Rewinding back to early January of this year, many fans can distinctly remember feeling angry after a blowout playoff loss at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Despite a strong (5-1) start to the 2020 season, the Chicago Bears fell apart. They “salvaged” their colossal collapse by going (3-1) down the stretch against two of the worst teams in the league last year. They received some timely help from the Arizona Cardinals who lost their final two games of the season and the Bears limped into the playoffs, only to get blown out by a clearly superior Saints team.
The following week, fans anxiously awaited the organization’s top leadership to make the “right” decisions about the team’s future and who should be leading the charge. Despite their (8-8) season and questionable playoff appearance, the state of this franchise had once again fallen into a dark place. Their quarterback situation was a mess and they had shown clear regression in the years following their promising (12-4) campaign.
Even in that moment, everyone knew what needed to be done. The honeymoon phase was long gone for head coach Matt Nagy. General manager Ryan Pace had been desperately trying to claw his way back to the quality of roster he had built up heading into the 2018 season. Yet, all that he had to show was an aging roster with multiple holes (including no answers at the most important position in football) and little-to-no financial resources to speak of.
Which brings us to the decision that team Chairman George McCaskey faced before his early January press conference. Yes, both men had brought the team more success that they had seen since the 2010 season, but we’ve all been through the rise and fall of each regime. We’ve all seen the highs and (mostly) lows that come with a failing regime. We all know the warning signs and most importantly, we all know when it’s time to cut ties and start fresh. Well, most of us knew, but clearly ownership did not, and this is where we find ourselves.
At a crossroads, yet again.
In that virtual press conference over Zoom, McCaskey highlighted the 2018 season. He highlighted the promising young talent (in particular Darnell Mooney) as reasons for optimism. Yet, he completely ignored the team’s dire cap situation, their many roster deficiencies and most importantly, he ignored the position he would put his organization in by giving them the “win or be fired” ultimatum that the 2021 season has brought on.
Following their new lease on life, Pace scrambled to clear cap space. Tough decisions were made and many quality players departed in the process. Then came the draft, where for the first time since 2018, Pace had a full compliment of top round picks at his disposal. He opted to make his first trade up to land Justin Fields.
Truth be told, I would have done the same damn thing.
In the process, he traded away the team’s first round picks for 2020 and 2021, though. He also gave up a 2021 fourth round pick. The next day, he traded up again. This time the target was Teven Jenkins. Again, the move was understandable but it also came at a greater risk. It cost them their 2020 third round pick, which left them with two total picks in the first four rounds of the draft on a team that lacked young talent. While it was a large gamble, it was an understandable one, especially given this regime’s dire situation to win and keep their jobs. This was also a way for Pace to establish a new streamline of young talent that this roster had come to lack over the past few seasons.
Following the draft, they cut ties with veteran left tackle Charles Leno Jr. and while some may argue it was a needed move due to performance, it was yet another way to clear cap space and keep their heads above water. Fast forward a few months and the regular season is right around the corner. The problem? Fields had seen virtually no snaps with the first team offense during training camp or the preseason. Jenkins had a back issue and it was announced that he would have surgery, which could put him out for the year. They scrambled to add 39-year-old veteran Jason Peters. Again, while it was an understandable move, it moved them further away from developing younger talent. Training camp was the moment where it became clear this coaching staff had prioritized savings their own jobs over doing what was best for the future of this season. Honestly though, who could blame them?
Once the regular season started, it became very clear that this coaching staff was going to do everything in their power to win enough games to justify saving their jobs. The issue? Those actions came at a cost. It meant Fields’ development and best interests being put on the back burner for veteran Andy Dalton. That was the biggest mistake Nagy could have made this season. It also meant a veteran like Marqui Christian making the roster over their sixth-round pick in Thomas Graham Jr. Lastly, it translated to someone like Damiere Byrd making the roster over another draft pick Dazz Newsome. All of this coming months after the Bears put all of their eggs in one basket with their top two picks. The team had just two picks in the first four rounds of the draft and neither one of them were Week 1 starters. Two of their other remaining four draft picks didn’t even make the final roster.
Normally, in-season moves are common. Decisions and evaluations change, as does availability of players based on health. Yet, almost every time the Bears lost a veteran due to injury, another less meaningful player stepped in to take their place. The only true outliers? Fields and fifth-round pick Larry Borom. Neither decision left the team much choice and that should be noted. There was no way they were going to hand the starting quarterback job to Nick Foles and Borom benefited from a rash of injuries and COVID issues.
Graham Jr. sat on the team’s practice squad until last week’s dire situation. It took the entire Bears’ secondary being unavailable for Monday night’s Week 15 loss in order for their sixth-round cornerback to make his 2021 NFL debut. Higher paid veterans like Jimmy Graham (who have been rarely used) have taken priority over younger names like Jesper Horsted at tight end. It has taken two key injuries at edge rusher for 2020 fifth-round pick Trevis Gipson to see substantial time. The list goes on and on.
Yet, this is the situation that ownership created by putting this regime in a “win or be gone” situation. Especially when any objective evaluator could have seen the many issues this Bears’ roster had moving into the 2021 season. No one can predict the future, but bad teams in the NFL are rarely hard to spot. The Bears were a bad team before Week 1 and are now sitting at the No. 5 overall pick as Week 16 opens up. As noted before, that’s not even a draft pick the Bears will own in next April’s draft.
The Bears’ current situation is a direct reflection of decisions that ownership made (or failed to make) back in January. Because of that, this team’s immediate future has suffered. Fields has been put in a very poor situation for any rookie quarterback to develop. He lacks play makers, he lacks a steady offensive line and most importantly and he lacks a head coach that truly has his best interests in mind as a play caller (despite what Nagy may say publicly).
This coaching staff has made a clear (and justifiable) decision to play the guys they trust. Those players they trust? Proven veterans. Not newly minted draft picks and undrafted free agents that could truly benefit from live regular season snaps in a lost season. While it’s unfair to say that players like Graham Jr., Borom or even Fields were truly ready to start and play Week 1, it is very clear that they all currently belong and that they could use as much experience in their rookie years as possible.
It’s also key to point out that the Bears currently only have 32 players under contract for the 2022 season. Some of those names? Fields, Borom, Jenkins, Khyiris Tonga and even a promising undrafted free agent in linebacker Caleb Johnson. They will also hold the rights to both Graham Jr. and Dazz Newsome’s contracts.
In a more controlled situation, the coaching staff would know their jobs are safe. They wouldn’t be as inclined to chase empty wins and would be much more interested in developing the young controllable talent they had on their roster. Especially considering the Bears went into the season with the second oldest roster in the NFL. Cheap, controllable talent is one of a team’s best assets in a competitive window.
In a safer situation with more job security, their general manager would not have been as forced to keep names like Jimmy Graham. He would have also not been as inclined to further kick additional dead money into future years to scrounge every penny of financial resources he had available to field the “best” roster he could in hopes of winning enough games to save his own skin. Once again, this is the situation that indecision can bring for an organization. This is also the problem with factoring in personal relationships with business decisions.
While it can be respected that the Bears have never fired a head coach in-season, it should also be noted that the decision not to do so can also actively hurt the team in the coming months. Not only does it rob younger players of needed playing time, it doesn’t allow the Bears to take advantage of the new interview window that was voted on by the NFL that starts next Tuesday and ranges from Week 17 to Week 18. This added opportunity would give the Bears a chance to virtually interview candidates in two hour windows, if the candidate’s current team agreed to allow the interview.
For a team that is so deeply rooted in the rich history of being a charter franchise, the last three decades have been more about the wrong decisions, than the right ones. When George McCaskey talked about the focus he has put on what the Bears have done under his leadership, these are the decision he needs to put more weight into. While it may not have felt like it in the moment, the decisions he made close to a year ago, will have a bigger impact on the team’s near future and valuable evaluation time has been wasted.