By Robert Zeglinski
As the league’s youngest general manager, Ryan Pace has come been to known for his contagious energetic demeanor. While nowhere near as exuberant or flashy, let’s say Pace is the Willy Wonka of his Chocolate Factory – or football team, in this case. No one could have predicted his shrewd and calculated decision making that makes the prospects of the 2016 season much more optimistic.
After a whirlwind weekend that saw an All-Pro guard released from Green Bay, Josh Sitton, and fall into Chicago’s laps (along with the departure of the franchise all-time leading scorer, kicker Robbie Gould) Pace seems to be confident his golden ticket is more redeemable than most. He’s the maestro with trade secrets setting the tone for a season that once again seems promising.
“Everything’s coming together at the right time”, said Pace to WBBM News Radio.
Yes a team executive realistically won’t publicly feed fans anything but positivity, but it’s interesting to note how none of this seems to surprise Pace or the Bears.
The 30-year-old Sitton’s availability came as a shock to the entire league, yet Pace and his personnel moved quickly to upgrade an offensive line in need. Injuries and retirements have decimated the Bears’ front, throwing into flux whatever plan was in place before, and here comes a lynchpin in Sitton to bring about new hope for an offense again. On paper, the Bears now have the best guard tandem in the league with Sitton and the newly extended ($40 million over four years, $30 million guaranteed) Kyle Long respectively, who will help solidify whoever plays between them at center in Cody Whitehair or Ted Larsen. Albeit there are concerns in Sitton’s case – he’s had a myriad of back problems in his career that have had him limited in practice – but he’s rarely not participated in games. It’s a necessary but tested risk.
This is an older professional in which Pace is investing tremendously, a supposed $21.75 million over three years with $10 million guaranteed. That’s a lot to invest on the interior to build an offensive line from the inside out while making an exception to the recent youth movement, but it also shows flexibility. Pace isn’t afraid of deviating from his own set plan when in dire straits and that kind of mentality spreads throughout the organization. The signing of Sitton isn’t just a short-term plug and play move given the money invested. The Bears’ offensive line was in complete shambles throughout the preseason. Moving on Sitton so swiftly and decisively signals that Pace and company believe this team can win now contrary to popular belief.
With the release of long-time stalwart Robbie Gould a little over a week before opening day, the New England model full of gall, of letting players go a season too early not a season too late is fully in motion. Fans have too much sentimental attachment to players while executives hold no qualms but results. The 34-year-old Gould had a rough 2015 season, being just the 19th most accurate kicker in the NFL and followed that up with a rough 2016 preseason seeing him miss several extra points and a chip shot field goal against Cleveland.
If you have that in context, this again, isn’t a shocking move by Pace. You just understand that he’s willing to move away from even the last piece of the last Super Bowl Bears team if they won’t perform at a moment’s notice. Especially if the price is high as Gould was set to have the highest cap hit among kickers at $4.1 million. The release of Gould saves approximately $3 million in a savvy cap move. There’s no way Pace could justify keeping on what was becoming dead weight, even if that player was a “legend” or so to speak, and that deserves a round of applause.
Connor Barth, the new Bears kicker, isn’t an upgrade by any means. In fact, Barth was even less accurate than Gould last season, coming in with 82.1 percent field goals made, good for 23rd in the league. But Barth is much cheaper and someone head coach John Fox and Pace are familiar with in previous stops in Denver. His availability preceded Gould’s departure and gives us a glimpse into Pace’s refreshing mindset.
Now, the Bears still have plenty of questions. As the league’s 10th most youngest team overall, growing pains are inevitable.
No one knows who the consistent playmakers will be sans Alshon Jeffery. Is Jeremy Langford the featured back in a committee? Can Kevin White take away attention from his counterparts and be a difference maker? The defense also has issues on the back end. Is Tracy Porter due for a huge regression after a relatively successful season last year? Can Kyle Fuller make the leap as a dominant corner? These episodes have yet to be written.
But constants like the revamped front seven featuring Danny Trevathan and the steady play of Jay Cutler, yes Jay Cutler, will keep this team more competitive than most think. Especially in Cutler’s case, now that he’s more likely to stay upright with the upgrade to his offensive line. There’s a quality foundation here and more potential bright spots on this roster than people will care to acknowledge and it could make for a fun autumn. If the dominoes fall into place, perhaps the Bears do make the playoffs, flaws and all, but even if they don’t, it doesn’t mean they won’t take the next progression. This team will be competitive in most games and have a reasonable chance to win.
That’s all you can ask for when your destiny’s in your hands.
With an addition like Sitton, Kyle Long agrees on this year’s prospects.
“I think it shows that we want to win. It’s an exciting time.”
Come with Pace, and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination.
Week 1 @ Houston Texans
This is a tough opener for the Bears given Houston’s strengths.
When the Bears are on defense: While newly acquired quarterback Brock Osweiler doesn’t strike fear into his opponents, there’s a lot of speed and playmaking on Houston’s offense that will give the Bears problems.
DeAndre Hopkins is one of the best receivers in the league and if Chicago doesn’t come in with a proper plan, there might be an extensive highlight reel featuring Hopkins Sunday night. Theoretically, Hopkins now has more help on the outside with additions of rookie speedsters Will Fuller and Braxton Miller. Given his receiving core, Osweiler might not have to do a lot of work to produce consistent fireworks either against Chicago or throughout the season. Kyle Fuller (unrelated) needs to be able to stick with and at least slow Hopkins in man coverage if the Bears are to have any chance.
Outside linebackers Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, and Leonard Floyd also need to show out with a consistent pass rush to rattle the still inexperienced Osweiler, something they struggled with in the preseason.
When the Bears are on offense: What should probably concern Chicago even more is how their offensive line will handle a Houston front seven that helped vault them into possessing the league’s 2nd ranked defense last year.
While the signing of Sitton helps tremendously, it will take some time before he’s fully comfortable with the Bears’ playbook. His presence will also likely shuffle Whitehair to center on short notice, after Whitehair practiced at left guard the entire offseason. Whitehair saw time at center this preseason and struggled, but he’ll be in a much more advantageous position flanked by Sitton and Long now.
The Bears offensive line needs to gel together quickly and that’s not the recipe you’re looking for against the reigning defensive player of the year in JJ Watt. Coming off back surgery, Watt is expected to play Sunday, and that is the worst possible news for a fresh offensive front. Watt’s the kind of player that can completely take over a game anytime he pleases and he never stops coming given his elite motor. The Bears may well produce a solid enough plan to slow Watt with double teams and chip blocks and it still might not be enough.
What’s dangerous is that if the Bears do manage to slow Watt, he now has an effective pass rushing counterpart in former number one pick Jadaveon Clowney that everybody assumes is ready for his breakout season. None of this sounds encouraging for offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and Cutler.
If the Bears are to win on the road in Houston, they’ll have to rely on a conservative short passing game complemented by an effective running game. Grind it out. If they fall behind early, that plan goes down the drain. What sets disaster into motion is Watt pinning his ears back rushing the passer so the Bears better be careful.
Early pick: Houston 27 Bears 16
Season prediction: 9-7
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter:@RobertZeglinski.