Rebuilds in sports, especially full-scale tear downs, are never easy to come to terms with. The amount of strength to stick in for the long haul and attain success, or pull the plug when necessary, is a delicate balance not many leading have mastered.
For the Chicago Bears, after just nine wins in two seasons of a new regime under general manager, Ryan Pace, and head coach, John Fox, they’ve struck that middle chord where it’s at least fair to ponder the final destination. The last stop being consistent contention and championships, as lines are muddled now. Continual progression is a standard expectation for a team working through the purgatory of a rebuild among the devoted of a fan base and anyone else invested.
When you’ve been as mediocre as the Bears have been of late, part of that progression is naturally expected to come from free agency i.e. acquiring premium talent and youthful upgrades to add to the core of your team. Obviously that didn’t happen in March, as Chicago instead filled in on second and third tier players as stopgaps to prepare for the primary asset of the draft.
That fact won’t sit well with many if the Bears don’t hit another home run or four at the end of this month. Because technically, Chicago didn’t improve too much at any one starting position despite filling in team depth. Of course, there are lines to be drawn and what outsiders perceive to be necessary is often starkly different from those making the final calls across the entire chain of command at Halas Hall.
The one person that has the most say on this matter in said chain - Bears chairman George McCaskey - isn’t losing any confidence, though. Nor does he believe the organization is taking too long in’s respective rebuild. He has different expectations for his team getting back to the mountaintop.
“"We’re not on any particular timetable that somebody else is wanting to set for us,” said McCaskey earlier this week at the 2017 NFL owner’s meetings.
Year three and beyond of the Pace-Fox rebuild (or just Pace depending on circumstances) will be defined by the events of the draft. McCaskey does understand that notion. However, given the Bears’ lack of success over decades, it may be fair to wonder whether the chairman comprehends his organization’s other core problems and is just publicly offering a dreaded vote of confidence. Maybe he’s just blissfully unaware - either by choice or actual ignorance.
But he’s not about to call the entire operation off and wave the white flag. Not by a long shot. A quick trigger finger helps no one here.
On this rare occasion, he’s correct in letting the men he’s put in charge focus on building his team’s infrastructure with quality draft prospects. By letting the core of the team fill in with homegrown stars and starters for what would no doubt feel like the very first time on the lakefront. Overall, this situation is what McCaskey prepared himself for. This is what even he knows as the path to success in the NFL. It’s not his own definition. He only sees recent emblems such as the New England Patriots or Seattle Seahawks succeeding that very way as so many have before and is willing to patiently wait in the wings.
“Keep building through the draft,” he said. “I told Ryan (Pace) he should get ripped every time around this year, this time of year every year for not being more active in free agency. And that’s because we’re developing our own guys and rewarding our own guys.”
That’s the proper mentality to have. Your own talent comes cost-controlled for a time as you develop them, then they blossom, and then end you designate your necessary franchise players to retain as your core comes together. It’s a football cliche because it’s mostly foolproof in practice.
No where more does this fact come into even greater focus for Chicago as they haven’t been able to enjoy that drafting model. No one’s been retained from years of poor stocking. On Friday, the Bears waived 2014 draft pick, Ego Ferguson, made by former general manager, Phil Emery. Another failure and another symbol of an empty cupboard in Chicago.
Who are the only Emery draft picks remaining on the roster?
Kyle Long, Will Sutton, Ka’Deem Carey, Pat O’Donnell, Kyle Fuller, and Charles Leno Jr.
Reasonably, Fuller’s situation is obviously less than settled especially as the Bears ponder him playing safety. And given Carey’s less than impressive status in his three seasons at tailback and considering how the Bears may move things around on the front seven regarding Sutton - there may only be three of these guys left on Chicago’s roster (Long, O’Donnell, Leno) come Fall.
The Bears’ roster purge is essentially complete. Whatever was worthwhile in keeping from the past is all that’s left and it still isn’t much. You can’t blame the Chicago brain trust for seeing these same former failures, recognizing how their situation is potentially different from other more regular and accelerated football rebuilds, as they’re willing to take their time.
Some decisions, like starting over with a new more modern coach coach as you search for your franchise quarterback and look to start from the ground up in that aspect, would’ve been worthwhile. But the Bears have made their bed in that regard for now. The 2017 season is but one individual picture for this franchise. Where the backlash in total comes is if their proposed long-term drafting plan blows up in their face.
Note: If they actually draft well, it won’t.
And really even as it’s perfectly fine to sit here unsure and wary of where exactly the Bears are going, criticisms of them not becoming a paper champion are unfounded. They’ve always spent high amounts of money - eighth most last season) - it just hasn’t been spent well.
This time, that finance has been allocated better. With Chicago handing out roughly $120 million plus in contracts since March 9th, only approximately two percent is guaranteed beyond the 2017 season. That’s filling in gaps while leaving space for expected drafted nucleus guys.
That’s why McCaskey sounded genuinely surprised when asked about being accused of being cheap by NFL Player’s Association President, DeMaurice Smith.
“A member of the Halas family being called cheap? That is news,” said the confused chairman.
Smith was more going after the Bears and the McCaskey’s before the outset of free agency in February due to a questionable worker’s compensation law, but the point nevertheless remains. Chicago has been anything but cheap in constructing it’s roster up until now.
To be completely fair too, the top spender rarely comes out on top in professional football. In fact, the last five teams to spend the most in free agency - the Jaguars, Jets, Buccaneers (twice), and Dolphins - had a combined record of 30-50. None of these individual teams in their seasons made the playoffs. Quite obviously, none of them won a title either.
The Bears have their battle scars of mismanagement from the past along with these others to draw back on. So at least they aren’t getting antsy this time.
“We want to continue to see progress, see the building blocks,” said McCaskey. “But there isn’t any sort of particular threshold.”
Ex-Philadelphia 76ers general manager, Sam Hinkie, once famously said “trust the process” in regards to his murky rebuilding plan.
With due time, we’ll know if the Bears’ own “process” and delusions of grandeur are real life, or just fantasy.
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.