When Ryan Pace was hired as general manager, the Bears were in the aftermath of the chaotic end to the Marc Trestman and Phil Emery era. They were the laughingstock of the NFL. There was no sign of direction. As Pace’s tenure has unfolded over the past three and a half years, small blips of light have arisen every now and then, but the Bears have nothing tangible to show for it. 14 wins since 2015. A franchise record for losses in an individual season in 2016 at 3-13. Three consecutive last place finishes in the NFC North.
The black eyes have piled up, and there hasn’t been any makeup that could hide how short the Bears have come.
Despite this, Pace has often maintained how “fired up” - his famous verbal crutch - he is about the direction of the organization. How everything is going according to plan, despite the most relevant evidence on the field showing the contrary. That once it was obvious, critics of his methods would be able to see what he was building for the Bears and laud him for it. The fruits of intensive labors paying off. His “I told you so” moment.
Half the time, Pace would’ve been forgiven if he gritted his teeth and fake smiled about that enthusiasm. That’s what happens in the bleak circumstances the Bears presented. Fake energy, if believable, is nevertheless an expression of energy. The face of an organization better be enthusiastic and honest: whether it’s genuine or not.
This past drudgery is relevant in how Pace has finally brought the Bears to a place of comfort only he once had an invitation to. The results of an aggressive 2018 off-season have flipped his Bears’ script back on course, one he likely always had in mind, but needed time to implement. While the most important evaluative factor has yet to happen - meaning the play on the field - Pace has accomplished what he originally sought out to do when hired.
On paper, Pace has built the good Bears football team he’s promised. On paper, he’s turned them into a team that can have “sustained success” - another common verbal crutch of the young general manager. Credit is appropriately due, as every aspect of his rebuilding philosophy has manifested almost ideally in the past four months of the 2018 off-season, and in his previous drafts of most headlined by Mitchell Trubisky. Pace has converted the non-believers into ironically, understanding his “pace” for the Bears. He, through multiple pieces of a topsy-turvy scheme, has turned them into a contender.
“We did what we had to do to get him”
Him, is of course Trubisky, the on-field face of the Bears. The man who ultimately holds the keys to their success, and who Pace has done everything to put into the most optimal position to thrive. Winning in the NFL is defined by the caliber of your quarterback, and whether that quarterback has a solid support system. From that respect, the Bears are well on their way.
When the Bears originally drafted Trubisky, Pace fervently maintained how “important it was to get quarterback right” despite being lambasted for the resources he used to get his guy in Trubisky. That “mortgaging of the future” (a rough paraphrase of a common sentiment) in the infamous Trubisky 2017 NFL Draft day trade is what set the final stages of Pace’s rebuild into motion. It’ll be what’s remembered first about Pace’s Bears tenure, for better or worse. The way he’s made sure to plant failsafes, the move is leaning towards greener pastures.
That’s because Pace has the man in Trubisky that he’s catered his roster and coaching staff to. A simple process Pace could’ve undertaken right away, but instead decided to make sure he was inserting someone like Trubisky into a comfortable environment first.
Not every personnel evaluator has shown the same conviction Pace has in the last year to both draft Trubisky, and place him on the pedestal he needs to be on for the Bears to jump back to the forefront of football. To be a marketable team for not just market size as they have been, but attractiveness of quality players.
Pace wanted Trubisky, was afraid he would lose him, so he traded up for him. If Trubisky is great, no one remembers the trade. If Trubisky is good, no one remembers the trade. If Trubisky doesn’t pan out, then Pace should receive acclaim for going for a home run, instead of leaving his franchise stuck in molasses.
Pace wanted an innovative coach more suited to the modern needs of pro football, and he hired Matt Nagy: who quickly finished the support system of a coaching staff Pace desired to help Trubisky become elite. People like offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich who understand where Trubisky’s coming from as his development continues and can take him to the stratosphere. A novel idea that takes time.
Pace wanted to surround Trubisky with weapons that could showcase the prolific potential he believes the young quarterback possesses. And he’s acquired Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Trey Burton, and Anthony Miller to have a multi-versed skill position group.
Everything the Bears have done revolves around Trubisky. The cushion Pace has placed around his quarterback is commendable.
A balanced mindset
Even while the Bears weren’t winning recently, the cement Pace was laying down for his defense was easily visible. A defense can’t win games on it’s own, at least not until it’s finished. But a unit coming together was obvious. A defense that is coached well isn’t overlooked.
Chicago’s current projected defense going into 2018 is going to have Akiem Hicks, Eddie Goldman, Leonard Floyd, Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith, Eddie Jackson, Adrian Amos, and Kyle Fuller as starters. Those are players that Pace has either drafted, signed in free agency, or re-signed long term in the case of Fuller. Each of these defensive cornerstones are younger than 30, in their prime, and or on track towards a bright future. The average age of the Bears’ defensive core is 25-years-old.
It’s taken some time to refill the Bears’ cupboard on defense, but Pace has checked this box. He’s done it in a manner that opens up the contending window for Chicago given the age of the foundation.
The key to this resurgence outside of the talent influx is mastermind Vic Fangio. Prioritizing his return and bringing him back on a three-year deal in January has been forgotten in the midst of the high profile moves the Bears have made lately. It shouldn’t be, because Fangio keeps this defensive Chicago symphony humming along.
A talented defense is only as good as it’s conductor that puts it into advantageous positions. Fangio is that conductor who understands the nuances of what his stars such as Hicks and Floyd need to thrive. What his inside linebackers in Smith and Trevathan need to become a feared duo. And what his back end in Fuller, Jackson, and Amos require to be more than a respectable secondary, but one that receivers and quarterbacks fear alike.
For a model on what the Bears have with their defense, look no further than their NFC North rival in the Vikings. Every current starter for Minnesota has played at least three years in head coach Mike Zimmer’s system. The Vikings’ defense is beyond collectively instinctive because the players understand their responsibilities like the back of their hands. It’s read and react with electricity. It’s one thing to be talented with fantastic athletes. It’s another for those athletes to be innately comfortable with each other and memorize what they’re supposed to do. The perfect mix of communication in conjunction with ability.
The Bears in 2018 are entering the fourth year of Fangio’s defensive scheme. It’s that continuity through Fangio’s teachings that can harness the pieces they possess on defense at each level. This is even despite their current edge pass rush limitations. Comfort combined with talent transcends above all. That’s what can make this Chicago defense a winning unit, and part of necessary complimentary football with the rising offense.
A fateful retirement, a new beginning
Immediately after the madness of the 2018 NFL Draft concluded, Pace said something out of character. He retired the idea of his being “fired up” and sent shockwaves throughout the league. Moving forward, he’s going to beat “we’re excited” like a dead horse.
In reality, that shift, albeit minor, was about changing the expectations the Bears have with what they’ve accomplished, or lack thereof. Catchphrases of the past are that: in the past. This is a re-branding for Pace and a reinvigorated Bears team. The smiles are 100 percent genuine.
Much has been made of Trubisky’s rookie contract since the Bears drafted him. The main conversation has centered around how Chicago, and by extension Pace, was going to build the best team while Trubisky was inexpensive before his inevitable second backbreaking contract kicked in. This relatively new NFL concept is about pushing your gambling chips in when you have the most amount of chips.
Look no further for recent examples than the Seahawks taking care of Super Bowl business while Russell Wilson was affordable Or the Ravens doing so with Joe Flacco, the Giants with Eli Manning, the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger, and on and on. The most recent championship picture with a cheap good quarterback paid off as Eagles won a championship in Carson Wentz’s second year. They have time to spare. On the horizon are the heavyweight Rams having one of the craziest happy go-lucky off-seasons of trades one can remember. One that can push Jared Goff and his bargain deal forward.
On the flip side, the Colts mostly wasted Andrew Luck’s rookie contract from 2012 to 2017. It can be further argued that each of the Lions and Panthers did the same with Matthew Stafford from 2009 to 2014, and Cam Newton from 2011 to 2016, respectively. These organizations had and have objectively good quarterbacks. Instead of taking advantage of ample salary cap space, they asked them to do everything on improperly balanced teams when they were younger.
The Bears want to fall in line with the triumphant examples for Trubisky. With everything they’ve put to task in mind, the next four seasons of Trubisky’s rookie deal is the window for them to attain big game experience, fight through the gauntlet of their division, and climb back up the NFL’s mountain. It’ll be arduous, but the time to compete is better than ever.
What’s different about what Pace has done with the Bears in comparison to some of those other quarterback templates, is that they want to sustain this window. That even when he has to write a blank check for Trubisky, Pace wants to establish a consistent era of play that hasn’t been seen with the Bears in over three decades. Considering how the roster fits together, it’d be a mistake to doubt what he has in mind. Those previous black eyes don’t seem like they matter anymore, do they?
The Bears have their prime chances at a title coming immediately following the close of the 2018 off-season, but that’s not the coveted end. Pace wants the Bears to be a title contender for years and years. As he proclaimed after 2018 draft concluded: forgive Pace if his ambitions extend beyond a short rookie contract window.
“It’s been a busy three, four months,” Pace said. “But we’re never going to be satisfied.”
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.