Developing a franchise QB: As the Chicago Bears begin with Caleb Williams, those who have worked with successful rookies weigh in

On the third snap of the first 7-on-7 period in Caleb Williams’ first rookie minicamp practice with the Chicago Bears, a quick out route to undrafted rookie free agent Brenden Bates went off the hands of the tight end from Kentucky.

The throw was a little low and to the outside, and before Williams returned to the huddle for the next play, he quickly motioned for Bates to run the route again and made an accurate throw on a do-over.

It probably won’t happen regularly in training camp this summer but it provided a glimpse into the wiring of Williams as the No. 1 pick in last month’s draft begins a crash course at Halas Hall to prepare him for the remainder of the offseason program.

Coach Matt Eberflus opened his media availability Friday noting how large the crowd was on what can sometimes be a mundane weekend. He didn’t hesitate declaring Williams the starting quarterback for the season ahead — a surprise to positively no one.

“It’s really a great opportunity,” Eberflus said when asked about rebooting at the position. “It’s refreshing to be able to do that. I know the whole building’s excited about working together, not only with Caleb but with everybody. It’s certainly nice to have that fresh start.”

During the crisp 85-minute practice at Halas Hall, the Bears put a heavy emphasis on fundamentals. Williams split reps with Austin Reed, an undrafted rookie from Western Kentucky, during two 7-on-7 periods. Williams made a nice throw to tryout tight end Shelton Zeon on a seam route that was just off his hands, but the timing of the play was sharp. On the next snap, Williams delivered a good throw to fellow first-round pick Rome Odunze on a deep in-breaking route.

The only real misfire was on quick out route that tryout cornerback Leon Jones made a nice break on to deflect with his left hand, the kind of play that can get the Arkansas State product noticed. There was a brief 11-on-11 period, but it was focused solely on calls at the line of scrimmage and adjustments — they didn’t snap the ball.

That’s what football looks like when the organization is beginning at ground zero to build the offense around a new quarterback, one they hope delivers the franchise to new heights.

General manager Ryan Poles described a total building approach to putting Williams on a path to success, which makes sense considering to ultimately achieve their goals, the quarterback must be the one leading the way.

“The infrastructure has to be there,” Poles said. “And I think we’ve done that part to have the talent around our quarterback now. The other thing is our entire organization is going to have to be on the same page on how we handle this, how we develop Caleb.

“I think we have a really good approach with all of the players and I think that’s maybe different than it was in the past. The way we take it really serious in terms of a nutritional standpoint to performance to mental skills to how our coaches teach. I think we’ve made some really good strides.

“But it’s going to take everybody and everyone is going to be on the same page. We’ve got to adjust to the strengths and weaknesses that the player has.”

The Bears have had months to prepare for Williams’ arrival — they’ve known since early January this was the path they were headed down — so there’s no doubt a detailed plan for introducing him to the offense to everything else imaginable happens inside Halas Hall.

For a glimpse into some foundational aspects that were used from Day 1 for previous first-year quarterbacks, four coaches — three of whom worked with quarterbacks who won AP Offensive Rookie of the Year awards — and one general manager were polled.

Poles likely has put into place ideas he learned in Kansas City, Mo., from Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who developed Patrick Mahomes and before that Donovan McNabb with the Philadelphia Eagles. Reid strongly believes in allowing rookie quarterbacks to learn while observing. Mahomes was an understudy to Alex Smith as a rookie. McNabb watched from the sideline for the first nine games in 1999 as Doug Pederson’s backup.

The Bears don’t have anyone resembling Smith on their roster, and it’s a foregone conclusion that barring an injury, Williams will start Week 1.

“Andy had this philosophy of growing the quarterback,” said former Bears offensive assistant Brad Childress, who was the Chiefs assistant head coach during Mahomes’ rookie season and was McNabb’s quarterbacks coach for his first three seasons. “I would like to grow the quarterback as opposed to kick him off in the deep end. I just think there are scars that can happen that you can’t fix. But there’s been 100 schools of thought. Peyton Manning was the exact opposite. He will tell you there is no substitute for real, live plays to learn from in his rookie season. His career was a testament to that.”

Growth and development are best measured on the field, but it’s charted in everything the quarterback does.

“Things like how people see you work,” Childress said. “That was important to Andy in both spots that you were first in and last out or at least you were seen that way. You were on the treadmill because you’re not running 100 go routes as a receiver or getting the workout that a tight end or running back gets in practice. So, Donovan would come in and get on the treadmill every morning and get his workout in and then maybe be eating a plate of scrambled eggs, checking out the last day’s practice or the next opponent.

“It was important that everybody in the building saw that you were in there every day. And the building, quite frankly, had a different buzz to it when the franchise quarterback was in town. That’s how Andy did it with Patrick when Alex Smith was there. Same thing. He was in early, 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning. He was like a fly on the wall. I’m not going to say he didn’t say anything but he kind of spoke when spoken to.”

Keep the game quiet

Former St. Louis Rams coach Scott Linehan was the offensive coordinator for Matthew Stafford with the Detroit Lions and Dak Prescott with the Dallas Cowboys during their rookie seasons, and they couldn’t have experienced more diametrically opposed situations. Like Williams, Stafford was the top pick in the draft, joining a roster that was 0-16 the previous season. Prescott was a fourth-round pick who wasn’t expected to play — until starter Tony Romo and backup Kellen Moore went down with injuries in the same week of training camp.

But the basics for evolving a first-year quarterback were similar.

“I think you’ve got to throw a lot at them and let them spend a lot of time regurgitating that information,” said Linehan, now an offensive analyst for the University of Montana. “And when you’re focused on your daily process, you’re sort of dialed in on certain things so you can get nuanced as you go.

“It’s not an overnight process. It takes a lot of time. There’s really a lot of time that has to be spent in group settings and with your offensive line, how you’re identifying defenses and how you’re calling the run game and what the concepts are and obviously the pass protections can be quite numerous. Rookie quarterbacks, I think it’s beneficial, where you really hone in on that 80 to 85% of what you actually call in games. Get really focused on that.”

Stafford took his lumps as a rookie because beyond the presence of wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the Lions were deficient across the board. Prescott, the 2016 rookie of the year, flourished with an elite line, a fellow rookie in running back Ezekiel Elliott and skill talent including wide receiver Dez Bryant and tight end Jason Witten on a team during a season in which Matt Eberflus was a Cowboys defensive assistant.

“Stafford succeeded as much as any quarterback in the league could with what he had around him that rookie year,” Linehan said. “You can keep the game kind of quiet for a rookie quarterback by staying ahead of the chains and having a pretty reliable running game. That doesn’t mean you’re always going to do it. Some defenses are going to make you throw it. If that is the case, the Bears should have a fair amount of success if the quarterback is who they think he is because he’s got people to throw the ball to. I think that is a good starting point. I’m pretty sure that is probably part of their plan but I’m not privy to that.”

Take the layup when it’s there

Former Bears quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton, who was in that role with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2020 when Justin Herbert was rookie of the year, stressed the importance of not putting too much on the quarterback.

“How do you present a scheme and overall plan to make them successful? You de-emphasize the quarterback position,” Hamilton said. “Look at Detroit. Look at San Francisco and even the Rams. Those are just three teams and you’re going to start to see more trend this way, those operations are really run-first operations. Everything comes off the run game.

“For the first time in the history of the league, we’ve allowed for the offensive philosophy to trickle up from college football as opposed to it being the inverse. We’re majoring in shotgun offense, 11 personnel. Defenses are going to demolish the quarterbacks if we continue to trend that way and not pose the threat of creating conflicts by being able to run the football. You’re exposing the quarterback more frequently by putting him in the shotgun and having fewer ways to convince the defense that you may be running the ball.

“If you have Patrick Mahomes, now you can possibly get away with being somewhat one-dimensional and he can beat you from the gun a lot of different ways. You can’t tell me anyone else that can do it consistently. You can’t tell me Joe Burrow because he’s going to get hit, hit, hit. He can’t protect himself. Justin Herbert? He’s .500 in his career because he hasn’t had a running game. Austin Ekeler in no way was a true run threat from the backfield. He was a pass threat.”

That’s a schematic decision Hamilton believes is important, and if the Bears are thinking along those lines, it could mean big things for D’Andre Swift and the team’s collection of running backs. In terms of quarterback-specific play, Hamilton said he spent the bulk of his time preparing Herbert to play under center, something the Bears will have to do with Williams, and understanding the benefit of gimmes.

“I spent as much time as I could showing him examples of what winning quarterback play looks like in the NFL,” Hamilton said. “The most prominent takeaway during that time when we studied Tom Brady, Drew Brees, was this one simple statistic. Brady and Brees completed close to 35% of their passes on first and second downs to running backs. It was about me getting Herbert to understand the value of taking his check-downs.”

Chargers running backs combined for 129 receptions that season, and while it sounds simplistic, a 5-yard completion to a back on first-and-10 keeps the offense on schedule. In comparison, Bears running backs caught 121 passes over the last two seasons combined. Herbert totaled 4,336 yards with 31 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a rookie, entering the league’s upper echelon.

Do the extra things

Former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was the head coach with Carolina when the Panthers drafted Cam Newton at No. 1 in 2011. That was a unique situation because the lockout wiped out the offseason program, so Panthers coaches had to plan to develop a quarterback they wanted to start without being able to work with him.

Newton, like nearly every quarterback, wasn’t experienced in playing under center. He went to IMG in Florida to work with Ken Dorsey, now a veteran NFL coach, and they drilled that element of his game.

“That was awesome because he went and did exactly what we needed him to do,” Rivera said. “Kenny knew the language, so Cam came in familiar with what we’re doing. Play-action, under center, working on specific routes that were a little unfamiliar to him. Once we came out of the lockout, we were able to talk to Kenny and he explained to us everything they had done. We had a good feel for where they were.”

That dovetails into something Rivera insists was paramount to Newton’s success as he ascended to become rookie of the year: extra work.

“He had a couple days in training camp where he was really stagnant,” Rivera said. “It was like, ‘What’s going on?’ It was a deal where what we put in yesterday, he struggled with today because it was overwhelming. There’s times where you sit there and you tell him, ‘This is a lot of volume but you have to do the extra things to learn the volume.’ ”

Williams already has been doing extra things, saying he got some fundamental work in with his private coach, Will Hewlett, after his top-30 visit in early April. So he was already prepping for what was in store this weekend.

Layer it on

Rick Spielman, the former GM of the Minnesota Vikings and Miami Dolphins and the personnel director for the Bears from 1997-99, believes Poles tailored the roster for Williams to have success from the outset. He imagines there is a detailed plan, down to the day, in place, something Rivera also said but something that has to remain flexible.

“Front-office wise, they made all these moves to make sure that Caleb has playmakers around him and then from the coaching side of it, I am sure there is, ‘What are we going to do so we can be sure this kid is going to be comfortable with?’ ” Spielman said.

“Last year in Houston, C.J. Stroud, first preseason game I watched, he looked like a deer in headlights up in New England. What they did was actually start trimming things back. After Week 1, they said, ‘Let’s get him to do these few concepts. Once he masters those, then we’ll start layering on as the season progresses.’ Whether it was protections, the way they were sliding, how they were identifying it, to make it simple so the quarterback can play fast and not have to sit there and go through three or four reads.

“I thought in Carolina last year, they did the opposite with Bryce (Young). They were trying to combine four or five different systems. Now, they didn’t have a lot of talent around him either, but it looked like he was drinking through a fire hose when you watched him play. Stroud is very bright and very smart but it looked like it was overwhelming with everything they were trying to have him do. And you can’t do that. I don’t care who you are as a rookie, that is hard.”

Establishing a base

Eberflus said the offensive coaches have ensured the install is “likable and learnable,” and even so there will be challenging days ahead. Just as Williams is learning the offense, the coaches and staff will be learning more about him, and that will lead to things evolving.

“Top 30 was big for me, gave me a bunch of notes, ideas of how the offense is, verbiage, drops, cadence and all the things that really matter — break from the huddle, getting into the huddle, being able to communicate and how those things go,” Williams said. “Right now I feel pretty good.

“Obviously we’ll go out here today and we’re going to have a few mess-ups, probably, and things like that, working to do eliminate those as fast as possible. But you need those things to grow and progress throughout the time and years and things like that. So excited, but I feel pretty good right now.”

And that’s what you would expect on Day 1 for QB1. The path that lies ahead has been planned. The journey promises to be fascinating.