This article has to begin with a massive disclaimer. Along with the overwhelming majority of those who voted in the poll, I think that Ryan Pace has done a fantastic job of putting the Bears back on track. The Bears only recorded one extra win this year, but coaches are getting hired away instead of being fired, Chicago is actually competing in most of its games, and there is cause for optimism heading into next year.
On the other hand, because there is a tendency among fans to overreact, it might be worth it to pump the brakes and see if we can identify places where Pace has stumbled a bit. Is this fair? No it is not. Is it possible to say conclusively that any of the decisions mentioned below are true mistakes? Not really. Is it a long time before the Bears put on pads again? Yes, yes it is.
So, with a massive pile of disclaimers out of the way, here are places where Pace might have stumbled.
The whole first draft. Is Grasu developing or is he doomed to being undersized and outplayed? Was White over-drafted? Was his draft position fine, but not for a team with glaring needs on defense? Is Langford a true replacement for Forte or just a promising rookie destined to crash and burn once more of a burden is shifted his way? It's just too early to tell. Even for this kind of premature, nit-picking look at Pace's regime, judging a draft after one season is just unreasonable. It stands to reason that with perfect hindsight, someone will be able to find a mistake Pace made with time. It's too early to do that now, though.
Failing to bring in competition for Gould (or failing to bring in a kickoff specialist). Fivethirtyeight recently looked at kickers and punters in 2015 and measured their overall impact on the game this season and plotted their value to their team. Of 76 ranked "football players who actually use their feet", Gould placed 75th. If you don't want to click the link, the short form is that even with his struggles, in 2015 Gould was worth an extra 1.4 points above what would be expected out of kicker when it came to field goals. He was, unfortunately, worth -14.8 points when it came to kickoff duties. However, Gould is an all-time great in many respects, and while he has struggled with kickoffs, it's unreasonable to expect a first-year GM to shove aside a former all-pro and locker room leader when pulling the locker room back from the abyss has to be a major priority.
The Brandon Marshall Trade. Marshall and a 7th-round pick were traded to the Jets for the 5th-round pick that would end up being used on Adrian Amos. Maybe he was becoming poisonous in the locker room. Maybe he refused to go along with the new revised media policies John Fox put into place. Conversely, the Bears could have used something on offense this season, and while the Bears seem intent on stockpiling sixth-round picks (actually, they have three), there are always going to be fans who question whether or not Marshall would have been worth the off-field headaches in exchange for the fantastic on-field thrills.
Runner Up: Bringing in Ray McDonald.
The problem is not whether or not Ray McDonald would have been a good player who filled in for the Bears. The problem was not that the Bears brought in a guy with question marks. The reason the Ray McDonald case merits a mention is because in the two months (and a day) that he was with the team, McDonald managed to bring a little bit of doubt and a lot of contradiction to what Pace was building. After declaring that he would put a major emphasis on character, he then went out and signed a guy whose reported character issues were at the heart of why he was even available. Did Pace give himself outs? Absolutely. That didn't keep the whole drama from leaving a bad taste in the mouths of some fans who were hoping for better.
First Place: Settling at Backup Quarterback.
Regardless of how any individual Chicago fans feel about Jay Cutler, one thing should be clear--Jimmy Clausen is not even a backup-level quarterback in the NFL. His passer rating in a Chicago uniform is 65.9, and his career adjusted net yards per attempt (3.4) are below JaMarcus Russell's (3.93). For those who like to measure a quarterback by the games his team has won--and Clausen has been on three different teams, now--Pickles has won a single game when starting at quarterback in the NFL, and that was in December of 2010. Jimmy Clausen might be a wonderful guy. I have no personal animosity toward him. Still, Clausen's 2014 season should have been enough to tell Ryan Pace that
if when Cutler went down at some point, someone else needed to be available to play at quarterback. A veteran. A player in development. Someone. It shouldn't have mattered if Fox and Gase were comfortable with Clausen. Pace needed to fill a lot of holes in the roster, but backup quarterback was a spot that could not wait.
Overall, Pace has done a solid job with the Bears. If he continues to find talent in the draft and in free agency, and if he keeps together a solid coaching staff, then the Bears should be able to continue rebuilding. For now, where do you think Pace made his biggest mistake so far?