Of all of the topics that we discuss as a community, nothing seems draw scrutiny quite like any decision made by the man at the franchise's helm. This makes total sense, because if the Chicago Bears are a ship then Ryan Pace is our Captain. Each and every person on any ship wants to believe in their Captain because he controls the ship's direction. Should our ship sink, no one is more to blame than Ryan Pace. A Captain must go down with his ship.
With all the whirlwind that comes with a results-based league like the NFL it seems easy for fans and media members alike to focus on whether a General Manager's move "works" or not. Should we laud a GM who stumbles upon a franchise-changing player like Russell Wilson or Dak Prescott late in the draft? Absolutely, but one player does not make a "great" draft. A GM who puts together a draft full of quality players who can contribute to a team is arguably doing a better job than a GM who misses as often as he hits. With this is mind, I'd make the case that a GM's direction is just as important as the results his moves bring to the football field.
Over a series of 4 fanposts I'm going to attempt to separate Ryan Pace's logic from the results that his decisions have yielded over time. This will involve speculative attempts at "seeing what he saw" as well as evaluation of whether he saw the player(s) or coach correctly or not. I will attempt to offer both praise and critique of his "critical" moves equally throughout this analysis so that we may effectively evaluate one of the toughest jobs in the NFL to grade.
The 5 parts I plan on covering are as follows:
- Part 1 - Coaching Decisions that Led to Now
- Part 2 - Roster Moves that Led to Now
- Part 3 - Free Agency 2017
- Part 4 - 2017 Draft Analysis
- Part 5 - The plan going forward?
With all of that out of the way, let's start at the beginning....
How did we get here?
According to NFL.com, the Chicago Bears had the 3rd oldest roster in the NFL going into the 2014 season. I've left a link below this paragraph just in case you've forgotten what this roster was made of. They were a roster that had finished the year at 23rd in points scored and 31st in points against, a season that forced a complete cleaning out of the staff in favor of change. Fans and Virginia McCaskey could agree on one thing - they were pissed off and fed up with mediocrity.
Enter a new General Manager, Ryan Pace.
Coming from the Saints, Pace became the NFL's youngest GM the instant he accepted the Bears' offer. He was immediately tasked with one of the biggest challenges a GM can face- hiring a coach. This leads us to our first talking point:
The Hiring of John Fox
Working closely with Ernie Accorsi, Pace first met with soon-to-be coach John Fox along with the rest of the Bears search committee. Following what was apparently a good interview that involved Ernie being "pretty tough on him", Pace met with Fox and his family personally and eventually hired him as the 15th coach of the Chicago Bears.
What Was Pace Thinking?
Knowing that the Bears' had just fired the unusual coaching hire that was Marc Trestman, I believe that Pace and the committee were looking for a strong-willed coach who could hold the locker room together regardless of any struggles the team might endure that year. The 2015 Bears were not looking to compete, rather they were going to be built to develop players for the future and inspire hope in the fanbase. I believe this led Pace to lean towards HC candidates that had proven they could provide results rather than to "take another chance" on an unknown coordinator. Coming off of a Super Bowl loss, John Fox had led the Denver Broncos to a regular season record of 46-18 over 4 years and looked very good when compared to the likes of other rumored 2015 coaching prospects such as Rex Ryan, Todd Bowles, Hue Jackson, and Mike Shanahan. With a proven track record of both winning and hiring effective coordinators, John Fox made all of the sense in the world as the 15th coach of the franchise.
If there's one thing that John Fox has done, he's provided team stability. From all reports that we've seen, the only game that we have seen the Fox-led Bears quit in was the Packers game in week 4 of 2017 (the final Glennon game). He hired one of the best Offensive Coordinators that the Bears have seen in years as well as a seasoned, proven Defensive Coordinator in Vic Fangio that had led the 49ers defense to dominance over his time in San Francisco. The team seemed to show improvement in both their record and their competitiveness in their 2015 campaign before regressing heavily in 2016.
As of the 2017 season it has become disturbingly clear that John Fox teams do not develop players well. With what seems to be the regression of notable rookies such as Cody Whitehair, Leonard Floyd, Adrian Amos, and Eddie Goldman, John Fox has shown more ability to induce a sophomore slump than he has ability to produce a breakout season. He has a penchant for playing a veteran over a young and hungry player which has not suited a developing attitude. In game, he also seems to take all of the wrong chances and call predictable plays in big moments, leading to large-scale failures in what are often critical moments of critical games.
What do You Think?
I think that the John Fox hiring made sense at the time and was the right choice when he was hired. I think that he showed enough signs of improvement after the 2015 season to warrant keeping him on for 2016, where he floundered in a monumental way. But, since we're keeping this discussion to his original hiring, I think that Pace used safe, sound logic in hiring Fox.
Interestingly enough, Pace's second big coaching decision looks to have been made only one year after he hired his first coach:
The Not-Firing of John Fox (AKA: Not-Hiring Adam Gase)
Following what was widely regarded as the best season of Jay Cutler's career, Bears' OC Adam Gase was hired away from the Bears as the Head Coach of the Miami Dolphins.
What Was Pace Thinking?
Following the 2015 season, the arrow seemed to be pointing up for the Bears in a big way. They had signed a fantastic ILB combo of Danny Trevathan and Jerrell Freeman, had brought in soon-to-be-star Akiem Hicks, and seemed to have many of the pieces in place to form a competitive team. In what looked (by most accounts) to be a roster that was loaded with productive starters, I think Pace opted to prioritize continuity and attributed the general successes and moral victories of 2015 more to Fox than Gase. To fire Fox and hire Gase after just one year would've been an extraordinarily risky move, and I don't think there is any world where a sophomore GM like Pace had enough experience to have any confidence in making such a daring change so quickly.
Honestly it's hard to find any results-based positives that came from the 2016 season related to coaching. Since the entire season was marred by a legendary amount of injuries, almost the entire starting unit looked completely different by the end of the season than it did going into training camp. According to Pro Football Reference, 22 different Bears (15 different starters) hit IR at some point that year, which doesn't even account for the massive amount of players that flipped back and fourth between questionable, doubtful, and out throughout the year.
Adam Gase went on to lead a formerly 6-10 Dolphins squad to a sterling 10-6 record while John Fox's 2016 Bears lost 13 games in a year while losing 155.1 adjusted man-games to injury. Almost none of the Bears' pieces that were expected to play big roles in 2016 seemed to even make it to the field while the Dolphins flourished under a new identity and a breakout rookie runningback. The Bears' fielded the 2nd leading rusher in the NFL and still only scrapped out a PPG of 17.4 (28th/32), which could be due to bad coaching but could also be due to the litany of injuries suffered at the WR and QB positions. On the other hand, Gase took an equally criticized QB in Tannehill and led their offense to 22.7 PPG (17th/32), just missing the playoffs while sustaining 99.1 adjusted man-games lost to injury.
What do You Think?
While the results that followed were horrendous, I can't fault Pace's logic in letting Gase go. Nothing other than a magical crystal ball could've prepared our young GM for the insane slew of injuries that came in the 2016 season, especially since these injuries equally affected players that had been retained from Emery's 2014 roster and Pace's new players from the 2015 FA/Draft class. The Bears just got unlucky with the injury bug, it happens. Hindsight may certainly prove Gase to be the better choice going forward, but given the trends that Pace knew at the time (ascending Bears, Cutler coming off a great year, continuity is important) I can't fault Pace's logic in sticking with the man under contract.
Given the circumstances surrounding the two major coaching decisions that Ryan Pace has had to make thus far in his career, I think that he has made sound decisions thus far. He showed an attitude that was more focused on playing it safe rather than taking risks. While I think he has made perfectly reasonable decisions, I would be remiss if I did not mention that this safe, conservative attitude blew up in his face throughout the tragedy that was the 2016 season and, in my opinion, is much of what prompted the Trubisky trade that shocked the world. But we'll get to that later...
What do you think? Did our young GM make good decisions or has he missed where it mattered when it comes to coaching?
Next up, I'll look to tackle the logic behind the major personnel moves that Pace made from the offseason of 2015 through the season of 2016.