There’s no doubting George Halas’s status as one of the NFL’s most important pioneers.
This was the same man who minted the Decatur Staleys and transformed them into the Chicago Bears, one of American football’s most iconic brands. Over the course of roughly six decades under his stead, the Bears won eight championships, largely unimpeded, and almost 500 games. The first major college football star, Red Grange, became a professional thanks to Halas. The similarly transcendent Packers (much to the chagrin of modern Bears observers, no doubt) would not exist today without a direct bailout at the hands of Halas.
For most of Halas’s run of as principal owner, the Bears were synonymous with the very idea of football. When he passed in 1983 at the tender age of 88, everything changed for the Bears, mostly for the worse. Due to unfortunate circumstances of a sudden heart attack taking the life of Halas’s son only four years earlier, Virginia McCaskey took the reins of the NFL’s most popular and most profitable team. And while the current eldest McCaskey has certainly meant well through her reign sitting on the throne, the Bears have done everything but thrive the way her father would have wanted.
The most obvious, and painful, contrast is seen in the organization roughly 200 miles north that the Bears cannot help but compare themselves to. Not only do the rival Packers have a comfortable lead in championships (13), they have also long since surpassed Chicago in head-to-head wins (101-95-6) in a place where the Bears once had almost a 30-game lead. Where the Bears have not had a Hall of Fame quarterback since the halcyon days of Sid Luckman, the Packers have enjoyed two since 1992 — Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. As Green Bay has qualified for the postseason in all but six years since 1992 thanks to that quarterback consistency, the Bears have become more of a one-off, random luck entrant benefitting from a league system that sometimes rewards perennial bottom feeders. What was formerly a glorified rivalry with reasonable ebbs and flows for both counterparts, has heavily swung in Green Bay’s favor with no sign of a conclusion on the horizon.
The man tasked with running football operations by his mother as Chairman since 2011, George McCaskey, has not seen better days. He’s rode the wave of an inept tide the Bears have not stemmed in the least. Under the eldest McCaskey child’s watch, the Bears have finished in third or last place in the NFC North seven times in the last decade. Not only has Chicago made the playoffs just twice in that same time frame (the latter berth being the reward of an expanded field in 2020), McCaskey’s bunch has only finished above .500 twice. And the last Bears’ playoff win came now a decade ago, which may as well be a different era of football altogether for those paying close attention.
What has to bruise McCaskey’s ego is not that the Bears’ failures to win are for a lack of trying. Since 2012, only the Saints, Jets, and Jaguars have spent more money on their respective teams than the Bears. The issue is not that McCaskey and his subordinates don’t want to win. In every instance where the brain trust appears in public to defend their most recent shortcomings, their commentary seems to suggest that they don’t know how to win.
“The decisions we’re announcing today might not be the easiest or most popular,” McCaskey said of his decision to retain Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy only a few weeks ago. “But we believe it’s the best decisions for the Bears.”
Pace and Nagy together might not be a stellar example of how to create a quality program. But the harsh truth might truly be that they are the best the Bears can do, as so McCaskey believes. Retaining them now seems to be more of a fear that new hires would likely only be worse. Judging by Chicago’s recent history, that’s probably not an incorrect estimate.
In today’s off-season primer roundtable, the Windy City Gridiron staff muses on how McCaskey needs to change his operating plans if the Bears are to ever have more than a small pulse among the NFL’s big fish.
In case you missed it:
How do the Bears as an organization need to shift?
Erik Duerrwaechter: This organization needs to shift horizontally in their internal structure. George McCaskey might wind up being the only owner who doesn’t employ a chief football person atop of his general manager and coaching staff. Kick Ted Phillips to the side and let the football operations part of the house operate independently.
Ken Mitchell: Value winning instead of just culture. Culture is great, but it should be a winning culture.
Josh Sunderbruch: It needed to completely restructure its front office; it didn’t. Now it needs to accept that it’s a mediocre team that needs to develop its own drafted players.
Lester Wiltfong Jr.: George McCaskey said that Ryan Pace is the highest ranking football guy in the building. That’s an issue considering the franchise has only one winning season during his six years on the job. Pace could turn things around, but I don’t have much faith in that happening. Since we’re stuck with the status quo, how about Pace actually does one of the smart things he said years ago and drafts a quarterback every year? That position needs as many chances as possible to find a competent player. You may not luck into the next Tom Brady, but if you can find a Dak Prescott (fourth round), Kirk Cousins (fourth), a Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh), or even a Gardner Minshew II (sixth), Tyrod Taylor (sixth), or Nick Mullens (UDFA), then your quarterback room is in much better shape than with a high-priced backup quarterback and practice squad player like Tyler Bray.
Will Robinson: Unfortunately, the ship has already sailed on the organization shifting in any meaningful way this off-season. Ted Phillips remains. George McCaskey remains. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy remain. So really, all I can hope for is that Pace relies more on the advice of his scouting department and coaching staff, rather than his own evaluations in the draft.
He seemed to be making that shift, at least somewhat, over the past couple of years. I like the 2020 draft. 2019 is uninspiring, but I like David Montgomery, and Duke Shelley seems to have some promise as a nickel cornerback. 2018 saw his first real hit in the first round with Roquan Smith. That includes James Daniels who has developed into a good guard, and Bilal Nichols who has become a solid defensive contributor.
Good leaders know that it’s better to surround yourself with smart, knowledgeable, experienced people whose advice you listen to and use to inform your decisions, than it is to be the smartest guy in the room. That latter guy always feels like he has to make decisions on an island. For the first few years of Pace’s tenure, he felt like a man on an island, especially in the first round.
Robert Schmitz: Two words: Get offensive.
Chicago has always been a defensive town, but unfortunately defense isn’t winning the championships it used to. Should it surprise us that every single one of the top-eight points-per-game teams in 2020 made the playoffs? What about the reality that the Championship Weekend contenders ranked first (Green Bay), second (Buffalo), third (Tampa Bay), and sixth (Kansas City) in scoring? Defense makes an impact on teams like Tampa Bay, but good defenses (and even bad defenses) don’t move the needle for their teams quite like offenses do in modern football. If you score points, you win games.
Given this, the Bears need to change up their team’s identity — in 2020, the Bears spent the fourth-most cap dollars on defense in the league. At the moment, they’re set to add $20 million to their 2020 spending and will move to first in next year’s defensive spending rankings. Simply put, this cannot continue.
The Bears have to shift towards an offense-first team makeup and should spend this entire off-season building the most competitive 2021 offense possible. If this means trading important-but-valuable players like Kyle Fuller, Akiem Hicks, or Khalil Mack then that’s what it means. If this means spending 80 percent or more of their draft picks on offensive needs then so be it. The Bears cannot compete in the modern “holding is legal” NFL with expensive edge rushers, an aging inside linebacker, and a bad offense. Rip off the band-aid and improve the offense as soon as possible. If they don’t, they’ll continue to get left behind.
Bill Zimmerman: Too late. The organization needed a fresh set of eyes on this roster and needed to see what went wrong. George McCaskey did everything wrong at the end of the season. First, he put too much weight on one playoff game. If Javon Wims catches the ball and the Bears luck into a fourth quarter defensive touchdown are they actually any better than they were? No.
I wouldn’t have been upset with a house-cleaning, but McCaskey could have stood to be more creative in reassigning his friends (because let’s be honest, that’s part of the problem). He could’ve opened up a couple positions in the front office to re-evaluate the roster and how contracts are structured under the cap.
At this point, the only thing left to do is understand that it’s not 1985. Defense doesn’t win championships. Offense does. A defensive team can sneak in and win a Super Bowl (2015 Broncos) from time to time, but if you want a place at the table every year, construct a top-ten offense. The Bears need to stop being a franchise that lucks into a winning season every once in awhile when the ball bounces their way and construct a roster that can win between nine and 12 games every year. To do that, you need a quality quarterback and a proper offensive cast supporting him.
Jack Salo: I wouldn’t have blamed the Bears for firing Ryan Pace. I’m not as down on him as some, yet he does have a rough record in the first round. Mitchell Trubisky sticks out more than he probably should, but it’s still a big whiff on the most important position in professional sports. I’m not in the room with the scouting department, but those in charge of scouting offensive players need to be shown the door. This team can’t be fixed by drafting more below-average offensive talent.
Windy City Gridiron Podcast Channel which includes Bear With Me from Robert Schmitz, Bears Over Beers featuring Jeff Berckes & EJ Snyder, Bears Banter hosted by Bill Zimmerman, and T Formation Conversation from Lester A. Wiltfong Jr.; EJ also co-hosts The Bootleg Football Podcast with Brett Kollmann; R. Schmitz has a film breakdown show on YouTube titled Run Pass Opinion; and Steven’s Streaming Twitch Channel from Steven Schweickert.
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