bolster the roster, as well as the business reasons behind Smith’s exit.
“It’s just transparency,” Eberflis said. “I think it’s important. You just connect. Look each other in the eye, be honest and communicate. That’s what we all do with guys. I think they appreciate that. That’s the table right there. on. Set it up there and talk about it.”
Polis also reached out to a handful of players to go over their thought processes about making deals and acknowledging the suffering it causes.
“It’s not fantasy football when we’re just plugging out names and moving them around,” he said. “It’s deeper than that.”
Still, all the direct communication and reassurance in the world won’t help the Bears as much as Smith and Quinn on game days over the next two months. After giving up 442 yards and 49 points to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the Bears must find answers to slow down a dangerous Dolphins offense that has topped 450 yards three times this season and scored 20 touchdowns. .
That’s not lost on Johnson, who has the responsibility of helping to slow down standout receivers Tyreke Hill and Jalen Waddle this weekend. Both players are in the top five in the league in receiving yards with 961 and 727, respectively.
That’s why when Johnson was asked Wednesday afternoon how he’s working to get past his “WTF” feelings, he smiled. “I’ve got the No. 1 and No. 4 wide receiver (to worry about),” he said. “I love Roquan. But I’ve got some dogs coming into town. My mind went from this (trade) situation to, ‘What can I do to do my job better? What plays can I make?’ Can I make it?’ “
The fear is for the Bears as a group that won’t make nearly enough plays to stay competitive against quality opponents over the next two months. Six of the Bears’ last nine games are against teams currently inside the playoff picture.
The possibility of a double-digit loss season was always real but now seems inevitable. And if the lack of talent leads to another long deficit, at what point could the players’ focus and emotional investment end, making some progress toward building the Bears’ culture over the summer and into the first couple of months? Can it be reversed?
Paulis was asked Tuesday if he would be more forgiving if the Bears’ defense regresses as expected, in the absence of Quinn and Smith. He emphasized how he hopes the players see the changes as an opportunity to move forward rather than an excuse to take a step back.
General managers are banking on their leaders — such as Jackson, Johnson and defensive end Justin Jones, plus Justin Fields, David Montgomery, Cole Kmitt and Darnell Mooney on offense — to show their teammates and the NFL world that they What is in DNA?
Paul sees a competitive toughness within this team that he knows can be the fuel to push them forward.
“Do these shake-ups shake him up and make him tense at times?” He said, “Absolutely. I get it. But what I love about this staff is that they’re competitive. This locker room is competitive. … I don’t think anyone who’s watched our games, Not one—even those in which we don’t win or struggle—sees the effort, the competition, the fire. What we stand for is on the field.
It’s up to the Bears’ players and coaches to put it back on the field Sunday and then again in eight more games beyond that. The challenge will be significant. And the bears’ response will be critical to maintaining direction.
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