By Robert Zeglinski
It was two years ago this past Sunday, that the Bears had found their head executive to lead the franchise in a new promising direction. Of course, we’re discussing current general manager Ryan Pace, who was brought in as a young vibrant voice for an organization dwelling in the doldrums of the NFL. The former Eastern Illinois product who had risen through the ranks of the New Orleans Saints as a personnel man, was now tasked with revitalizing and the league’s charter franchise in Chicago.
No simple undertaking here. No easy way out. And all of the pressure in the world was prominent, even with chairman George McCaskey noting during last Wednesday’s organizational season-in-review press conference, “I promised patience” on originally hiring Pace.
After all, Chicago had just come off of a 5-11 2014 season, with locker room tension, an overextended roster that needed an overhaul, and no hope in sight. The descent into mediocrity wasn’t solely due to the mismanagement of former head coach, Marc Trestman and general manager, Phil Emery. Their predecessors in Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo played their part to a tee over an approximate decade. Years of neglect, abhorrent drafting, and arrogance in the face of futility on the horizon eventually caught with up the Bears.
Pace – hired following the crescendo of that debacle – hasn’t pulled out Chicago out of the woods just yet. In two seasons as the head personnel man, the Bears have gone just 9-23. Injury issues decimated any progress the 2016 version of the team was to make (19 players on injured reserve), but it’s difficult to let that be the lone excuse for a regime that remains on the launch pad. When you’re setting franchise record-lows for wins in a 16-game season like the 3-13 Bears did, there are no answers to be offered without an occasional eye roll.
It comes to a point when action is all that speaks volumes.
To his credit, Pace understands that ideal. That whatever issues Chicago possessed out of its control regarding injury fortune, doesn’t matter without actual substance.
“It’s a results-based business and this season was unacceptable,” said Pace in his first full public forum since September. “Hey, I get that there’s a lot of skepticism. We won three games.”
Two years in, while there are signs of hope, until the Bears do begin to win more and become consistently excellent, that skepticism will only grow to a fever pitch. Such is the nature of the NFL. This is a full-on rebuild for the Bears given that mentioned neglect, but an ascension is to be expected – not dismissed when all hell breaks loose.
This dialogue coming from Halas Hall isn’t a foreign concept either. In 2015, Pace spoke of ushering along the Bears’ rebuilding process in a timely fashion. This was Pace’s “dream job” that he said himself with this opportunity, “better be right”.
It wasn’t for being naïve. It was for understanding just how far he had to go. To use his experience attained with the Saints as a bastion for the Bears to tap into. When you’re in your 30’s in this league as a coach or executive, you’re either a trailblazer, or too green to be fully prepared for the onslaught of work to come.
Pace knew that fact and for the most part, has done well, even if it could be difficult to ascertain from one glance.
The sand in the hourglass will eventually run thin, though. And the winds of change will blow into Halas Hall this offseason, if Pace is to truly fulfill his dreams and get all of this right. He’s preaching the same hope two years later even with an assortment of issues to remedy.
Will long-time veteran quarterback, Jay Cutler return? Not likely. Given that the young general manager can save significant salary cap space ($14 million to be exact) and start anew with a developing prospect to stake his career in this year.
Attaching yourself to the hip of a 34-year-old turnover prone passer is not a desired outcome.
“That’s a critical, critical decision for me,” noted a confident Pace on Chicago’s quarterback situation.
It’s time for that most crucial decision of Pace’s career. It’s time for him to find the quarterback he believes the next Bears team will win a championship with, or risk losing everything. Because that quarterback isn’t Cutler and never will be. And because finally finding a legitimate franchise player to build around after largely 90-plus years of Bears failure at the position will make a success story here – a god-send from Pace.
Other questions needing definitive answers loom as well.
Will Alshon Jeffery return?
With Jeffery, you only need look at Chicago’s receiving core.
The 2015 first-round pick Kevin White has played in just four of 32 available games in his professional career. No one knows what’s in store for the third year receiver as an unknown commodity. Cameron Meredith is a fine player who led the Bears in receiving this season (66 receptions, 888 yards), but he’s more suited as a number two or three option in a high-octane offense.
Even while he’s been less available than Chicago would like, Jeffery’s a proven asset in comparison to his teammates that changes games with all of the leverage in his corner. He’ll come with a likely franchise tag that will see his salary go up to $17 million, but Pace and the Bears can only swallow their pride.
Pace, of course, wouldn’t show his hand here.
“I think he’s a good player and that’s a big decision for us,” said Pace as nondescriptly as possible, as negotiating has already likely heated up between the two parties.
And finally, how do you fix one of the worst defensive back-ends in football? Well, you invest significant money in it, according to Pace.
Chicago will have a healthy salary cap, armed with “top-five cap space” or approximately $70 million should they make expected moves such as releasing Cutler. Since most of the Bears’ front seven has been filled in, it would not be unreasonable to see $25 million or more invested into the secondary.
Pending free agents such as the Chiefs’ All-Pro safety, Eric Berry, the Texans’ breakout cornerback, AJ Bouye, or an established veteran in the Rams’ Trumaine Johnson are all in play. The Bears will be knocking on the door of all three of these guys come peak free agency in March. It isn’t out of the realm of possibility to expect two of them to end up on the lakefront, if Pace is smart.
These are only some of the final components to building Pace’s winner. A complete defense, a franchise quarterback, and weapons for that guy to throw to.
Work that in conjunction with another quality draft in akin to 2016’s class of Jordan Howard, Leonard Floyd, and Cody Whitehair, and soon Chicago can believe in Pace’s preaching again. Until then, there are only promises from Pace, of which only time will tell whether they come to fruition.
“My promise to Bears fans … we’re going to get better.”