Poles was in no mood to celebrate.
“I’m still not in that mindset right now,” Poles said Tuesday at Halas Hall. “It hurts. It hurts to be in that position.”
Poles spoke publicly Tuesday for the first time in several months. He and head coach Matt Eberflus gave their final thoughts on the 2022 season and looked ahead to the offseason.
As soon as the Bears’ loss to the Vikings ended Sunday, attention turned to Indianapolis, where the Texans’ wild comeback win over the Colts catapulted the Bears to the worst record in the league and the top draft pick. The Texans-Colts game ended minutes after the Bears game, but Poles didn’t stick around to watch it.
He went, instead, to the Bears locker room. He wanted to be with his players, the ones who had just lost their 10th consecutive game, the ones who had put their bodies on the line in a largely forgettable season.
“I just wanted to spend time with the players after the game and tell them how much I appreciate everything that they put into the season,” Poles said.
The minute Poles traded Pro Bowl pass rusher Khalil Mack to the Chargers in March, the 2022 season was no longer about winning. That move signaled a massive reset for the organization. This team was going to become worse before it became better.
Even Poles probably couldn’t have predicted how bad it would be. The Bears ended the season on a 10-game losing streak [longest in franchise history] and lost 14 games [most in franchise history].
The losses were painful.
“It feels like part of your football soul gets ripped out when you’ve got to do it over and over and over again,” Poles said.
Poles has talked numerous times about setting this organization up for sustained success. He’s not trying to build a flash-in-the-pan team that reaches the Super Bowl once then falls apart the next year. It’s about building an organization that can compete for the playoffs year after year, a team that can give itself multiple shots at the ultimate goal.
At the beginning of the season, Poles handed out navy blue legos during an all-staff meeting. They said “Bears” in white lettering on the side.
“I talked about the entire organization doing what it takes to stick together,” Poles said. “Because I knew how important it was to build a foundation that was rock solid, it wasn’t on something that was shaky, that would fracture. Really, everyone bought into that, and I was excited about that.”
Sure, it might be a corny gesture. But Poles wants to build an organization that has the right mindset, in the locker room and the front office, and doing that amid all that losing is difficult. He knew last summer that this season might be difficult for many at Halas Hall. But he knew it was necessary.
“I know that we’re in a healthier situation now than we were before, and we’re excited about where we’re going,” Poles said.
The Bears have nine draft picks this spring, including the top overall selection. They have $118 million in available salary cap space, per OverTheCap.com, $42 million more than the next closest team.
Poles has positioned himself well to mold this team into whatever he wants it to be. The possibilities are infinite. His tenure as GM eventually will be judged not by what opportunity he created for his organization, but by what he did with the opportunity. The job becomes only more difficult from here. The 3-14 Bears need help almost everywhere.
They can rest somewhat easy knowing that the future is bright at the most important position in football.
Poles gave a measured review of quarterback Justin Fields’ 2022 season. He noted that Fields made some impressive plays running the ball, but he has work to do as a passer.
“I’m excited for the direction he’s going,” Poles said. “As I mentioned before, he knows where he has to improve. ... He showed ability to be impactful with his legs. There’s flashes with his arm. Now if we can put that together, I think we have something really good.”
The Bears hold the No. 1 overall draft pick for the first time since 1947. If they want to select a quarterback – say Alabama’s Bryce Young or Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud – they certainly can. Poles made clear that he will do his due diligence.
“We’re going to do the same as we’ve always done,” Poles said. “We’re going to evaluate the draft class, and I would say this: I would have to be absolutely blown away to make that type of decision.”
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.
The Bears have one of the most electric young quarterbacks in the league already on their roster. Poles also could acquire a mountain of draft picks in return for the No. 1 pick, if he wanted to trade it.
Poles mentioned “flexibility” seven times during his nearly 30-minute media session. The No. 1 overall pick gives his front office all sorts of flexibility. Truly, though, every move Poles made all year led him to this moment and this potentially momentous offseason.