Column: Can Caleb Williams reverse decades of Chicago Bears QB problems? The timing couldn’t be better.

Chicago Bears history is intertwined with so much that is great about the tapestry of professional football.

The evolution of the middle linebacker position can be traced back more than seven decades through some of the greatest to play it: from Bill George to Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher. Three of the game’s most electric running backs — Walter Payton, Gale Sayers and Red Grange — starred for the organization.

Owner George Halas had his fingerprints on much of what helped the NFL develop in its formative stages. One of his final acts was hiring Mike Ditka as Bears coach in 1982. That set the stage for Ditka to lead one of the greatest teams — with certainly the greatest set of characters — to a championship three years later.

But the Super Bowl XX trophy remains the lone one at Halas Hall because ever since Sid Luckman became the first modern-era, T-formation quarterback and developed into the fledgling league’s greatest passer of the 1940s, the Bears have bungled the position.

Halas’ franchise has spent decades in quarterback purgatory, biding time for an opportunity to take a shot at the next one. There have been outright blunders such as trading away Bobby Layne. Bad luck such as losing a coin toss for the chance to draft Terry Bradshaw and injuries to Jim McMahon. Bad evaluations such as picking Mitch Trubisky with Patrick Mahomes on the board. And other misses such as Rex Grossman and Justin Fields.

Thursday night, to the surprise of no one who had paid attention since early last season, Bears general manager Ryan Poles took the next swing, using the No. 1 pick on USC quarterback Caleb Williams to usher in a new era at Halas Hall.

Whether Williams emerges as the savior Bears fans everywhere are anticipating remains to be seen, but it’s impossible to say another quarterback has ever been more eagerly welcomed.

The timing couldn’t be better, as a combination of bold moves — Poles was in position to have his pick of quarterbacks in last year’s draft when he traded the No. 1 pick to the Carolina Panthers — and good fortune — the Panthers were noncompetitive during a 2-15 season in 2023 — brought the Bears to this point.

Williams joins a roster that went 5-3 in the final eight games last season. You can’t name another quarterback drafted No. 1 who walked into a situation with wide receivers like DJ Moore and Keenen Allen as support.

Then Poles turned around and used the ninth pick on Washington wide receiver Rome Odunze, giving the Bears the deepest group of talent they’ve had at the position and ensuring they’ll have a prolific pass catcher to grow with Williams.

While an offensive tackle or defensive lineman could have made sense, it’s difficult to argue against picking Odunze. Allen turns 32 on Saturday and is preparing for his 12th NFL season. He will earn $23.1 million this season. Odunze’s four-year rookie contract will total $22.7 million, and it wouldn’t have made sense for the Bears to pay two veteran receivers big money after this season when you consider where contracts for that position are headed.

This signals that the team feels positive about left tackle Braxton Jones taking a step forward in his third season and hopefully fully healthy after a neck issue hampered him in 2023. It leaves the Bears with questions to answer opposite defensive end Montez Sweat.

It’s also hard to argue against drafting a receiver in light of the chicken-or-egg discussion about the lack of drafted and developed playmakers in franchise history. Supporting Williams was Poles’ No. 1 goal and he accomplished it.

“I was nervous (Odunze) wasn’t going to be there at 9,” Poles said. “Our simulations, it was about a 50/50 shot if he was going to be there. As it started to unfold, (assistant GM) Ian (Cunningham) had to hold me back from not trying to trade up and do something crazy to get him. It ended up working out really well.”

It was a fascinating draft as six quarterbacks came off the board in the top 12 picks with Jayden Daniels (second, Washington Commanders), Drake Maye (third, New England Patriots), Michael Penix Jr. (eighth, Atlanta Falcons), J.J. McCarthy (10th, Minnesota Vikings) and Bo Nix (12th, Denver Broncos) following Williams. That was partially why the first 14 picks were on offense; UCLA end Laiatu Latu was the first defensive player chosen at No. 15 by the Indianapolis Colts.

Poles has made a series of bold moves in the short time he has overseen the personnel operation. None rises to the magnitude of shooting his shot at quarterback with the top pick. Within a few seasons, we’ll likely know if he accomplished what his predecessors found so difficult in a league with a shortage of elite quarterbacks that exposes failures quickly.

Look no further than the 2021 draft. Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 to the Jacksonville Jaguars and has helped them reach the playoffs once. The other first-round quarterbacks — Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Fields and Mac Jones — all have been traded. Imagine what this class of six first-round QBs will look like by 2027.

Williams will be the rookie with the greatest spotlight on him this season. A close examination of the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner was warranted after the second half of his junior season in 2023 was marred by losses for the Trojans and more blemishes in his play than before. The line protecting Williams was inadequate. The skill-position talent was so-so. The defense was abysmal.

What the Bears discovered as they did their homework over the previous months was that, as the setbacks mounted and scrutiny increased, Williams remained true to his teammates and coaches. That’s what the team spent the offseason really digging in on because the tape, with a banner sophomore season at USC after one year at Oklahoma, measured above the rest of the draft class.

Tough times that began with a 48-20 loss at Notre Dame on Oct. 14 that Poles attended — the first of five losses in a six-game stretch — may have steeled Williams for what he will encounter in the NFL. There will be bumps along the way. He will be exposed to defensive looks he hasn’t encountered. The speed of the game will be like nothing he has experienced. The pressure will be heightened as well.

Related Articles

“We had conversations about that and I think it’s the best thing that could have happened to him,” Poles said of the rough second half last fall. “You’re going to have that in the NFL, the down weeks, months, and you’re going to have to find a way to get through them and get back to playing at a high standard.”

A learning curve lies before Williams at the pro level, but scouts have said he is more advanced at this point than Mahomes was in 2017 when he came out of Texas Tech. Williams is more mechanically sound as a passer. He doesn’t take as many head-scratching risks. He is able to make plays from the pocket and also can create outside of structure.

If those assessments prove correct, the Bears could be on their way. No one should anoint Williams yet, but there’s reason to believe the Bears have a chance to right what has gone wrong at the premier position for so, so long. They have an opportunity to chase the sustained success Poles spoke about at length when he was hired in January 2022.

The selection brings to fruition Williams’ long-held goal of being the No. 1 pick. Now his dreams and the hopes of the organization and its fan base are tied together as the Bears seek a new kind of history at quarterback.

“The history is the history,” Poles said. “I’m kind of done talking about it. You go back so much all the time. Those days are over. So we’re bringing players in here that really just want to change everything up and do things a different way.

“Obviously, we love our history here, but it hasn’t been smooth recently. And it’s time to change.”