George McCaskey

Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire


Bears could be trend-setters with outside-the-box moves in Matt Nagy hire

The focus on Tuesday at Halas Hall was understandably and necessarily on Matt Nagy, because this is Chicago and that’s what happens when a new Bears coach is being introduced. But some elements of the backstory are more than a little bit interesting, because they are revealing in their own right.

Call them “tells,” particularly about general manager Ryan Pace.

Because Pace stays in the background, arguably to a fault, the predominant perception is that he needs to get out more.

But Pace has now hired two head coaches, going through two radically different processes. Within each hire, though, Pace did something that said more about him than about the object of his hiring affections.

When Pace was tasked with hiring Marc Trestman’s replacement in 2015, senior Bears management had begun the search process before Pace was even in place. Ernie Accorsi was retained as a consultant on the general manager process that produced Pace, but before that had started interviewing coaching candidates, obviously without any sort of Pace involvement, and rightly or wrongly giving a bit of traction to concerns over roles of Ted Phillips and/or George McCaskey in the selection process.

It’s what happened after that that’s the point here.

Pace conducted his first interview of John Fox at Halas Hall, this shortly after Fox had parted ways with the Broncos and was still in Denver. The next step was a second interview, but Pace didn’t direct Fox to come in for one. Instead, Pace went to Denver. Small thing, one that might be construed as Pace assuming the role of supplicant.

Not so. To know Pace at all is to know how he doesn’t do “supplicant.” No, the move was Pace acting with a touch of courtesy and respect for a veteran coach to maximize chances of landing the unexpected best candidate available.

Fast forward to last Sunday, the day after the Kansas City Chiefs collapsed to a home playoff loss to the Tennessee, a collapse in which Nagy’s play calling played a self-admitted big part. Nagy was scheduled to meet Sunday morning on the Bears head-coaching job. Even knowing that the Indianapolis Colts were targeting Nagy with none other than general manager Chris Ballard, who’d worked with Nagy in Kansas City, Pace reached out to Nagy’s agent with an offer to push the interview back to later in the day if Nagy needed a little more time to collect himself after the cataclysm of the loss.

Pace’s offer in fact turned out to be part of the healing process for Nagy. That said something to Nagy, and something about Pace as well, and might have closed the deal before the sides ever sat down to visit.

“Just to show you how this organization here works, and what meant the world to me,” Nagy recounted on Tuesday, “before I even got into the interview, I got a text message from my agent saying that, 'They respect the (Chiefs') loss and they respect your feelings. If you need to move it back or you need some time to get over that, then do it.' And that meant the world to me.

“Instead we went even earlier. I wanted to go earlier because of that, that’s where it all started. That was a good feeling.”

None of that translates into wins, or even a healthy scoring drive, for that matter. But creating a culture involves more than just the head coach, and an organization takes its persona from the top. In this case, at the top of the football organization, some credit for a spot of character is warranted here.

One thing that needs to stop

Can we please eliminate “win the press conference” from any sort of critique? John Fox was the toast when the Bears landed him about this time three years ago. Phil Emery wanted his three finalist candidates to go through simulated press conferences. The “winner” was Marc Trestman.

The McCaskey-Phillips effect

It seemed apparent to this space last weekend that the Bears were fast-tracking the entire process for hiring their next head coach — that what initially looked to be a heightened level of intrusion into the process by McCaskey and Phillips was in fact an inversion of the interview sequence calculated to strengthen the hiring hand of Pace, not mess with it.

Such proved to be the case.

The point has nothing to do with how football-savvy McCaskey or Phillips are. They’re chairman and president, and until they’re not, they will at some point have to sign off on a hire that commits as much as $20 million in guaranteed salary. So they’re not at issue here.

What is the issue is the reality that their being present earlier in the process rather than at the end, once a finalist had been arrived at by Pace. McCaskey and Phillips did not sit in on the entire Nagy interview, but “having George and Ted by my side was valuable,” Pace said, “because it allowed us in that moment, when we did come to that conclusion, ‘Hey, let’s go,’ and I think we were to that point.”

If Pace’s bosses had a material objection to Nagy, it would have been expressed.

None was. The punchline in all of this was that at the end of the day, Pace and his wife, Stephanie, went out to dinner with Nagy and his wife, Stacey. That’s when the deal and the meal were consummated.

Bears management takes the appropriate vilification when their football team incites civic unrest, or at least sports indigestion. And it might be reasonable to wonder why Phillips is still president while coaches Dick Jauron (Phillips extended his contract in 2002), Lovie Smith, Trestman and Fox have all been fired for football shortcomings.

But the Bears showed imagination and aggressiveness in restructuring their interview process to compete in what they considered to be a very tight market. It’s basic supply and demand; after Nagy, Philadelphia’s John DeFilippo and Minnesota's Pat Shurmur, no one is comparing this class of options with, say, 1992’s (Bill Cowher, Dennis Green, Mike Holmgren and Bobby Ross) or 2011’s (Jim Harbaugh, Mike Munchak and Ron Rivera).

If Nagy turns out to be an inspired choice landed in the coaching equivalent of a hurry-up offense, the Bears might not be the last team to use this interviewing format of executives out front.

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

What kind of effects will 'collaborative' process have on Bears' coaching search?

Perception might not always completely be reality, but too often it can come perilously close to becoming reality. And certain perceptions of the Bears in the wake of business Monday — firing coach John Fox, extending general manager Ryan Pace’s contract, senior team executives talking of interviewing head-coaching candidates — contain some very concerning elements.

Some of those lie in the structure that the coach-hiring process appears to be taking on. Some of those lie in the haunting bromide that those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.

In 2004, the Bears fired head coach Dick Jauron while at the same time announcing four-year contract extensions for team president Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo. The moves effectively compartmentalized the failures of 2002 (4-12 record) and 2003 (7-9) and hung them on Jauron. The juxtaposition of Jauron’s ouster and rewards for those above him felt somehow unseemly.

On Monday, the Bears fired Fox and extended Pace’s contract. When Phillips began Monday’s public session, he spoke only glowingly about Pace and never mentioned Fox until at the outset of a less formal media availability afterwards.

Fox deserved better than that. That was a 30-year NFL coaching veteran leaving. And if the organization is ecstatic about the progress of rookie franchise quarterback Mitch Trubisky, someone should have acknowledged that his progress didn’t all happen all by itself.

Shadowy role for higher-ups

Pace clearly stated that the decision on the next Bears coach was his. But he also described the process that would involve Phillips and chairman George McCaskey as “collaborative,” a descriptor that Phillips also used, casting McCaskey and himself as a “support resource” and saying: “We have a real collaborative environment here, so Ryan and I have a great relationship, along with George as well. So I think just giving our input into things to look for, how to assess the results of different interviews will be helpful to him.”

OK, that sounds good, sounds reasonable. Collaboration, consensus, those are always nice.

Then again, a camel was a horse built by a committee.

The question is how and, more importantly perhaps, when that “collaboration” occurs, because it has happened before and not with entirely good effect.

The organization put something of a shadow over the coach-hiring process before either Fox or Pace was hired in 2015. Team higher-ups sought meetings with Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase and Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn in the days prior to Pace being brought aboard as general manager.

NFL rules do dictate an aggressive tack on interviewing assistants with teams in the postseason, limiting windows when those approaches can be made. In this situation, with consultant Ernie Accorsi involved, the first round effectively comprised screening interviews.

But any incoming general manager, particularly a first-time GM like Pace, would be expected to assign some not-insignificant weight to the first impressions and opinions of his bosses. Decisions at this senior level of any business typically will require sign-off from above. But the collaborative process is going to have a different tenor when the bosses have been injected into the process at the front end rather than as the more traditional and appropriate next-level final approval deeper in the process.

Put another way: The perception is that Pace’s thinking would inevitably be colored by what he knew his bosses thought of candidates they’d interviewed before he was in his job. This decision ultimately is Pace’s, but ... 

Ominous intrusions

“Collaborative” is too often not a good thing when it brings together two distinctly different areas. Best guess is that Pace will not be collaborating on marketing or business initiatives that don’t directly involve him, for example.

Then-president Michael McCaskey insisted on doing film review with head coach Dave Wannstedt in the days immediately following games. Sources said that during the 2001 draft, for two different reasons, Phillips vetoed trades sought by then-personnel chief Mark Hatley to land, first, LaDanian Tomlinson, and then later, Deuce McAllister. The Bears instead ended up with David Terrell and Anthony Thomas.

That the immediate future rests on the right arm of Trubisky was apparent from Pace’s remarks on Monday. No surprise there, and not unreasonable after Trubisky performed passably over his first year of 12 starts.

But former general manager Phil Emery similarly dictated that his own coaching hire, Marc Trestman, was being assigned Jay Cutler, whom Emery had become the first to dub a “franchise” and “elite” quarterback.

George McCaskey was directly asked during the Fox hiring whether the new coach would be required to stay with personnel already in place at that time, specifically Cutler, whose contract from Emery had the team on the hook for $16 million guaranteed in 2015. McCaskey said that no decisions would be dictated by their financial entanglements.

But Cutler, with reported $16 million guaranteed in 2015 and $10 million in 2016, remained the Bears quarterback while Pace did not select a quarterback in either of his first two drafts. Fox might or might not have truly had the option of moving on from Cutler, but Trubisky is the way the new guy will be going. Period.

“We had major questions at the most important position on our team — quarterback,” Pace said. “We were aggressive in our approach to address that position, and we couldn’t be happier in the direction that it’s heading.”

What if Josh McDaniels would have wanted Jimmy Garoppolo after working with the quarterback in New England? Or Matt Nagy was all in on Pat Mahomes over Trubisky, and was a factor in the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision to trade up for Mahomes, not Trubisky?

Pace and the organization necessarily are all-in on Trubisky. They should be. It’s just that ...

Targeting a quarterback-based structure?

The structure of the next coaching staff will be interesting. One popular current template is for a quarterback/offense-centric hierarchy to be installed for the care and feeding of a young franchise quarterback. That’s the model for Carson Wentz in Philadelphia (Doug Pederson, Frank Reich and John DeFilippo) and for Jared Goff in Los Angeles (Sean McVay, Matt LaFleur and Greg Olson).

It’s not actually a new coaching-staff concept. Brett Favre was brought along by ex-quarterback Mike Holmgren's coaching staff that included ex-quarterback Steve Mariucci in the actual job of quarterbacks coach and ex-quarterback Jon Gruden as an offensive assistant.

While not precisely the same thing, the Bears had a form of that structure in place for Trubisky last year: Dowell Loggains as offensive coordinator, Dave Ragone as quarterbacks coach and Mark Sanchez as a quarterback “assistant.”

No easy conclusions were there on Monday beyond a commitment to building a staff that can build around Trubisky.

“I don’t want to paint ourselves in a corner,” Pace said of possible search parameters. “We’re looking for the best coach; best character, best leadership. So I don’t want to paint ourselves into offense or defense. It’s going to be a broad, thorough search.”

By a committee.

GM Ryan Pace grateful for contract extension but knows 'I have to do a better job'

GM Ryan Pace grateful for contract extension but knows 'I have to do a better job'

While the immediate attention is necessarily riveted on the candidates for and process of selecting the 16th head coach in franchise history, the underlying and more intense glare now turns to Ryan Pace, the first-time general manager hired to be the architect of a franchise turnaround that failed to materialize under the coaching of John Fox.

Pace’s was a situation with some complexity for the organization, specifically with respect to contracts. Pace finished the 2017 with two years remaining on his contract but was now moving into a search for a coach who will come with a minimum of a four-year contract, possibly five depending on the market and the coach’s pedigree.

Accordingly, President Ted Phillips announced an extension of Pace’s contract through the 2021 season, a contract extension for a general manager with a 14-34 record – the same mark that got his head coach fired.

The extension does send a message of continuity and stability to prospective coaching candidates, who can now conclude that their boss has the backing of his bosses. “To know that the organization is behind the general manager is important,” Phillips said.

The Bears have had GM-coach contracts out of phase in the past and it has created issues, though more typically where the coach is in place when a new GM is hired. Jerry Angelo inherited Dick Jauron in 2001, was expected to dismiss Jauron after that season, only to have the Bears surprise the NFL (and Angelo) with a 13-3 playoff season that effectively forced Angelo to extend Jauron in what proved to be some of the most acrimonious Bears negotiations of the last quarter-century.

Angelo was fired in 2012, leaving coach Lovie Smith in place for incoming GM Phil Emery. Emery summarily fired Smith after a 10-6 season because of continuing failure to reach the postseason.

Pace said the decision on Fox was not finalized until late Sunday night, in the aftermath of the loss at Minnesota. The move was clearly an emotional one for Pace, whose relationship with the veteran head coach was very good, beginning with Pace making the trip to Denver for the second 2015 hiring interview with Fox.

And Pace did not scapegoat or dump the failures of the past three years on Fox.

“I point the finger at myself as well,” Pace said. “But I feel good about where we are, better than I felt at this time last year,” adding “I have to do a better job

Tough eval

Fox correctly characterized the NFL as a results-based business. Pace’s results have been the concurrent with Fox’s, each making notable mistakes on the way to compiling one of the worst three-year marks in franchise history.

The full effect of Pace’s personnel acquisitions is difficult to fully assess if only because of significant injuries to two of the three most important additions of his regime, a tenure that has seen some three dozen players on injured reserve by the ends of the last two seasons.

“[The injury wave] is something that’s occurred for three consecutive years,” Pace said, noting that efforts had been made to change the strength, conditioning and nutrition aspects of the Bears’ program. “It’s something we’ve got to get on top of.”

In the cases of the top picks, these are unequivocally the foundation players for a franchise and the Bears have not seen the return from them, through no fault of the players:

Wide receiver Kevin White, No. 7-overall pick of the 2015 draft, who has just 5 starts, 21 catches and three broken bones in three years to show for his three NFL seasons. If there is anything encouraging it is that White has averaged 4 catches per game, respectable for someone who missed their entire rookie season; and… .

Linebacker Leonard Floyd, No. 9-overall pick of the 2016 draft, who missed games at three different times in his rookie season, which ended with a concussion in game 15, and went on IR this season and missed the final six games with a knee injury. “I’m doing good,” Floyd said on Monday. “I’ve got a good rehab process planned out. I plan on sticking to it and getting back.”

Pace now will be drafting in the top 10 (he traded up from 11 to 9 to grab Floyd) for the fourth straight year. This guarantees and means nothing in terms of talent acquisition, except that there hasn’t been enough of it. The Detroit Lions had top-10 picks for six straight years (2002-07), six years amid a run of 10 straight seasons with losing records.

High-dollar mistakes

Curiously, Pace has enjoyed more success in his three drafts than in his three years of work in free agency, even though his background is more on the pro-personnel side. “It’s not a business where there is a 90-percent success rate,” Phillips said, mentioning 60 percent as perhaps a more realistic standard.

On Pace’s watch, the Bears have committed tens of millions of dollars on free agents who, for reasons of age, simple performance, injury, fit or whatever, failed to deliver play levels even remotely close to value for the money. Foremost among them and their (guarantees):

Marcus Cooper, CB ($8 million) – opening-day starter, injured, lost starting job, notable for slowing down short of end zone vs. Pittsburgh and being overtaken.

Mike Glennon, QB ($18.5 million) – former Tampa Bay backup, lost starting job after four games, never took another ’17 snap. “With the quarterback position, I have no regrets in us being aggressive in attacking that position; it’s that important,” Pace said. “We all felt confident in Mike and sometimes in our business, things don’t work out. There’s a lot of factors involved. But fortunately for us, being aggressive at that position, in essence we took two swings.”

Pernell McPhee, OLB ($15.5 million) – No. 1 UFA target in ’15, impact player but could not get beyond knee, shoulder injuries, started just 17 games, 14 total sacks in 3 seasons.

Antrel Rolle, S ($4.9 million) – started 7 games, zero INT’s, 1 pass defensed, swore revenge on Bears after 2016 release but no one signed him.

Dion Sims, TE ($10 million) – 15 receptions, 180 yards and 1 TD in 14 starts; roster decision in Mar. when $4 million of $6 million ’18 base becomes guaranteed.

Pace and lead negotiator Joey Laine have been credited for doing a number of one-year, “prove it” deals (e.g., CB Prince Amukamara, K Connor Barth, DL John Jenkins, WR Kendall Wright). But if the best thing you can say about a contract is that it is relatively easy to get out of, the inescapable conclusion also is that you have not done that deal with anyone who qualifies as a building block for your franchise.

“Free agency is high risk and we understand that,” Pace said. “As we continue to build more through the draft, we can become more selective in free agency.”