LAKE FOREST, Ill. — When the Bears lost 15-14 to the San Francisco 49ers on Dec. 3, there was a sudden shift in attention toward general manager Ryan Pace, who otherwise was avoiding most of the blame for another underachieving season.
While head coach John Fox was taking the hits for the team’s then 3-9 record, the loss to the 49ers reflected poorly on the GM because it was former kicker Robbie Gould and Arlington Heights native Jimmy Garoppolo who did most of the damage.
But no one should be fired over one game and there are many valid reasons why Pace has managed to escape blame for the current state of the Chicago Bears. Three years ago, I made the case for and against keeping then-GM Phil Emery. The list of reasons for letting him go was much longer, and two days later the McCaskey family cleaned house at Halas Hall.
Almost three years into the next GM tenure, it’s reasonable to take an even more in-depth look at the job Pace has done in the same time frame. The evaluation is split into five parts: the record, the coaching hire, the NFL Draft, free agency and the football building (a.k.a. everything else and everyone else he oversees).
13-32. It’s not good. There’s no getting around that.
No one was too upset about 2015’s 6-10 campaign. The word “playoffs” was actually being tossed around in early December after the Bears beat the Packers at Lambeau Field on Thanksgiving, but that may end up being Fox’s signature win as the Bears head coach. They finished the season 1-4, starting a spiral the Bears still have not escaped.
2016 served as a reality check. Injuries hit the team hard and the lack of depth was exposed, a weakness everyone was aware of given how Pace had torn down the roster he inherited. 3-13 wasn’t what everyone was hoping for, but it did give Pace a huge asset with the No. 3 overall pick. “We are never going to be in this position again, but we better take advantage of it while we’re here,” he said.
Which brings us to 2017, where the Bears are once again threatening for a top five draft pick. There’s no doubt Pace’s team has underachieved this season, but how much of that is on the players, how much of that is on the coaching staff and how much of that is on the GM? And are there enough signs of hope to suggest that the Bears are about to turn the corner?
“The Record” conclusion: It’s not good enough, but there’s reason to believe it will improve in 2018.
The Coaching Hire
If Pace decides to make a coaching change at the end of the month, Fox will go down as one of the worst head coaches in franchise history from a record standpoint. Before the Bears beat the Bengals Sunday, Fox had the lowest winning percentage in franchise history.
But does that really mean Fox has been a disaster? He obviously hasn’t won enough games and his personnel and in-game decisions leave much to be desired, but there’s also a reasonable case to be made that Fox was a good coach to come in and help rebuild a culture that was destroyed under Phil Emery and Marc Trestman.
It’s important to remember that Fox was coaching in a playoff game just a couple days after Pace was hired. Had the Broncos beat the Colts that weekend, there’s a good chance he never would have been the head coach of the Chicago Bears. Pace is ultimately responsible for the hire, but he was being advised by Fox’s buddy Ernie Accorsi and shared another close friend in New Orleans head coach Sean Payton. He was also several weeks behind other teams who made a head coaching change. Remember, the Bears had actually conducted several head coaching interviews before Pace was even hired.
Let’s also not have revisionist history here. Fox was clearly the most qualified candidate for the job and had a history of turning around both the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos. Compared to Emery hiring Marc Trestman over Bruce Arians, Fox was a perfectly sensible hire, even if it made for a somewhat odd pairing between a veteran head coach and the youngest GM in the NFL.
“The Coaching Hire” conclusion: The logic behind hiring Fox was sound, the results just haven’t been as rewarding. Pace deserves the chance to conduct his own exhaustive coaching search that he is in charge of from the start. That will be the hire he is ultimately judged on.
So-so first rounders
WR Kevin White — Three years into Kevin White’s career, the wide receiver has 21 catches and zero touchdowns in just five games. It’s unfortunate that three broken bones have kept his NFL career from barely starting, but Pace’s first draft pick has to be considered a miss at this point. Maybe White will return in 2018 and deliver a season similar to what former first-round pick Kyle Fuller is doing in his fourth season, but that can’t be counted on at this point.
OLB Leonard Floyd — Floyd oozes potential with a lengthy frame and elite speed as a pass rusher, but concerns about how his lanky body would hold up at the NFL level have been somewhat validated. When 2017 is over, Floyd will have played 22 of a possible 32 games with 11.5 sacks. Perhaps another offseason will lead to a breakout 2018 season, but Pro Bowl expectations were not met this year.
QB Mitchell Trubisky — Despite an early 3-6 record, Trubisky has six touchdowns and just three interceptions in a flawed offense that lacks dynamic receiving options. While his overall completion percentage is 58.2, he’s completed 64.1 percent of his passes over his last five games. All things considered, Trubisky is having a good rookie season and his competitive makeup and obsessive work ethic suggest he is going to have a successful NFL career.
Encouraging second rounders
NT Eddie Goldman — Injuries prevented Goldman from breaking out in 2016, but he’s been one of the more underrated defensive players in the NFL this season. He’s exactly what you want from a 3-4 nose tackle and could be a candidate for an extension in the offseason.
C Cody Whitehair — After a promising rookie season, the Bears experimented with Whitehair at guard and that led to some early-season struggles at both guard and center. But the second-year offensive lineman has settled in the last few weeks and delivered some very strong performances at center, which should be his cemented position going forward. Whitehair and Trubisky could form a longterm battery for the Bears.
TE Adam Shaheen — Making a big jump from Division II to the NFL, Shaheen still has managed three touchdowns in very limited playing time. The coaching staff has been careful not to put too much on his plate as a rookie and you can debate whether or not that has slowed down his development. Shaheen looked downright dominant at times last summer and, with the right coaching, could still be a big time threat at tight end. Also encouraging: his blocking has improved steadily throughout the season.
Good general managers build depth in the middle and late rounds of the draft and Pace has done a pretty good job with later picks. 2016 fifth-rounder Jordan Howard remains the gem, becoming the first running back in Bears history to rush for 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. 2015 fifth-rounder Adrian Amos is having a breakout season this year and has a chance to remain a future starter at safety next to 2017 fourth-rounder Eddie Jackson, who figures to be around for a long time. 2016 third-rounder Jonathan Bullard and 2016 fourth-rounder Nick Kwiatkoski are currently fringe starters who could become regulars if surrounded by the right talent around them. And then there’s 2017 fourth-rounder Tarik Cohen, already the most electric weapon on offense.
Of course, you’re never going to hit on all of your mid-to-late round picks (Jeremy Langford and Daniel Braverman, for example) and the jury is still out on players like Deon Bush, Deiondre’ Hall and DeAndre Houston-Carson, but they are at least decent contributors on special teams when healthy.
“The Draft” conclusion: GMs are ultimately judged by first-round picks and quarterbacks drafted. The fact that White and Floyd haven’t developed into top-tier players is not a great look for Pace, but Floyd still has the potential to break out. More importantly, the early returns on Trubisky are promising and that’s enough to overlook Pace’s first two top picks for now, especially with zero second-round busts and a handful of really good mid-to-late round picks. Overall, Pace has just one Pro Bowl to show for his 20 picks, but it’s not unreasonable to think Floyd, Trubisky, Cohen, Goldman, Whitehair, Jackson and even Shaheen could see a Pro Bowl in their future. They at least have the potential to do so.
It’s important not to give Pace too much credit just because he’s drafting better than the Bears’ last two GMs (that’s not a high bar), but there’s more to like than dislike from his first three draft classes. Frankly, it would be reckless to fire a GM with these results over three years in a league driven by the draft.
Akiem Hicks is the obvious gem of Pace’s three free agency classes. The GM had history with Hicks in New Orleans and knew he would be a much better fit in Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme. Despite a last-minute plea from Bill Belichick, Hicks opted for a reunion with Pace and was rewarded with a huge contract right before the 2017 regular season began. It will be a shame if Hicks isn’t selected for the Pro Bowl.
Other solid signings include cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Tracy Porter, guard Josh Sitton and linebacker Danny Trevathan (Fox deserves some credit for the Trevathan signing too).
Many have criticized the Pernell McPhee signing, but despite the injuries, he has been a tough, mostly-effective player and is a respected leader in the locker room. Bobby Massie has also been a serviceable right tackle, although it would be wise to look for a younger upgrade in the offseason.
Pace also re-upped special-teams ace Sherrick McManis, tight end Zach Miller and brought in linebacker Sam Acho and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, both of whom have been steady players on both defense and special teams.
Unfortunately there’s a lengthy list of misses that includes Eddie Royal, Antrel Rolle, Alan Ball, Jerrell Freeman, Marcus Cooper and Markus Wheaton, but let’s focus on the decisions that were really problematic.
Remember Ray McDonald? That was one of Pace’s first moves and it can probably be classified as a rookie mistake. The GM had well-respected defensive coordinator Vic Fangio vouching for McDonald and this was a rare situation where ownership probably should have stepped in and nixed the idea.
Among all the moves, the signing of Mike Glennon is the hardest to defend, and I legitimately tried to when he was signed. Watching the film, I understood why Pace saw a potential starter, but the money was hard to justify and drafting Trubisky put Glennon in an impossible situation. Glennon would have had to play like an MVP candidate to silence calls for Trubisky and while the veteran may have been a decent starter in a better situation, he was never going to be an All-Pro. The ironic thing about all this is that Glennon would actually be a good backup for Trubisky going forward, but it seems unrealistic to pay a backup $15 million in 2018 and one has to imagine Glennon wants to be in a situation where he can compete for a starting job. He’s better than what he showed in his four starts with the Bears, but this signing was questionable to begin with and became doomed the moment Trubisky was drafted.
Meanwhile, the two position groups Pace can’t seem to figure out are kicker and wide receiver. No one can blame him for getting rid of Brandon Marshall and it was obvious Alshon Jeffery wanted to move on. Fine. But he has struggled mightily to replace them. Cameron Meredith was a great find as an undrafted free agent, but asking him to be the No. 1 target is unfair. Wide receiver is arguably the No. 1 priority in 2018.
As for the kicker position, it has been a disaster since Robbie Gould was let go. Many general managers defer to their special teams coordinators when it comes to the evaluation of kickers, punters and long snappers, but Gould should have at least been given a few games in 2016 to work out his training camp struggles. He earned at least that much as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. But putting the Gould-sentiment aside, Pace has failed to find a suitable replacement. Barth wasn’t good enough, Cairo Santos was injured and Mike Nugent missing his first extra point attempt wasn’t exactly encouraging. And then there was Roberto Aguayo. Oh, Roberto Aguayo.
“Free agency” conclusion: There are certainly way more misses than hits, but Pace also understands that good NFL teams are not built through free agency. He’s been reluctant to hand out big money, knowing that more times than not, free agents don’t work out. Most of the longterm contracts have been laced with incentives and structured with team-friendly outs, while the short-term contracts have been built as “prove-it” deals. In Hicks’ case, he did prove it and was rewarded. Other players will take note of that.
Glennon received the biggest contract Pace has handed out in free agency, but the $45 million total in his deal is only the 24th biggest contract an NFL free agent has received since Pace took over as general manager and the $18.5 million guaranteed ranks 39th in that same time frame.
If it seems like the majority of Pace’s free agent signings aren’t on the field, it’s because that’s true. According to OverTheCap.com, the Bears currently rank 30th in contract utilization, a metric that measures return on investment based on playing time.
But while Pace has had his fair share of free agent misses, none of them are damaging the franchise longterm. The Bears still have plenty of cap room and won’t be prohibited from executing future contracts because of cap issues. That’s important to keep in mind.
Which leads us to another part of the discussion…
The Football Building
While Pace has been measured in his free agent approach, the Bears reportedly were after high-priced free agents like Janoris Jenkins in 2016 and Stephon Gilmore in 2017. Did Pace bow out because the price got too steep or are the Bears struggling to attract big-time free agents? Why did Alshon Jeffery want to leave?
These are fair questions to ask, but Bears fans should be encouraged by what Pace is doing about it. He arrived in Chicago with a firm vision of what the Bears needed to be a premier NFL franchise. The implementation has been somewhat slow, but that’s not his fault. He quickly created over 30 new positions in his first year, including support staff, sports science staff and an overhaul of the athletic training staff (with mixed results, admittedly). Understand that just locally, the Bears were behind Northwestern when it came to utilizing new technology like virtual reality and Catapult GPS monitoring devices to track training loads. And when Northwestern’s new football facility opens this spring, it will make Halas Hall look like a high school building.
But Pace is working on that too. Perhaps the Bears’ most promising news of 2017 was the 162,500 square-foot expansion of Halas Hall that the organization oddly announced at 4:30 p.m. on a Friday evening with zero fanfare and minimal publicity. But despite the low-key announcement, the dump trucks have already invaded Lake Forest and the new facility is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2019 regular season. The renderings are impressive and should help attract and keep players in Chicago.
Pace also deserves credit for the scouting staff he assembled. Director of player personnel Josh Lucas and assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly are both highly respected and Pace’s initial director of college scouting, Joe Douglas, was so coveted that the Eagles managed to pry him away after just one season. Douglas is now considered a potential GM candidate in league circles. Pace quickly promoted Mark Sadowski, who has been with the Bears so long that he can claim some credit for the Bears drafting Devin Hester and Greg Olsen (Sadowski was the Bears’ southeast area scout at the time). Contract negotiator Joey Laine also gets credit for the team-friendly structure of most of the Bears’ free agent contracts.
Another thing working in Pace’s favor is his reputation inside Halas Hall. He treats employees and players with respect and receives it in return. By comparison, Emery alienated many inside and outside Halas Hall — including well-respected players like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs — which played a factor in his dismissal.
“The Football Building” conclusion: Other than valid questions about the Bears’ injury epidemic and how much blame should go around, there isn’t much to criticize when it comes to the culture and football operations department Pace has built. His fingerprints are all over the Halas Hall expansion plans, which should fix one of the crucial areas the Chicago Bears are trailing the rest of the league. It’s not exactly a secret that the franchise tends to live in the past, but Pace has a vision for the future that should be trusted.
The Overall Verdict:
If you’re scoring at home, you’d probably give Pace points for “the draft” and “the football building” and deduct points for “the record” and “free agency.” As for the “coaching hire,” Pace deserves the opportunity to hire his own guy — the right man to develop his prized quarterback.
And in the end, that’s ultimately what Pace will be judged on: his second coaching hire and Mitch Trubisky. So far, the early returns on Trubisky are encouraging enough that it would be irresponsible to fire the man who drafted him. And if that’s not convincing enough, think of it this way: How do you fire a GM that appears to have hit on at least four of five draft picks from this year, including the most important position in sports?
You can’t. Which is why the Bears won’t.