How Caleb Williams convinced the Chicago Bears he can rewrite their QB history: ‘I just like his cool under pressure’

Caleb Williams had a lot to process. When last season ended — with a flurry of USC defeats, without an invitation to a major bowl game, without even a top-10 finish in his bid to repeat as Heisman Trophy winner — Williams understood the year qualified as a disappointment.

There were struggles, frustrations and outside disillusionment. There was also a need for Williams to convert all the hardship into growth.

Thus, shortly after the season ended, as he shifted his focus to the NFL — where the Chicago Bears are expected to make him the No. 1 pick in next week’s draft — Williams came to the realization that 2023, in his words, was “one of my most important years of playing football so far.”

“It’s not like any other season I’ve had,” he said.

On record alone, that rang true. USC’s 7-5 regular season fell well short of the previous year’s 11-3 finish and Oklahoma’s 7-2 mark in 2021 in games in which the freshman Williams threw at least 10 passes.

The losing was more frequent and taxing than ever. And the avalanche of scrutiny and criticism that came with it was, at times, unnerving.

Williams’ own play faltered periodically. In many instances, the failures of his team fell squarely on his shoulders with all the weight of a river hippo.

He threw three first-half interceptions in a blowout loss at Notre Dame, and instantly questions emerged about how good he really was.

After an early November home loss to Washington killed USC’s Pac-12 championship hopes, Williams climbed into the stands at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum and cried in his mother’s arms. Another tidal wave of criticism crashed down.

USC went from 6-0 in early October to 7-5 after Williams’ final college game, a 38-20 home loss to rival UCLA.

With every stumble, the noise amplified.

“It was tough for me,” Williams said. “I’m a competitor. I like to win. Being that close to (the) losing was difficult. But I had people in my corner to help me figure out the energy and feeling I was feeling.”

Among them was Lincoln Riley, Williams’ coach for all three of his college seasons, who visited with the quarterback deep into last season and helped him steady himself.

“He sat me down and said, ‘You either grow from something like this or you keep feeling this feeling and you’ll stay where you are,’” Williams said.

The true test of Williams’ growth will come at the next level — very likely in Chicago. Bears general manager Ryan Poles has been immersed in a monthslong vetting process of not only Williams’ football skills, but also his focus, mental toughness and emotional maturity. It’s a journey Poles began with great curiosity and now is finishing with equal parts optimism and comfort.

“You have to look at past behavior and past struggles,” Poles told the Tribune. “Even if those weren’t handled in the best way, you just want to hear guys take ownership of where they came up short. If they are blind to it or deny it but you can see it very clearly, that would be a concern of mine.”

With Williams, Poles said he has few concerns, expressing confidence that the quarterback has the leadership chops to complement his rare playmaking gifts.

In a way, the Bears feel fortunate Williams endured all he did in 2023: the losing, the criticism, the mental fatigue. It has lessened the guessing game of how he might respond when adversity hits during his rookie season and beyond.

“I think it’s a positive,” Poles said. “It’s something that’s going to help him in the future.”

Great expectations

During multiple get-togethers with Williams during the predraft process — from the scouting combine to USC’s pro day to an April visit at Halas Hall — Poles came away pleased with how Williams processed his struggles and pushed through them. The Bears GM is convinced Williams has the requisite thick skin to survive in the NFL.

“I know he does,” Poles said. “But I also think there’s room for growth there too. And he’s already been in the limelight. He has been in the spotlight. So I know that’s developing at a really good rate that I feel comfortable with.

“The other thing, too, is he has really, really high expectations of himself. So when he talks about last year, he wanted to win the Heisman back to back. He wanted to play in the college football playoffs and win a championship. That was his mindset. So when that started to deteriorate, that was really hard for him. But what I have expressed to him and what he has expressed (back) is maybe that was actually the best thing for him.”

On several occasions this offseason, Poles emphasized the need to evaluate the wiring and personality of this year’s draft-eligible quarterbacks — and Williams specifically — to learn how they handle pressure and how they might handle it in Chicago.

There’s an important distinction there, and after two roller-coaster seasons leading the football operations at Halas Hall, Poles better understands the zeal of a fan base that’s waiting for — and in some cases demanding — the team’s resurgence. There are deep scars here, some acquired very recently. And past suffering can affect the city’s collective patience level.

“When you have a passionate fan base that has gone through a lot of adversity for a long period of time, it gets emotional,” Poles said. “And I’ve felt that personally. It’s the highs and the lows. It’s like, ‘You’re the best thing ever.’ And then, like, ‘You’re the worst ever.’

“So you have to be able to stay right in the middle. Never get too high, never get too low and have the internal confidence to not be pushed up and down by the noise and social media and all those things. Because honestly — and I relate it to myself — if you make decisions or you play off emotions to prove people wrong and you get outside of what you do really well, those are the critical mistakes that set you back.”

That will be a major challenge for Williams and a lesson he’ll have to learn quickly as he acclimates to Chicago with expectations higher than ever for a rookie quarterback here.

Williams will join a Bears team that appears to have enough talent to challenge for a playoff berth next season. And he’ll succeed a quarterback in Justin Fields whose popularity inside and outside the building was undeniable and whose most loyal and vocal backers have reacted to his exit with threats to expedite the deadline for Williams’ projected emergence.

If this kid’s a so-called “generational talent,” he should be able to win the NFC North right away.

If comparisons to Patrick Mahomes are so prevalent, then why wouldn’t Williams be able to top C.J. Stroud’s historic rookie season with the Houston Texans last year?

Welcome to Chicago, kid. Buckle in.

What’s past is prologue

While Poles has been at Halas Hall for only 27 months, he’s aware that 104 seasons of Bears history frames everything the team does. Within that frame is a well-documented narrative of quarterback failure.

Since the franchise’s only Super Bowl win 38 years ago, 15 quarterbacks have started in Week 1. Twenty-nine others have started at least one game.

The hyperspeed revolving door to the quarterbacks room can be dizzying. The high-profile fizzles of Fields and Mitch Trubisky and Jay Cutler and Rex Grossman and Cade McNown create additional frustration.

Struggle. Reboot. Repeat.

Now, as Williams comes aboard, Chicago has a very real and understandable fear that history is destined to repeat itself, specifically as it relates to the Bears tradition of botching the development plans for young quarterbacks with misaligned timelines.

Fields went through a bumpy rookie season with Matt Nagy as head coach, had to shift midseason to a new play caller in Bill Lazor, then transitioned through a full reboot of the front office and coaching staff from 2021 to 2022.

Trubisky experienced similar early turbulence when his rookie-season head coach (John Fox) and play caller (Dowell Loggains) were replaced by Nagy for Year 2.

Grossman was another first-round pick whose original coaching staff was fired after his rookie season. And Cutler? In eight seasons as a Bear, he had six offensive coordinators and never was afforded the continuity to build knowledge and momentum within one system.

Struggle. Reboot. Repeat.

So who will guarantee Williams won’t suffer a similar fate during his early years, particularly after Bears coach Matt Eberflus seemed to be skating on thin ice for the final three months of last season?

Eberflus faced speculation about his job security after the team’s horrific 0-4 start; after three unfathomable late-game collapses over an 11-game span; and after a sequence of disconcerting assistant coach departures, including two in-season exits and five more firings immediately after the season.

Poles, though, remains steadfast in endorsing Eberflus as the leader who will guide this team and its young quarterback to new heights, even as outsiders express legitimate concern about what might happen if he doesn’t. Poles believes that trepidation has clouded the big-picture assessment of Eberflus — 10-24 as Bears coach — without fully recognizing the context of the last two seasons.

“It’s the trauma from the past that gets leaked into the situation,” he said.

The strides made in 2023, Poles said, provide evidence the team is climbing under Eberflus: “It’s easy to see where it’s trending.”

Beyond that, Poles hopes Williams recognizes the efforts he and Eberflus have made to set up the quarterback for success. In March alone, the Bears traded for 10,000-yard receiver Keenan Allen and signed running back D’Andre Swift and tight end Gerald Everett in free agency.

In January, the Bears hired Shane Waldron as their offensive coordinator with Thomas Brown slotted behind him as the passing game coordinator — a potential smooth-transition successor in the event things go so well that Waldron leaves quickly for a head coaching opportunity.

“When you look at the history of the last two quarterbacks here, usually it’s about the supporting cast and it’s about putting guys in a position to be successful,” Poles said. “I think Caleb knows, both verbally and by action, that I really value that and understand that part of it.”

Poles also is aware this is the first time in Williams’ football life he has had to make such a high-stakes leap of faith.

“From high school to college, you can dictate where you’re going,” Poles said. “So now there has to be some trust (from him) that you are going to do everything you say you are going to do. For me, this is actually really nice. Because there’s action prior to when he walks in where he can say, ‘OK, he means it.’”

Art class

Eventually, amid all this conversation, Williams will be turned loose to do what he does best. Play ball. Make plays. Become a multiplier.

The Bears will lean into the special gifts Williams possesses, including his pocket feel, his extended-play creativity, his vision and his ability to make throws to every level of the field from a multitude of arm angles and with varying velocity.

At the behest of co-director of player personnel Jeff King, Poles has adopted a system of classifying quarterbacks into two categories: artist or surgeon. He agrees with Williams’ self-assessment that he can be highly effective wearing either a painter’s smock or, when the moment calls for it, ER scrubs.

“I like to think that when it’s time to be surgical, it’s time to be surgical,” Williams said.

But there’s no question his imaginative playmaking artistry defines him more as a quarterback. So what has Poles enjoyed most about that artwork?

“If you really watch the tape, you’re drawn to his ability to change ball speed with accuracy,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of guys who are high-velocity, high-speed throwers. … But you love those guys who have the ability to demonstrate feel, have touch, show loft.

“(Caleb) changes speeds, uses his anticipation. Those are the kind of things I don’t think many people study or see that I think are really impressive.”

In 26 starts at USC, Williams averaged 314 passing yards and 2.8 touchdown passes, putting together a dazzling highlight reel. But inside league circles there’s a consensus that Williams isn’t credited enough for how well he can handle the simple parts of playing the position.

Of all the Williams tape Poles has scrutinized and admired, he still finds himself particularly drawn to the quarterback’s breakout moment at Oklahoma. There’s something captivating about that 2021 performance that speaks to Williams’ blend of competitiveness, composure and confidence.

In his first meaningful college action as a freshman, Williams seemed totally at ease. In the Red River Rivalry against No. 21 Texas, no less, with the Sooners trailing 28-7 in the second quarter.

That’s when Riley summoned Williams to step in for sophomore starter Spencer Rattler for a fourth-and-1 play from the Sooners 34. And that’s when Williams, out of the shotgun, turned a basic quarterback run that appeared to be stopped short of the line to gain into a David Blaine magic act, a 66-yard escape and sprint into the end zone at the Cotton Bowl.

Damn, was that cool.

That touchdown was worth far more than six points. It was a detonation of energy for Oklahoma that became the fuel for a ridiculous rally. By afternoon’s end, Williams had led the Sooners from 21 points down — and out of a 38-20 halftime hole — to a 55-48 victory,

He threw for 212 yards and rushed for 88 more. He threw touchdown passes of 14 and 52 yards to receiver Marvin Mims. And on the final possession in a tie game, Williams’ last three completions set up the Sooners for Kennedy Brooks’ game-winning 33-yard touchdown run in the final seconds.

“It was just, ‘Hey, we need you to make plays.’ Now, can you play free and — in that game and on that stage — capitalize?” Poles said. “You’re always looking for that low heart rate. And Caleb just doesn’t get all amped up and make mistakes.

“I just like his cool under pressure in those big moments.”

Attention, please

Poles also is aware of what Williams is about to become as an NFL quarterback, both in Chicago and nationally. Win or lose, success or failure, he’ll have to get used to an existence in which every breath he takes, every move he makes, they’ll be watching him.

The media. Fans. Social media trolls. Everyone will have an opinion to offer.

Williams is already a made-for-“First Take” character, whose relatively ordinary journey through the predraft process nevertheless has been subject to nonstop debate and arguments and hot takes.

Should Caleb Williams refuse to be drafted by the Bears?

At one point this spring, former quarterback and current ESPN analyst Robert Griffin III thought so, and a whole carnival of discussion broke out. Poles said those sentiments pissed him off. (Griffin has since reversed course.)

Is LSU’s Jayden Daniels actually the better quarterback and a safer pick?

In early March, ESPN’s Dan Orlovsky said so point blank, and a legion of Williams doubters amplified the sentiment. (Just weeks earlier, Orlovsky had tabbed Drake Maye over Williams as the top QB in this class.)

What’s the deal with Williams’ painted fingernails and the color of his phone case?

Well, that’s where the hellscape inside the social media sewer takes over. And good luck wading through all of that.

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The point is the Bears won’t just be drafting a quarterback Thursday night. They’ll be signing up for the entire spectacle, uniting with a prospect whose entire professional existence will play out on center stage with every spotlight trained on him.

Poles said he has had detailed discussions about that with Bears President Kevin Warren.

“We’re going to be very intentional as an organization with how we protect our players, specifically the ones who come in with this kind of wake behind them,” Poles said. “We’re going to make sure we keep the main thing the main thing. Because this game is extremely hard, especially as a rookie.”

Eberflus already has hinted that he and Waldron will emphasize leadership development with their new quarterback. And Williams has acknowledged that necessary evolution as he transitions from a college locker room to one full of adult professionals.

“I wouldn’t say I necessarily need to make a jump,” he said. “I would say there are small things you may need to correct or adapt to going into an NFL locker room where I’m 22 and (teammates) have kids and they’re ranging to 35 (years old) and things like that.

“It’s just adapting to the situation, understanding what the team needs from me and going about it that way.”

Comfort zones

Blending Williams into the Halas Hall locker room may require extra efforts initially. He’ll need to form connections organically while also proving with both his play and his leadership traits that he can become the engine for a sustained run of success.

In the earliest stages, Williams may have to snuff out any preconceived notions that he is high-maintenance or self-absorbed.

Last month, for example, Bears cornerback Jaylon Johnson made a 25-minute appearance on the “Up & Adams” show with Kay Adams and, as he often does, offered candid thoughts on everything from his new contract to the Fields trade to his work with his foundation. Poles heard every word of that interview and nodded through much of it.

But when Adams opened the door for Johnson to weigh in on Williams’ personality, Johnson’s sincere excitement and calls for patience were drowned out by his expressed concern about the quarterback’s makeup.

“You just humble yourself coming in the building,” Johnson said. “It’s one of those things where you can’t bring that Hollywood stuff into the building. Especially not with guys who have played this game at a high level for consecutive years in the league. … We’re going to see through it. It’s like: ‘Nah. What you did in college? The Hollywood? Nah. You’ve got to prove yourself. That stuff doesn’t matter.’

“You’ve got to get to know him too. There’s a fine line between trying to prove a point to him but also getting to know him.”

Naturally, the social media aggregation machine took over, and one honest 68-second response became the answer that was clipped and went viral, spawning new questions about how difficult it may become for Williams to fit in at Halas Hall.

Poles didn’t love Johnson’s perception of Williams, and he believes it will change once Bears players have the opportunity to meet and be around their new quarterback.

“That Hollywood thing?” Poles said. “Like, (Williams) lives in Hollywood right now. He’s only been there for two years. And he has some really cool things going on. He took advantage of this NIL (name, image and likeness) thing (in college athletics) to set himself up business-wise. And he’s going to do really well in his life because of it.

“But he’s very low-key. He’s not a spotlight guy. He tries to move under the radar. And I really don’t think he needs the flashy lights to feed off in order to be successful. He’s very focused and low-key and down to earth more than I think he is portrayed.”

Turning the page

If anything has been difficult for Poles in working toward this draft decision that likely will define his career, communicating his visions and plans to his son may have presented the biggest challenge.

Mason Poles is in fifth grade and will turn 11 this week.

For the last two years, Mason had a personal bond with Fields. He had a signed Fields jersey on his bedroom wall. He dressed as Fields last Halloween. So when his dad relayed the news that he was trading Fields to the Steelers so the Bears could start over at quarterback, Mason was crestfallen.

Naturally, Poles gravitated toward his most accessible talking points.

It’s a business decision as much as anything else. Time simply ran out on Justin to prove he could play at a high enough level to become the Bears’ franchise quarterback. There’s a chance here with a new quarterback that is totally worth taking.

Eventually, though, Poles figured out a better way to speak the Generation Alpha language. He sent Mason to YouTube to immerse himself in Williams highlights.

“I did,” Poles said with a grin. “And now the background screen on his phone is Caleb.”

Ah, yes. Hope, it seems, remains extremely pliable under the right conditions. And as Williams himself promised while sitting on a dais at the combine last month, he plans to work his way into the league with a combination of fearlessness and ambition.

“I tend to like to create history and rewrite history,” he said.

When Williams arrives at Bears headquarters Friday, Poles might as well be waiting by the George Halas statue out front with a box of pens. The next few chapters of Bears history figure to soon be in Williams’ hands.