January 19, 2018

The Bears and the Fox

January 22, 2015

The Bears and the Fox

The Chicago Bears’ season ended on a cold day in Minnesota and not long after the team plane touched down back in Chicago the team fired head coach Marc Trestman and the man who hired him, general manager Phil Emery.

Trestman coached just two years in Chicago, going 8-8 and then 5-11, presiding over a team that had talent but was in a tailspin, seemingly going a thousand miles-per-hour in the wrong direction. The disaster was not all Trestman’s fault but what type of progress could he honestly say he made?

Phil Emery made a lot of good moves at Halas Hall including acquiring offensive lineman Kyle Long, cornerback Kyle Fuller and receiver Alshon Jeffery but apparently stumbled on the two biggest decisions a GM has to make: the coach and the quarterback, as Jay Cutler, given a $126 million dollar contract after last season, responded with the worst campaign of his career.

Chicago erupted with applause at Emery and Trestman’s departure, with most fans not wanting, it seemed, to wish ill-will on either of these decent gentlemen but after a fourth straight year without the playoffs and with few beams of sunshine pouring onto Soldier Field everyone believed changes had to be made.

When the Emery-Trestman regime was sacked Chicago wondered where the Bears would turn next, as a swarm of dancing ping-pong balls bubbled out of fate’s lottery machine, each containing the name of a possibly promising offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, assistant GM, scout or superhero, men whose names we usually hear of only during a coaching or front office search.

Everyone in Bearland fully and reasonably expected Chicago would turn to a young and-or inexperienced GM and coach, someone who had been rising through the ranks of either the Bears or some other team and whose proverbial “time had come” and, unspoken by the team but uttered by everyone else, had come cheap.

This prediction came true when the Bears hired 37-year-old Ryan Pace away from the Saints front office and named him General Manager. No one can say for certain how Pace will be, though he comes with promising credentials, and neither can anyone attest to whom Pace had hoped or planned to hire as head coach the day he took the Bears job.

What we do is Mr. Pace, whatever his plans were, did not object to seeing them disrupted because when the Denver Broncos decided to let John Fox go Pace and the Bears did exactly what they should have done: they pounced.

In hiring Fox after a tornado of activity in the days following Denver’s playoff elimination the Bears did something the team had not done since the 1950s; hire a head coach who had previously been an NFL head coach.

The Bears, as we have said, have a tradition of opting for the up-and-comer when it comes to coaches and GMs perhaps because that’s frugal, perhaps because they don’t like retreads and maybe because they, unlike their fans, the Bears honestly don’t see Chicago as the ultimate destination. And maybe coaching candidates have not always seen Chicago that way, either.

But it’s not as if the Bears always erred in hiring neophytes. Jack Pardee, Neill Armstrong, Mike Ditka, Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith each took the Bears to the playoffs. Smith reached two NFC title games and a Super Bowl. Ditka reached three title games and won a Super Bowl and, thirty years later, remains Chicago’s most-beloved sports figure.

But the three decades since the Chicago Bears last were kings of the NFL seem more like three centuries. The Bears have been champs three times since World War II ended, twice since Kennedy was shot and never since we started using the Internet. Seriously.

The team the Bears defeated in Super Bowl XX, the New England Patriots, was, like the Bears, appearing in its first Super Bowl that day in January 1986. Now the Patriots are playing in their eighth.

Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, was born in 1977 and he has 20 career playoff wins. The Chicago Bears, born in 1920, have 17.

New England’s opponent this time, the Seattle Seahawks, are in their third Super Bowl. The Seahawks were born in 1976 and have now reached more Super Bowls than the Bears, the NFL’s charter franchise.

Chicago’s most bitter rival, and the bitterness resides mostly south of Kenosha these days, is the Green Bay Packers. The Packers have 18 playoff victories…since the 1993 season…the year after the Bears fired Ditka.

John Fox has no magic stardust in his playbook to reverse all these negative numbers but he does have experience. He has taken two franchises from mediocrity to the final Sunday. He stresses discipline, accountability and tackling. He has made mistakes. He has learned. It is far too early to wager that the Bears will win a significant number of more games under Fox this coming year than they did with Trestman this past year but it seems a safe bet that Chicago will play better football and will be on a more steady path to perennial contention.

A good coach without a quality general manager is like a fine-tuned convertible with holes in the top. Will Pace be good? His pedigree is intriguing. First off, he played defensive end at the quiet cradle of NFL success: Eastern Illinois University. Seriously, EIU has produced many NFL players and coaches including Saints head coach Sean Payton; whom Pace worked with for many years, former Broncos Super Bowl winning coach and former Raiders and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan; whom many thought might be a good fit for the job John Fox now has, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Still, a marketing degree from Eastern and a senior year captainship were not enough to get teams knocking down Pace’s door. So, 14 years ago Pace paid $50 to attend a job fair and applied for an internship with the Saints. He got it and has spent every day since learning and climbing.

And he apparently learned to go with an obvious thing. When the Bears hired Marc Trestman out of the CFL two years ago no other NFL teams were fighting for him. Sometimes when you’re the only one who sees something you’re a genius. Other times you’re crazy.

Long before Trestman’s two seasons in Chicago were complete everyone wondered just what glasses Phil Emery and the Bears brass were wearing when they went after Trestman. The result was a lot of people lost their jobs. If Fox fizzles with the Bears no one will turn to Ryan Pace and ask him what the heck he was thinking. In other words, he will probably get a second chance at picking a head coach, which is rare among NFL GMs.

Does Pace know how to draft? Can he see the difference between burst and speed in a 22-year-old kid? Does he know the difference between who can play and who will play? And can he pick over the pile of NFL discards and find those guys with something left in the tank, that linebacker or wideout who just needs a different setting or system?

If Bears fans had a magic wand, and perhaps a few of us do but we just don’t like to use it much, many of us would have raided the Baltimore Ravens and taken GM Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh. That, apparently, was never even a remote possibility. So the Bears, like many other teams, sought the next best thing to getting the best GM-coach combination in the league and hoped to woo Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta, but he was not interested, likely knowing Ozzie’s office will someday be his.

What’s also interesting is whom the Ravens brain trust has now turned to run the offense: Marc Trestman. Maybe with just one job, with a couple of really good bosses and a stacked roster Trestman will enjoy the success in Baltimore that he hoped for, worked very hard for, but could not achieve in Chicago.

In Baltimore Trestman will be working with quarterback Joe Flacco who, by all rational accounts, is a significant upgrade over Bears QB Jay Cutler, which brings us back to Pace. Pace has a lot of work ahead as the Bears need help at every position. But in fairness, there is not a single NFL team that is not one or two injuries away from needing help at just about every single position. Men are breakable, veterans are expensive and rosters are fluid.

But quarterback is the big tuna. Pace will have to draft a quarterback this year but the question is how far will he reach for one? Let’s put on the crazy hat for just a moment. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the top pick in the draft and there is copious speculation they will choose Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. What about the Bears offering Cutler, their first round pick (7th overall) and a first rounder in 2016 to Tampa for that top spot? Cutler would be reunited with Lovie Smith, his former coach with the Bears, the Bucs would have plenty of picks to rebuild their roster and the Bears would get the most gifted and polarizing player in college football.

Insane, we know.

Pace isn’t likely to pull such a blockbuster move if, for no other reason, the Bucs would never go for it. Maybe that’s just as well as it seems as if few NFL champs are built on blockbuster trades. Instead, it’s smart moves here and there, the researching of players who put their pads under the other guy’s pads, the painstaking film study, the tireless analysis of salary, scheme and attitude that usually builds a winner.

Pace should look north. The Bears hate looking up to the Packers but Green Bay, maybe even more so than Baltimore, New England, Seattle or Pittsburgh, knows how to make the draft your friend, not your downfall.

The Packers roster is almost exclusively made up of guys who have only played for the Packers. The Packers don’t draft well, they draft superbly.

The Bears will draft a quarterback this year, for sure, but whoever that is he might not be the guy to eventually replace Cutler and they cannot insist that he be. Cutler, it has been said many times, is just good enough to get you fired. That won’t happen to Fox or Pace. They’ll handle him for one season, maybe even two if that’s what it takes to make sure they get a better quarterback ready, one who will go a large way toward defining Pace and Fox’s legacies in Chicago.

Other than quarterback the Bears need, literally, everything. Offense, defense, special teams, cheerleaders and maybe even a psi gauge.

Pace and Fox are not starting from ground zero, though. The Bears have talent on both sides of the ball and NFL rosters can be rebuilt quickly. And free agents must know they could do far worse than playing in Chicago for a coach who has been to Super Bowls.

So our beloved Bears head into a mysterious winter and spring after a calamitous, embarrassing fall. And they do so with a fan base that is impatient, demanding and angry, yet also forgiving. And forever ready for the next fight.

And now all of Chicago moves ahead armed with a young gun. And an old Fox.

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