LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Bears ownership made one smart business decision Monday, but still failed to inspire confidence that the upcoming coaching search will be conducted the way it should be — without meddling.
Shortly after firing head coach John Fox Monday morning, Bears general manager Ryan Pace was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, keeping him on the books through 2021. The move was immediately met with skepticism, an understandable reaction given that Fox was fired after losing 34 games in three seasons and Pace was rewarded with an extension after losing 34 games in three seasons.
But believe it or not, this was actually smart business by the Bears. Potential head coaching candidates would think twice about a job in which their boss is only on the books for two years, which is how much time was left on the GM’s deal before the extension.
In all likelihood, Pace was going to get at least two more years to see out the development of Mitch Trubisky and the success of his new head coach. If both turn out to be failures, he’s going to lose his job anyway. By extending him now, it gives prospective head coaching candidates more assurances about job security and will likely line up the GM and head coach contracts through 2021.
This is really just a clerical move that has way more benefits than drawbacks. At worst, ownership will have to hand out a few million dollars extra if they have to fire Pace early. If that’s the case, they’ll have much bigger problems on their hands.
Phillips said he approached Pace about the extension and it was finalized Monday. If that’s true, the CEO gets credit for a smart business decision, but that’s all he gets credit for on a day in which the messages were yet again muddled.
On one hand, Phillips and chairman George McCaskey solidified Pace’s power and influence inside Halas Hall by extending him. On the other, they cast doubt about their actual trust in Pace by insisting on being involved in the upcoming coaching search.
File this one under the “actions speak louder than words” category. Ever since Pace was hired in 2015, McCaskey and Phillips have insisted Pace has full control over football operations. But just a few days after hiring the GM, they strongly encouraged the hiring of Fox, who was recommended by Ernie Accorsi, the hired consultant who happened to be a close friend of Fox. Make no mistake, Pace ultimately signed off on the hire, but the “actions” hardly confirmed the “words” that claimed the GM could run the football department with autonomy.
To be fair, Bears ownership has since supported Pace’s influence in many ways, all the way from new support staff positions to the planned expansion of Halas Hall.
But here we are with another coaching search — one that will ultimately determine Pace’s success with the Bears — and both McCaskey and Phillips are insisting on being a part of the process.
Pace described it as “a collaborative effort with George, Ted and myself, with me spearheading that effort and ultimately making the final decision on this.”
McCaskey said he and Phillips “are both available to Ryan as sounding boards, to play devil’s advocate.”
Phillips said he and McCaskey “are going to be support resources for Ryan” and would travel with Pace for interviews.
Make no mistake, Pace is in charge of the search, but what about George and Ted’s previous searches suggest that the GM needs their help? It would be one thing if Pace brought prospective candidates back to Halas Hall for second interviews and they met with McCaskey and Phillips at that point (that would be expected), but there’s really no reason for them to be so heavily involved in the process.
This wasn’t the only double-sided message Phillips pushed on Monday. He opened the press conference by saying he is committed to Pace’s plan of laying a foundation through the draft, but then emphasized the need to “win now.”
“When Ryan was hired three years ago, he told us that a plan to build a team for sustainable success would not be easy,” Phillips said. “But his plan to build principally through the draft, to lay that right foundation, made sense to us. And it still does. So we’re still committed to that plan, despite our disappointing win-loss record over the last three seasons.”
But about 30 minutes later, Phillips chimed in with this inconsistent thought: “When I talk about sustainable success, you have to win now first before you can sustain it, so we’re all about trying to win now and that’s what we intend to do next year.”
Of course, this contradictory messaging has been going on since Pace and Fox were hired in 2015. The Bears sold the Fox hire by referencing his history of quick turnarounds when in reality they knew the franchise was about to embark in a major overhaul. The lack of transparency did not help the management of fan expectations and only heightened frustrations the last three years.
Could you imagine Theo Epstein selling the Cubs rebuild by saying that they needed to “win now” in order to establish sustainable success?
Sadly, Monday’s scene at Halas Hall felt all too familiar. It was yet another Black Monday that started with players feeling responsible for their coaches getting fired and ended with upper management delivering the same regurgitated speech about how the fans deserve better.
They do deserve better. So get out of the way and let your football guy do his job.