To expect substance from a Halas Hall press conference on Wednesday, beyond promises and platitudes, would’ve been a mistake. The Chicago Bears have been here before in that regard in early winter, always glossing of a brighter future. This is pandering at it’s best and finest, but it’s also all general manager Ryan Pace and John Fox can do.
“My message to Bears fans, we’re going to get better,” said Pace in addressing the fan-base.
Fox echoed his boss’s thoughts, or, well, it seems to me, equal, for whatever reason.
“This is foreign territory for me as a coach ... this won’t happen again,” quipped Fox.
How much better remains to be seen from both, but I will say: Pace is a fine public speaker. Comes in prepared and earnest. Mostly doesn’t mince words. And overall he detailed his plans very well, and allowed quality ascertains to be read into. Brownie points mean nothing until the product materializes.
While waxing poetically of the failure of the 2016 season, the two - particularly Pace - gave a hint of the future. Let’s peruse highlights.
The injury issues that sunk whatever promise at all present for the Bears this season was undoubtedly going to be a primary focus for Pace and Fox. It’s how you justify three wins when $69 million is on the shelf in 19 players on injured reserve.
Ironically, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, the word “injuries” was used 19 times, and the word “injury”, was used nine times. In a presser where Bears leadership had a lot to touch on concerning roster development, free agency, and the draft moving forward, that’s pretty significant.
However, even while the two consistently referenced the injury issue, Pace directly made note that the youthful Chicago isn’t using it as an excuse.
“We’re not going to hide behind our youth and injuries. Our record is disappointing. We have higher standards.”
So, on some surface, Pace understands that some issues Chicago this year were deeper than the league leading players on injured reserve. Or that he won’t let it be the excuse. Now there’s a plan to work on it?
“Everything’s going to be analyzed ... I understand the importance of getting that right,” said a confident Pace.
Considering this is the second straight season the Bears have been plagued by injuries to a degree, it’s interesting to hear they’ll attempt to mitigate this issue moving forward by being more hands-on. Sure, have a more comprehensive conditioning program with players coming into shape and avoiding soft tissue injuries, if it’s an issue. But is it? How many Bears actually had that problem?
I don’t recall many out-of-shape issues for guys coming into camp or the season. The only person you could really argue wasn’t potentially ready for the rigors was Leonard Floyd, but that’s because of his raw developing size.
A few examples of injuries out of the realm of control, were ACL tears for Hroniss Grasu and Lamarr Houston, and a shoulder injury for Jay Cutler. That’s what happens in football - a dangerous game - with weight weighing and pressing down on joints and ligaments. Whatever the Bears say they want to control moving forward means nothing. It’s about fortune and bounces going their way, instead of revamping a conditioning system that doesn’t look broken.
On Cutler’s future:
Pace was asked of a decision on Cutler’s future with the Bears, and saying, “he’ll be the first to know of a decision,” is about as non-committal to Cutler and defined as it gets. Then when you realize that after putting his support behind Cutler last January, saying that the Bears “will undergo a critical, critical,” evaluation of the quarterback position, is a significant jump in the other direction for Pace.
The writing’s on the wall, Cutler’s not going to be with this team next year as he will only be worth approximately $2 million in salary cap space.
And John Fox isn’t a fan of gunslingers and interceptions. He wants a safer quarterback who won’t turn the ball over, such as Brian Hoyer, buoyed by a running game and defense. That’s been the M.O. in Denver, Carolina, and now Chicago.
And Pace noting, “everything’s on the table,” in regards to quarterback, is maintaining that’s he going to stake his career on a guy in the draft, likely in one of the first two rounds to develop under Hoyer or another veteran. Let’s be honest too: he has to. The moment the clock struck zero in Minnesota, year three of this rebuild began and the Bears don’t have a quarterback in the wings. That can’t be the case anymore. The most important decision of this regime laid out on a platter.
I’m not sure how much of a benefit there is in cutting Cutler and not letting him be the veteran while a rookie grows - as he’s incredibly cost-effective now - but the Bears certainly don’t see it that way. Bets are is that he’s as good as gone, as most have speculated for awhile.
On Alshon Jeffery’s future:
For Jeffery, this was all about setting a Bears’ negotiating stance.
When asked of Jeffery’s impending unrestricted free agency, Pace mused, “I think he’s a good player and that’s a big decision for us.”
Obviously it is - since you don’t know what an oft-injured Kevin White will give you - if anything. And that all of Cameron Meredith’s success seemed to coincide with rolled coverages towards Jeffery on the field. A bare bones receiving core without Jeffery.
Pace said that with White, “This is 100 percent recoverable,” but how many players do you remember becoming standout’s after only playing four of their first available 32 games? There needs to be a low bar and it gives Jeffery leverage while leadership praises their star.
Pace saying Jeffery “did a good job of taking care of his body this year” is also fine, until you remember he was suspended for four games for performance enhancing drugs. It’s more Pace attempting not to alienate a key talent he needs for his project. Classic business.
Guessing what happens with Jeffery won’t be fruitful as there are too many unknowns, but it’s looking as if the Bears truly want him back. How Jeffery feels - remains to be seen.
On cap space, and the secondary:
Many fans have been waiting for a monumental 2017 offseason, especially in free agency. With some key roster trimming (Cutler, Houston, Eddie Royal), Chicago would find itself with approximately $70 million in salary cap space.
It’s interesting how Pace chose to word this situation for a team with a lot of needs, though. The Bears only have a “top-five” cap space with Pace saying “we need to take advantage of that,” if they have all of the approximate $70 million available.
So it’s fair to assume he’s moving on from Houston and Royal in addition to Cutler if he feels the need to mention that specific figure publicly. Not that he’s making the wrong decision on any of these players - he just indirectly let his angle pour out.
And the position in addition to safety that is sure to receive a lot of cap attention, is cornerback. Pace lamented the historic lack of takeaways at 11 and how to fix that noting, “I think we need to add more playmakers to our secondary ... that’s on me.”
With several big money free agents likely available such as Eric Berry, Tony Jefferson, and Trumaine Johnson, as well as a loaded safety class in the draft, Pace will get his opportunity.
It’s kind of unrealistic to fully rely on Kyle Fuller for not going on the full overhaul too, but as with Cutler in pumping his tires, this looked more to me maintain trade value.
“I’m not giving up on Kyle Fuller,” said a confident Pace who “hopes” Kyle Fuller doesn’t have any long-term injury issues. Everything’s fine, give us a draft pick, in essence. Fuller’s future may have been written on the wall with his pseudo injury reserve to return designation. Or not, and Pace is being fully genuine to implement him in plans.
The Bears do need another dynamic edge rusher or two to truly become a winning defense, not just a “good” defense, but the first steps can always be taken on one of the worst back-ends in the NFL. Expect at least two legitimate starters, maybe three, added in late winter.
General comments of power structure:
What was fascinating to me to when the Bears first announced a joint press conference with Pace and Fox is that it needed to be joint at all. As Jon Greenberg of the Athletic noted earlier this week, there are some NFL sources that believe the two to be an “arranged marriage” - tied at the hip.
If you think about it, a head coach should not be on the equal plane of his general manager. It wouldn’t make sense for the man with an overarching eye to be equal to the guy he hired under him. Yet that seems to be exactly what the Bears are forcing on Pace. Pace has been an okay to fine talent evaluator, but days like today where he’s opening for Fox who headlines - and these sources - give me pause as to whether it’s his choice to maintain the status quo.
After all, the Bears are not only staying the course with Fox, they’re staying the course with the entire coaching staff, save for a few scapegoated assistants. Either Pace believes in the development cycle of Fox and staff, or he’s just waiting it out while attempting to load up the roster for his eventual guy. Most general managers unless they’re an outright disaster - like Phil Emery was - get a second head coach.
For Pace, the best bet for him is to enjoy another 2016-esque draft, plug away with smart spending, and build a talented team, for now. I don’t know what the play here is overall, but the dynamic certainly seems off kilter at Halas Hall. Still, know that Pace won’t show his whole hand.
“I’m confident in this coaching staff, I really am.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.