The 2021 NFL regular season has come and gone for the Chicago Bears, as they close out the season with a 31-17 loss against the Minnesota Vikings. While a (6-11) record is almost exactly where I had this team before Week 1. How they ended up getting there was a little uglier than I had even anticipated. With the regular season in the books, speculation about the team’s impending changes can come to a conclusion tomorrow. Monday finally brings “Judgment Day” after another disappointing season, for a franchise that’s still searching for sustained success.
It seems like a given that head coach Matt Nagy and his coaching staff will be out the door in the next 24 hours or so. The changes beyond that are still up in the air, with general manager Ryan Pace’s future still relatively unknown at this time.
So what now? That’s where we’ll start the final 10 takes of the 2021 NFL regular season.
1. While Nagy has coached his final game, Pace’s status is still relatively unknown and the silence is deafening.
There’s no guarantee that Pace staying would mean he will remain at general manager, but at this point him staying says a lot about the immediate direction of this franchise. It also has to make you wonder - what happened to the “collaboration” he and Nagy had? Things go bad and Nagy gets bus-tossed while Pace appears to have stayed clean enough to save his own skin. That would require quite the explanation from team Chairman George McCaskey. Especially considering he tied the two together in January when he said he was looking for clear improvements this season.
Between Hub Arkush’s report on 670 The Score and Brad Biggs’ latest report in his Week 18 mailbag, early signs point to Pace remaining with the organization in some capacity. With that being said, nothing has been concretely reported on his job status. Which has to make you wonder. Regardless, it’s hard to see how much fundamentally changes with the same leadership in place.
While Pace staying wouldn’t exactly rule out a change within the front office structure, it’s hard to envision how much “change” can happen with Pace still in the mix. Here are a few possibilities.
- Pace is “promoted” to President of Football Operations. That would create a new spot for him and force an opening at general manager. In that case, it feels like Champ Kelly would make sense to fill that role. If not, I’m not sure how attractive this job would be to many outside names.
- They still decide to bring in a more experienced football mind in a newly created position like President of Football Operations. Names like Trace Armstrong and former Houston Texans general manager Rick Smith have been floated before as potential candidates for this role.
- Pace decides to accept a role similar to Ted Phillips and start overseeing the business side of the house. I would assume in this type of role he would still have a full hand in the football side of things too. That would create the type of “boogyman” that some fans currently think Ted Phillips still plays.
While these scenarios are all plausible, my questions are quite simple. If you promote Pace, how attractive will the general manger job actually be? Also, how much do things change with Pace overseeing the entire football operations side of things? If Pace remains at general manager and they bring in somebody above him, how much control will that new role assume? I can’t see Pace signing off on staying aboard with a new boss unless he maintains a larger share of power in that new structure. Finally, is a 44-year-old like Pace ready to resign himself to a lesser football role to be an honorary member of the McCaskey family? Conventional wisdom says no.
Logically speaking, it’s just hard to see how Pace staying makes much sense. The problem? Logic doesn’t always win out with the primary decision makers at Halas Hall.
Everything should be clear soon, but either way, we deserve to hear from the McCaskey family soon. Regardless of their final decisions over the next few days, it would be nice to hear what their current vision is for this team moving forward.
2. If Pace does stay within the organization in a substantial role, does that change how head coaching candidates will view this opening?
My short answer? No.
There are a finite amount of head coaching jobs within the NFL and the Bears are still a charter franchise that’ll have plenty of pull. Especially playing in one of the largest sports markets in the country.
I think it’s also worth noting that the Bears will likely be searching for a coach in a market that isn’t going to be flush with as many openings as normal. Over the past 10 years, there have been an average of six openings, but in most years have seen seven or more openings. As of now, it appears there will be five, maybe six openings. Barring a surprise or two, of course.
My guess is that the Bears will primarily target candidates that other teams won’t either. The Jacksonville Jaguars are the only other team in a similar situation to the Bears. They have a rebuilding roster with a young quarterback that needs a quality offensive mind. Outside of that, the other likely openings are the Las Vegas Raiders and Minnesota Vikings who both have established veteran quarterbacks and the Denver Broncos who always have different parameters for their own coaching search.
Rest assured, the Bears will have plenty of quality options to fill their head coaching vacancy. Their vision of who they want will be much more important because they should have their pick of any available coach out there.
3. If Pace is relieved of his duties and removed from the organization, here are a few of my favorite potential replacements.
Much like the head coaching circuit, the Bears are going to be a popular destination and have plenty of options. It’s also worth noting that there won’t be nearly the amount of openings at general manager, so they’ll have even less competition. Between the two pools of candidates, I’ve found more intriguing options in this group.
- Will McClay (Dallas Cowboys)
- Ed Dodds (Indianapolis Colts)
- Rick Smith (ex-Houston Texans)
- Dave Ziegler (New England Patriots)
- Joe Hortiz (Baltimore Ravens)
Without getting into a ton of detail about each guy, here’s what I’ll say. McClay is essentially the general manager (with more limited duties) in Dallas, but he’s reportedly the apple of most folk’s eye. The issue? He has rejected any interview request that has been made from an outside organization, in the past. He’s basically the Eric DeCosta of this cycle. Dodds is the most realistic and equally as highly regarded as McClay. Dodds is Chris Ballard’s right-hand man in Indianapolis. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t end up with a job this year. Smith did a fantastic job before his wife’s health issues and being forced out by Bill O’Brein in Houston. Ziegler is a fast riser and another prominent target for many. Much like McClay, many wonder if he’ll leave New England any time soon. Hortiz is another target I really like. He knows what success looks like and has seen it from one of the most well-run organizations in football.
A few other names to keep an eye on: Eliot Wolf (New England) and Jeff Ireland (New Orleans Saints). Both could be package deals with a head coach candidate within their current organization.
4. Turning our attention to the upcoming head coaching search, what should fans expect in the coming weeks?
Everyone will always have their own view of how the search should happen and who they should target. That’s part of the fun of being a fan, right? At this point, all we can do is make our own lists and speculate on what they may do.
For as fun as someone like Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin or even Jim Harbaugh would be, I don’t know how realistic they are. Especially when considering they are currently under contract with their respective teams. Payton and Tomlin would not only require wanting to leave but their respective teams allowing them to leave. On top of that, the Bears would have to pony-up some draft capital in order to get them. Harbaugh is another name that is often tied to the team. It does appear him leaving Michigan is more likely than ever, but the Bears would face competition if Harbaugh makes the transition back to the NFL. If he does, my guess is that the Raiders will be willing to throw more money at him. Ryan Day is another name that’s frequently mentioned, but I think that’s more about tying him to Justin Fields than anything else. Plus, why would he want to risk leaving a great job at Ohio State for a riskier job in Chicago?
Barring a Hail Mary-type swing at one of those names, I think the more realistic options in play are the ones who are currently in the league. Those could be candidates looking for second chances, or some of the popular first-time hopeful coordinators. My guess is that the Bears will likely lean toward the retread options but I’d expect them to have an expansive search that features multiple first-time offensive-minded names. I don’t think I see any college names popping up, even though a name like David Shaw has been a rumored target of the McCaskey family for a while now.
Another factor that could impact this search: Could an established name like Payton or Harbaugh want his own general manager? If so, that could complicate the process even more. Even if it’s viewed as a package deal. Buckle up, Bears fans. It’s going to be a busy next few weeks, especially if the Bears act aggressively and come out of the gates swinging.
5. Here are my top five names (in order) for the team’s upcoming head coach search
- Sean Payton (New Orleans Saints)
I know that he’s not an overly realistic option, but Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer has mentioned him as an option for the Bears on more than one occasion. Of all the “unrealistic” options, he’s my favorite and he’s also the one most likely to actually be on the move.
2. Josh McDaniels (New England Patriots)
It’s always funny to me how things can come full circle. As most might remember, McDaniels verbally committed to the Colts job back in 2018 and backed out shortly after the Patriots lost in the Super Bowl. It left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, but the Colts have been better off for it since. McDaniels’ history carries some viable questions, but his work with rookie quarterback Mac Jones can not go unnoticed. Neither can the fact that he was the one who originally hired Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. He feels like the best offensive option due to his track record and I would also feel confident in his ability to fill out a quality coaching staff. His issues in Denver as a head coach and then him leaving the Colts at the altar are two big concerns, though. The Bears would have to have him out of the playoffs and a lot of conviction on a hire like this. Could one of Ziegler or Wolf follow McDaniels to his next stop?
3. Jim Harbaugh (Michigan)
A few weeks ago, I would have labeled Harbaugh much more of a “pipe dream”. Yet, due to recent reports started by The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, the former Bears quarterback leaving Michigan feels a little more realistic, doesn’t it? Who knows, maybe all this is a ploy to get a new deal at his alma mater, but it doesn’t feel like it this time. According to Feldman’s report, among others, the Las Vegas Raiders and Bears would make the most sense for the former 49ers head coach. My biggest question- Could he surround Fields with a good enough coach to get the most out of the young quarterback? Albeit, it was over five years ago, but his offenses in San Francisco were consistently in the bottom half of passing efficiency.
4. Byron Leftwich (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Only time will tell how long current Bucs head coach Bruce Arians will stick around. That could also be a factor in whether or not Leftwich goes anywhere. If he does, he’s the likely favorite in Jacksonville. Even so, the Bears should prioritize him during the interview process. Leftwich is one of a few promising young offensive minds that will hold head coaching jobs soon. Arians doesn’t have much of his own coaching-tree, but both of his coordinators (including Todd Bowles) should garner serious consideration for this hiring cycle.
5. Matt Eberflus (Indianapolis Colts)
As you can tell, I would prefer that the Bears hire an offensive-minded head coach. With that being said, there are many quality defensive-minded candidates that should at least get a quality look. Eberflus’ work in Indiapolis has been impressive. He and Bowles are the best defensive-minded candidates on this list, but I do think his defense would translate better over time, especially for the Bears. The big key here would be who he could bring with him as his offensive coordinator. That’s going to be the big factor with any of these defensive-minded candidates.
6. The Bears currently have 35 players under contract for 2022 and will have 35 total free agents. Does this team have enough building blocks to feel good about the future?
The Bears are projected to have about $40 million in cap space, but it’s really closer to $30 million once they reach the 51-man limit. Without getting into every player they currently have on the roster, who are some of their building blocks?
Justin Fields, Darnell Mooney, David Montgomery, Khalil Herbert, Cole Kmet, Teven Jenkins, Larry Borom and maybe Cody Whitehair are on those on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensively, they have Jaylon Johnson, Roquan Smith, Khalil Mack, Robert Quinn, Eddie Jackson and Trevis Gipson. Thomas Graham Jr. and Khyiris Tonga are two interesting names as well.
As you can see, that leaves a lot of room for improvement. It’s also going to require quite a bit of work and even more resources (both cash and the draft) to get this roster back up to the “contender” status it was in 2018. I do believe they have enough on their “core” of players to build on.
With that being said, they also have some key free agents set to hit the market. Allen Robinson, James Daniels, Akiem Hicks, Bilal Nichols and Tashaun Gipson are some of those names not under contract in 2022. I would also say the status of Tarik Cohen, Nick Foles, Eddie Goldman and Danny Trevathan are all in question, too.
Long story short, be prepared for a busy offseason and more importantly, be prepared for a lot of roster turnover in the coming months. This roster won’t resemble much of what it did back in 2018 when they went (12-4).
7. Akiem Hicks appreciation post.
For me, Hicks leads the list of Bears players that I’ll miss watching every week. He’s been arguably Pace’s best free agent signing in his seven years as general manager. Hicks originally came in on a cheap two-year value deal and quickly proved himself as a key building block. His effort and intensity from a play-to-play basis was something you simply don’t see often.
There’s a slim chance the Bears could opt to bring him back, but considering he’s missed 20 games over the past three seasons due to injury, it seems unlikely that they’ll want to invest a large chunk of their available cap space in an aging player. Even so, he will be missed.
Robinson is another player that will never get the proper credit he deserved in his four years with the team. I know he had a down year in 2021, but he was a valuable member to a struggling offense and one that won’t be easy to replace in the short-term. I hope for his sake that a down season won’t impact his market too much because he deserves one last big pay day. Hopefully this time, he can sign with a team that has a quality quarterback.
8. While it was a bummer that Justin Fields missed Sunday’s game with COVID, the long-term perception should still focus on the young quarterback.
Everything that the Bears do in the coming weeks and months should be with Fields at the forefront of their minds. From a potential general manager change, to their coaching hires, even down to their free agency and draft approach. The single-most important piece of this organization is their young quarterback. Although, many could argue they didn’t show the same urgency in-season, did they?
It was an up and down rookie year for Fields. No one can debate that. While I’m sure we had all hoped it would have resembled something closer to Justin Herbert, Fields was far from the only rookie quarterback who struggled this season. The overall numbers between Fields, Trevor Lawrence (No. 1 overall pick) and Zach Wilson (No. 2 overall pick) were all eerily similar. Obviously, numbers don’t mean everything, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who could make a clear argument that one of these three were better than the others.
Much like Lawrence, Fields will be looking at a brand new offense and coaching staff for the 2022 season. History has shown that isn’t always a good sign of things to come, but if there’s one player I have faith that can take the next step, it’s Fields. I’ll just say it now... Be prepared for plenty of hot takes this offseason. Both negative and positive. Don’t take the bait.
9. Many things can be said about Nagy’s time in Chicago, but the fact that his team continued to play hard for him over the last month won’t go unnoticed in his future endeavors.
Bears fans should be accustomed to regime/coaching changes. We’ve all seen the ebbs and flows that happen during each tenure. Usually by the end of it, we all know what’s going to transpire and most players have checked out for the season. That didn’t happen this season and that is a credit to Nagy. Much can be said about his failures over the past few years, but it has also been very clear that he is a genuinely good person that does well with his players. I’m not sure if or when he’ll get another head coaching opportunity, but he should land on his feet soon. There are some good qualities to Nagy and hopefully this learning experience will be valuable enough that he can learn and grow from it. Either way, it was nice not to see a team that completely checked out over the last month-plus. Even in today’s loss. They just got beat by a better team.
10. Thank you to everybody for reading and following along during a tough season.
It’s been a long and tough season to watch for the most part. Not only were the Bears bad (for the most part), but there just wasn’t a lot of exciting football to be seen in these games. Even so, I very much appreciate the constant viewership and overall support each reader has shown to myself and Windy City Gridiron. It doesn’t go unnoticed and it is much appreciated. Here’s to hoping for a fun offseason and a fun future of Bears football!