Can Caleb Williams change the course of Chicago Bears’ quarterback history?

‘I know who I am,’ Williams said about scrutiny that comes with being No. 1 pick

Chicago Bears No. 1 draft pick quarterback Caleb Williams smiles as he listens to reporters during an NFL football news conference in April in Lake Forest, Ill.

LAKE FOREST – Bears general manager Ryan Poles called up top prospect Caleb Williams. Poles was sitting on the worst-kept secret in sports on Thursday night.

“They told me to hold it for five minutes,” Poles told Williams.

The NFL wanted to drum up suspense for the first overall draft pick. The league might have wanted to drag it out, but Poles made up his mind long before draft night that the Bears were going to take the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner out of USC.

“I told everyone I’ve been holding it for a month,” Poles told Williams, according to a video released by the Bears on Monday.

Poles would later tell members of the media he made up his mind after Williams’ visit to Halas Hall in early April. Williams, though, had his sights set on the Bears for longer.

“Five months,” Williams told Poles. “Five months. I’ve been holding it in for five months.”

Poles couldn’t help but laugh. The wait was over. Williams, at long last, became a member of the Chicago Bears after the organization made him their first No. 1 overall selection in the draft since 1947.

“This year I watched the Bears a little bit more than I ever have leading up to this moment throughout the season,” Williams said Friday at Halas Hall in Lake Forest. “The anticipation part? I’ve been waiting [for Thursday.]”

He will be joined in his rookie draft class by Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze, who the Bears took with the No. 9 overall pick. Both rookies made their first appearances at Halas Hall on Friday, meeting with coaches and teammates and speaking with reporters.

For Williams, Thursday night was the culmination of a dream that began 12 years ago when 10-year-old Caleb and his father Carl Williams came up with “The Plan.” They wrote out a regimen to turn Williams into one of the best quarterbacks in the world. Early morning workouts, nutrition regimens, private quarterback coaches and media practice.

The goals: play major college football, win the Heisman Trophy, become the No. 1 draft pick, win the Super Bowl. After Thursday night, Williams can put a check mark next to the No. 1 pick on that list.

The evaluation

USC quarterback Caleb Williams reacts during the first half against Washington, Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023, in Los Angeles.

Poles remembers the first time he saw Williams play. It was Oct. 9, 2021. Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley benched starting quarterback Spencer Rattler in favor of Williams, and Williams led the Sooners to 25 fourth-quarter points in a come-from-behind win over Texas, 55-48.

Poles primary thought: Who is this kid?

“Some of those throws were ridiculous,” Poles said.

A year later, Williams followed Riley to USC. Poles kept close tabs on USC receiver Jordan Addison, who was Williams’ top target during his Heisman Trophy season in 2022. Poles couldn’t help but follow what Williams was doing with the Trojans, even though he wasn’t draft eligible for another year.

Williams threw for 4,537 passing yards with 42 touchdowns and five interceptions during his Heisman campaign that season. With sky-high expectations last season, Williams faced much more adversity. The USC defense struggled and Williams had to carry the team with Addison gone to the NFL.

It resulted in a 7-5 season and significantly less production from the pass attack, although Williams still threw for 3,633 yards and 30 touchdowns. The lasting image from last season, for many football fans, was Williams crying in his mother’s arms after a loss to Washington that essentially knocked the Trojans out of playoff contention.

Poles believes the adversity that Williams faced in 2023 will only help him at the next level, where winning doesn’t come easy – even for the best quarterbacks.

“That’s the best thing that could’ve happened to him, because you’re going to have that in the NFL,” Poles said. “You’re going to have the down weeks, months and you’re going to have to find a way to get through them. You’re going to have to tap into different resources to get through them.”

Speaking with the media this week, Poles didn’t dive too deep into Williams’ game because the tape speaks for itself.

“When you watch the tape, it was easy to see the talent and we wanted him on our team,” Poles said.

Even so, Poles wasn’t certain Williams would be the pick at No. 1 until after Williams’ visit to Chicago earlier this month. During that visit, Williams had dinner with several Bears veterans, including receiver DJ Moore, tight end Cole Kmet and linebacker TJ Edwards. That’s somewhat unusual. Usually those dinners are reserved for the head coach and the GM.

Felt good about the person, the culture fit. Knew, at that point, that he was going to help us and we were ready to go.”

—  Ryan Poles, Bears general manager

Poles wanted his veterans to weigh in on their potential new QB. The 22-year-old from Washington D.C. passed the test with flying colors.

“[We] felt good about the person, the culture fit,” Poles said. “Knew, at that point, that he was going to help us and we were ready to go.”

Lofty expectations for Williams, Bears fans

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after being chosen by the Chicago Bears with the first overall pick during the first round of the NFL football draft, Thursday, April 25, 2024, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Williams paints his nails. He has a pink phone case. He wears “funky” cloths (his words). Bears fans better get on board. He’s not changing who he is.

“I’m always going to have scrutiny over that,” Williams said.

And he’s perfectly fine with it.

“When I wake up and go (to) the mirror and look at myself, I’m comfortable with that man that’s looking back,” Williams said. “I know who I am. I know what I like. I know what I like to do. With that, I know that I work hard and I enjoy what I do. I’m very comfortable with who I am.”

According to Fanatics, Williams’ No. 18 Bears jersey set the record for most draft night sales ever. He surpassed a record set by Indiana Fever top draft pick Caitlin Clark just a week ago. That, more than anything, exemplifies Chicago’s excitement for the new QB in orange and blue.

Chicago, though, can be a fickle sports town. Everything’s great in the honeymoon phase. It was great three years ago with first-round pick Justin Fields. It was great when Mitchell Trubisky was leading the team to the playoffs in 2018. It was great when Jay Cutler arrived in 2009. And on and on.

Ultimately, nothing will matter quite as much as the results on the field. Williams is well aware that no Bears quarterback has ever thrown for 4,000 passing yards in a season (FanDuel set his rookie season over/under at 3,375.5 yards).

He’s more equipped for pro ball than maybe any rookie quarterback in NFL history. With NIL endorsements in college, he made an estimated $10 million last season at USC. He has trained for this moment since he was 10 and, in some ways, he was already a professional quarterback last season.

There will be ups and downs, no doubt. But Williams believes he can change the narrative about Bears quarterbacks.

“If there’s growing pains, you handle them,” Williams said. “But that doesn’t mean that affects your greatness. There’s trials and tribulations that you go through. Why would I go somewhere – work so hard for so many years, in every situation I go to believe I’m the best – and then I get here and I don’t believe that?”

Williams believes in it, and he’s ready to bring Bears fans along for the ride.

Sean Hammond

Sean Hammond

Sean is the Chicago Bears beat reporter for the Shaw Local News Network. He has covered the Bears since 2020. Prior to writing about the Bears, he covered high school sports for the Northwest Herald and contributed to Friday Night Drive. Sean joined Shaw Media in 2016.