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‘You could hear a pin drop.’ Chicago Bears players were staggered by the team’s surprise sell-offs. Do they have what it takes to regroup?



Chicago Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson was leaving Halas Hall on Monday afternoon when he caught wind of the staggering news. Linebacker and team captain Roquan Smith had been traded to the Baltimore Ravens. Johnson froze.

His instant reaction?

“WTF,” he said.

For the second consecutive week the Bears had dealt away 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 uppercut to the jaw after a Week 7 punch to the gut.

“You can be good one day and the next day it can be harder on you,” Johnson said. “There’s really no clear-cut way to process the loss.”

By Wednesday morning, the emotional dip for Bears players was undeniable. Safety Eddie Jackson, who was promoted to take Quinn’s captain role last weekend, came to the team’s walk-through and was taken aback by the silence.

Wow, Jackson said to himself.

“You could hear a pin drop,” he added.

Smith’s absence was obvious. So, too, was the heaviness many of the Bears were feeling. Eventually, Jackson decided to speak up, gathering the defense for a quick pep talk.

“I went there like, ‘Come on, man. Let’s go!’” Jackson said. “‘I know this is sad. I know you’re feeling it right now. But now it’s time to rally around each other. Now it’s time to be grown men.’”

The Bears still have more than half of a season to finish and a game to play this week, welcoming the 5-3 Miami Dolphins to Soldier Field on Sunday. That’ll be the first of nine remaining contests for a team whose GPS has suddenly been jostled.

Recalculating. Recalculating.

That’s what some of the discouragement and confusion at Halas Hall has been about this week.

“The thoughts go through your head 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 a Super Bowl, get to the playoffs, things like that. Like I said, I’m not upstairs. I get it. I understand it. But it just hits different.”

It has also hit differently because of how well-liked Quinn and Smith were, veteran leaders who had very different ways of connecting with teammates. Both players brought a distinct energy to the group and enhanced camaraderie for a team that has been fully invested in trying to build itself into a champion.

The sudden disappearance of the two standouts felt depressing.

“Especially for the young guys, they’re looking at us like, ‘Yo, is this normal? Did this really happen?’ ” Jackson said. “But this is the type of stuff that goes on. You just have to rally around each other and the older guys have to step up.”

Now coach Matt Eberflus — and to a lesser extent Ryan Poles — must switch into troubleshooting mode. As much as they have been energized by acquiring draft capital in exchange for Smith and Quinn and then adding receiver Chase Claypool to the offense via another trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Eberflus and Poles understand efforts must be made to retain buy-in from their players and keep the trust level strong within those relationships.

To that end, Eberflus convened a session with his 13-player leadership council Monday and explained the Bears’ big-picture push to solidify the roster as well as the business reasons that led to Smith’s exit.

“It’s just transparency,” Eberflus said. “I think that’s important. You just communicate. Look each other in the eye, tell the truth and communicate. That’s what we do with all the guys. I think they appreciate that. It’s right there on the table. Set it up there and talk about it.”

Poles also reached out to a handful of players to relay his thought processes on making the 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 on game days over the next two months as much as Smith and Quinn would have. After giving up 442 yards and 49 points to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday, the Bears now must find answers to slow down a dangerous Dolphins offense that has topped 450 yards three times this season and has scored 20 touchdowns.

That isn’t lost on Johnson, who has the responsibility of helping slow down standout receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle this weekend. Both players rank 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 is working to move past his “WTF” feelings, he just 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 to town. My mind went from that (trade) situation to now, ‘What I can do to do my job better? What plays can I make?’ ”

The fear is the Bears as a group won’t be able to make nearly enough plays over the next two months to stay competitive against a string of quality opponents. Of the Bears’ final nine games, six are against teams currently inside the playoff picture.

The prospect of a double-digit-loss season was always real but now seems inevitable. And if talent deficits lead to another extended losing streak, at what point might the concentration and emotional investment of players lapse, reversing some of the culture-building progress the Bears made during the summer and through the first two months?

Poles was asked Tuesday if he would be more forgiving if, in the absence of Quinn and Smith, the Bears defense regresses as expected. He stressed how he hopes players see the changes as a chance to step up rather than an excuse for the group to take a step back.

The general manager is banking on his leaders — players such as Jackson, Johnson and defensive end Justin Jones plus Justin Fields, David Montgomery, Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney on offense — to show their teammates and the NFL world what’s in their DNA.

Poles sees competitive tenacity within this team that he knows can be fuel to push them through.

“Do these shake-ups shake that up and make it stressful at times?” he said “Absolutely. I get that. But what I love about this staff is they’re competitive. This locker room is competitive. … I don’t think anyone who has watched our games, any single one of them — even the ones we don’t win or struggle in — doesn’t see the effort, the competition, the fire. Everything we stand for is out on the field.”

It’s up to Bears players and coaches to again put that out on the field Sunday and then again in eight more games beyond that. The challenge will be significant. And the Bears’ response will be pivotal to retaining direction.

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