Can Caleb Williams Break Bears’ Quarterback Curse?

Bears fans know the drill by now. The organization continually fails to develop quarterbacks, and the ones that pass through Halas Hall usually end up cut, retired, or forced into a career as a backup with another team. The organization has overpaid for marginal starters, drafted suspect ones, and destroyed the futures of so many others. Bears fans love their backups, nearly to a fault, and those same fans tend to give up a little too quickly on the best starters.

Can Caleb Williams, Chicago’s presumptive top draft pick next week, break the mold? Let’s take a look at the past to see why we’re here today.

Justin Fields is the latest casualty in a long line of failed quarterbacks that, despite a few exceptions, goes back eight decades. Heck, the Bears have had 29 starting quarterbacks in the previous 24 seasons. The Packers have had Jordan Love, Aaron Rodgers, and Brett Favre in that same timeframe.

  1. Jay Cutler (102 starts)
  2. Mitchell Trubisky (50)
  3. Fields (38)
  4. Kyle Orton (33)
  5. Rex Grossman (31)
  6. Jim Miller (23)
  7. Chris Chandler (13)
  8. Cade McNown (9)
  9. Nick Foles (8)
  10. Shane Matthews (8)
  11. Josh McCown (7)
  12. Kordell Stewart (7)
  13. Andy Dalton (6)
  14. Matt Barkley (6)
  15. Brian Griese (6)
  16. Brian Hoyer (5)
  17. Craig Krenzel (5)
  18. Chad Hutchinson (5)
  19. Tyson Bagent (4)
  20. Mike Glennon (4)
  21. Caleb Hanie (4)
  22. Chase Daniel (3)
  23. Jonathan Quinn (3)
  24. Jimmy Clausen (2)
  25. Trevor Siemian (1)
  26. Nathan Peterman (1)
  27. Jason Campbell (1)
  28. Todd Collins (1)
  29. Henry Burris (1)

As you can see, the ghosts of failed quarterbacks make for a long and not-so-distinguished list.

Williams is next in line, so first and foremost he will need to stay healthy. Chicago’s offensive line is improving, but the group needs at least one new starter and better depth. Ryan Poles stacked his offense with playmakers during the last two seasons, adding D.J. Moore, Keenan Allen, Gerald Everett, and D’Andre Swift. He also replaced Cody Whitehair with Ryan Bates at center.

Williams has unquestionable talent, and he’s been a consistent winner throughout his amateur career. He won the Heisman Trophy in 2022, and while that’s nice, several of Chicago’s failed starters had great pedigrees, too. Williams entered the ’23 season as the favorite to repeat as the Heisman winner, but a 7-5 record and devastating losses to Notre Dame and Utah killed that chance. Bears fans who wanted Poles to keep Fields are quick to point that out, but handling adversity and dealing with disappointment are traits few of the best prospects experience before entering the NFL. That at least gives Williams a leg up on Fields and Trubisky.

“There have been quarterbacks in the past where they are undefeated for three years, they have a bunch of first-round picks surrounding them at all times, so it’s a projection of how they handle discomfort, how they handle pressure,” Bears general manager Ryan Poles told NBC Sports Chicago at the annual NFL owner’s meetings in Orlando. “So, seeing some of these guys go through hard times is important because now you can actually talk about it and listen to them kind… of go back and, ‘OK, what can I kind of do to get better? How could I handle certain situations better?’ There are so many learning lessons from that. It just makes you feel comfortable where, if you’re in a situation like that, the kid is going to come out on the other side because if not they can crumble easily.”

It might be a stretch to say Fields or Trubisky “crumbled easily” but saying neither reached his potential is a fair assessment. The organization has been criticized by the national media for failing to develop quarterbacks. One media personality questioned the culture at Halas Hall.

The culture quote is biting, but Joy Taylor has a point to an extent. Chicago must break its cycle of drafting quarterbacks one season and then restructuring the front office and coaching staff the next. When team president Kevin Warren stressed continuity back in January, he was referring to that specific predicament. I’d say Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus will likely be extended unless the coming season is an epic disaster. In fact, moving on from Fields probably buys each man more time with the organization.

Talent goes a long way toward breaking that curse, too. The acquisitions of Allen and Everett, when added to Moore and Cole Kmet, will give Chicago one of the best group of pass catchers in the league. Swift is an explosive running back that can catch the ball out of the backfield. The Bears have also been connected to Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers, and Rome Odunze in this year’s draft. Brock Bowers is another exciting playmaker who remains on Chicago’s radar.

Let’s circle back to Williams. He has the arm talent to make any throw. He also possesses the accuracy and velocity to fit the ball into tight windows and the physical gifts to be an X-factor QB. The future No. 1 pick has been called a “generational” talent though that’s a bit of a reach, at least at this point of his career. The NFL can be unforgiving at times, and regularly chews up and spits out the most talented prospects without bias to pedigree or college success. Williams will enter the NFL carrying the weight of the league’s oldest franchise, and one with a two-decade history of consistent failure to boot.

That failure will be amplified the moment Williams takes his first snap as a professional, though it’s fair to say he’ll provide equal amounts of hope. Bears fans have high expectations and can be overly critical at times, but will allow any heralded rookie to initially fail or succeed on his own accord. You’ll hear the screams for Bagent beginning with the first offseason workouts, but Williams is far more talented. Most evaluators believe Williams is equipped to handle those challenges, and his former coaches agree. But ultimately, the quaretrback’s future rests in the hands of the entire Bears’ organization.

“Good players want to play with good players. And good players also want to play with great players who can help them be better,” said Dennis Simmons, who coached Williams at Oklahoma and USC. “And I think, especially when you get to that level because you’re talking about on any given Sunday, we’re talking about 1,200 men have an opportunity to be employed by the NFL. I mean, you can’t fool those guys. They know ball, and they know talent when they see talent, and they know when a guy’s got something and when a guy doesn’t. And I think after a day of being around him and being in those practices, and when he steps into that huddle, not only is his presence going to command that respect, his athletic talent is going to support that. Guys are going to be like, ‘OK, we got something here.'”

Williams appears ready to thrive in Chicago, despite some backlash from fans who believe he’s too much of a prima donna for a city that embraces its blue-collar workers. That will change if his talent is as advertised. He’s confident and brash at times, and he’ll have to back that up.

“I don’t compare myself to the other guys that’s there or been there,” Williams said. “I’m my own player and I tend to like to create history and rewrite history.”

Quarterback development is rarely linear, and despite the accolades and all of the hardware, Williams does have holes in his game. Can the Bears break their wretched development cycle so Williams can break a decades-long curse and become Chicago’s first 4,000-yard passer? I think the answer is yes to both questions, but time will tell. The next chapter begins one week from tonight. Stay tuned, and buckle up. You may not want to embrace change, but the Bears might finally have their franchise quarterback in Caleb Williams.

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