By Robert Zeglinski
In his time as Bears general manager, while the on-field results have clearly not been up to par, Ryan Pace has rarely if ever minced words. Restraining your offense for your young quarterback in Mitchell Trubisky won’t do. 14-34 in three seasons isn’t going to cut it. Having a rebuild stuck in second gear — at least from many’s outside perspectives — does not fit the prerogative.
Now-former head coach John Fox received the ax on Monday because the Bears have largely gone nowhere since 2015. For now, he is the scapegoat. Given how much of an old-school way too conventional relic Fox was, he can be used as the needed bullet shield.
The timeline for the veteran institution was that Fox was considered the experienced man needed to keep a team in line when understanding Pace’s greenness as a first-time general manager. That experiment obviously failed in that regard, as it was clearer by the season — culminating in a listless 5-11 2017 — that the professional game had passed Fox by.
Which sends the Bears into a familiar coaching cycle, their third of the last six years. Unlike the much-maligned Marc Trestman and Fox eras, whoever is the next to roam the sidelines at Soldier Field better be the man to finally lead Chicago back into relevance. Or else.
Because unlike Fox, Pace — the boy wunderkind at Halas Hall — will be working with a two-year contract extension through 2021. One of the youngest general managers in the NFL is going to get the opportunity to plant the seeds of something special, to finish his vision, and make up for his egregiously comical initial choice of a head coach.
In that respect, while the Bears haven’t climbed out of the NFC North cellar in four years, Pace has done well to set a foundation for this coaching leeway. When former GM Phil Emery was given walking papers in December 2014, the Bears had the most players over the age of 30 with 17 and the fewest first-round picks with five.
Three years later, Chicago has but five current rostered players 0ver 30-years-old, 25 players under the age of 25, and six first-round picks (including currently injured Bears). The Bears have their young quarterback in place in Mitchell Trubisky. A defensive nucleus led by potential 2017 All-Pro Akiem Hicks is promising. And a timetable to contend is certainly well within reach.
That is what Bears Chairman George McCaskey see when he inspires faith in his young personnel man Pace’s diligence for more time. For one, he has no other choice but to trust him given their decades-long ineptitude. For the other, even he could see they stalled their own rebuild with a coach looking more for a quick turnaround instead of a full teardown. As they eluded to in a season-ending evaluative press conference Monday afternoon.
“We didn’t have the record on the field that we wanted, but we thought that Ryan’s plan was the best way forward,” said McCaskey, as Bears’ higher-ups discussed Pace’s extension. “We wanted to make sure that we presented the best possible landing place for any candidate, and we thought that was appropriate.”
Indeed, if the Bears are finally going to right this ship, they have to marry Pace’s second and final head coaching choice to Pace’s hip. No top candidate is going to want to come here on a two-year contract with limited job security. It’s simple level-headed business. The timetable to actually win is still soon, waiting on the horizon. A double-digit loss season won’t be tolerated in 2018, assuredly. But whoever is the new coach will require patience to implement himself and use the Bears’ impressive foundation to his best advantage.
Make no mistake, there are no more excuses for Pace. This is his team. This is his organization. The pulse of the Bears runs through him, by him, around him. Whatever happens to the franchise over the coming seasons is all on his shoulders, for better or worse.
He can’t hide behind Fox anymore. Fox undoubtedly held the Bears back. Fox is everything that’s wrong with the modern NFL, of leaders who won’t take risks and who believe the game is played at a pop gun conservative pace. This new coach will be Pace’s earmarked choice. If they’re not on the same page, if he’s holding the Bears back still, then the brunt of the blame goes to Pace and no one else.
He can’t use the shroud of early roster turnover or injury. Or, the idea of Emery and Jerry Angelo leaving a bare cupboard for him behind. Sure, there are receiver additions and defensive fine tuning to be made, but the roster is almost done. The roster is almost entirely Pace’s doing through his acquisitions in the draft and free agency. The injuries are based on the strength and conditioning staff under his coach’s watch. These fall under his leadership and his alone.
Which all of this is to say as mentioned, the quarterback in Trubisky is here as well, so it’s on Pace to make his secret science project a blue ribbon winner. Trubisky is likely the only reason Pace is being afforded more time because a rebuild only truly begins once the quarterback is developing on the fly. Trubisky can’t fail, as, if he fails, so does Pace—and spectacularly so.
Until they prove otherwise, you can copy paste “the Bears have made the playoffs five times in the past quarter-century” for as much as you’d like. Until Pace finally lives up to his promises and backs up his words with prominent action against NFC competition to give the Bears’ sustained success, no benefit of the doubt is necessary.
To his credit, for as much as he’s had to repeat himself over the past three years, Pace understands the predicament he’s in. He has work cut out for him this coming off-season. He’s at fault for the failures of late but he’s also put the Bears in prime pole position. Both can be true.
“At the end of the day, it’s results on the field … “I need to point the finger at myself as well,” said Pace.
Pace can’t afford another Fox blemish, driving Chicago further into a hole they seemingly dig further into every year. The launch pad to contention is set up again and he would do well to see the Bears finally take off.
“The longer you’re in this, the better you get at your job.”
As the Bears again sit in a coach-less no man’s land, for the time being, Pace better hope he’s much better at this GM thing with seasoning under his belt. R.
On Twitter: @RobertZeglinski