Bears

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

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AP

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.

5 free agents who fit with Bears, from Devonta Freeman to Damon Harrison

5 free agents who fit with Bears, from Devonta Freeman to Damon Harrison

The conventional wisdom with the Bears is Ryan Pace needs to improve depth at running back and defensive tackle ahead of training camp practices starting – finally – next week.

But reality played out a little different this week. The Bears reportedly signed defensive back Marqui Christian Tuesday, adding depth at safety and on special teams. He, essentially, replaces Jordan Lucas – who opted out of the 2020 season – on the Bears’ roster, even though kicker Ramiz Ahmed was cut to make room for him.

It makes sense. The Bears are tantalizingly close to actually seeing their 80-man roster in action, and displacing someone with a big-ish-name free agent might run counter to their plans. Once the Bears can get a look at some of those guys on their roster – like running back Artavis Pierce and defensive tackle John Jenkins – maybe they’ll look to make a move.

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Also: The Bears have about $17 million in cap space right now that can roll over to 2021, which would help offset what could be a $23 million drop in next year’s cap. It might not be a bad idea to save money now and avoid difficult cost-saving cuts later.

But if the Bears do try to pick off some of the more recognizable names available in free agency, these five players could make sense:

DT Damon “Snacks” Harrison

Eddie Goldman’s decision to opt out immediately led a lot of folks (myself included) to Google “Snacks Harrison free agency” to make sure he was still available. The good news: He is! The bad news: He’s reportedly contemplated retirement in the past, and the 32-year-old is thinking about getting into the podcast game…

… which is something someone might do when they’re expecting to have a lot of time on their hands, right?

Harrison had a down 2019 with the Detroit Lions and may not even want to get back into football amid the COVID-19 pandemic. If he does, though, the Bears should certainly consider signing him as a rotational veteran to help soften the blow of Goldman’s opt out.

DT Marcell Dareus

The 30-year-old Dareus only played in six games last year before a core injury ended his season. Listed at 6-foot-3, 331 pounds, Dareus might be the best fit to replace Goldman as an anchor of the Bears’ defensive line – so long as he’s healthy.

Dareus – the third player selected in 2011’s draft – did see his play drop off a bit in 2019 before his injury. Still, he’s an experienced and adept run-stuffer, the kind of guy who could help the Bears’ defense in base and sub packages next to Akiem Hicks.

RB Devonta Freeman

It feels weird that Freeman is still available in mid-August, but he’s an unfortunately perfect example of the short shelf life of running backs. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and 2016, ripping off consecutive 1,000-yard rushing years while amassing over 1,000 receiving yards and 27 total touchdowns.

His play tailed off in 2017, then was hit by injuries in 2018 and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 14 games last year. Freeman fired his agent this offseason and signed with Drew Rosenhaus, who said in July he was hoping to get him signed by the end of the month (https://twitter.com/AdamSchefter/status/1285726771816673287). You have to wonder if Freeman is asking for more money than teams would be willing to give him. Or, a possibility that would be smarter: Maybe he’s waiting to see if a team needs a No. 1 running back due to a training camp injury or positive COVID-19 test.

Either way, Freeman makes sense for the Bears in that he’d provide a veteran backup to David Montgomery. But do the Bears make sense to Freeman if he’s squarely behind Montgomery on the depth chart? Maybe not.

RB Spencer Ware

A more realistic option at running back, if the Bears want to add to that room, would be a guy in Ware with ties to Matt Nagy. The former Kansas City Chiefs running back had 921 rushing yards and 447 receiving yards in 2016, the first year Nagy was Andy Reid’s offensive coordinator.

MORE: Five things we've learned about Bears' rookies 

A brutal knee injury suffered in 2017’s preseason derailed Ware’s career, and he only played in three games last year after the Chiefs brought him back off the free agent scrap heap. The 28-year-old, though, has familiarity with Nagy’s scheme and could at least provide some much-needed veteran competition for Pierce and former undrafted free agent Ryan Nall.

PK Graham Gano

The Bears dumped Ahmed to make room for Christian, leaving Eddy Pineiro as the only kicker on the roster. Pace’s preference is to find a kicker for cheap after the Cody Parkey disaster, hence last year’s competition and a long leash with Pineiro.

But if Pineiro falters at all during camp, the Bears should probably find room on their 80-man roster for a kicker to compete with him. Gano might cost a little more, and the 33-year-old missed all of 2019 with an injury, but his strong leg and decade of experience would certainly push Pineiro – if not replace him.

 

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Bears waive kicker Ramiz Ahmed, ending kicker battle before it began

Bears waive kicker Ramiz Ahmed, ending kicker battle before it began

For now, Eddy Piñeiro can breath easy: 

You'll remember, the Bears brought Ahmed into the building back in mid-April. The kicker, who played his college ball at Nevada, went 15/20 on field goal attempts in his 2018 senior season. Ryan Pace and co. signed him to push Piñeiro, who had an up-and-down first season in Chicago. As JJ Stankevitz points out, the move likely has to do with the team's reported signing of a defensive back on Tuesday: 

As it stands now, Piñeiro's job is once again safe. For whatever it's worth, it sounds like Piñeiro, who struggled with distance last year, has put on some muscle this offseason. In a recent interview with media, Bears' special team's coordinator Chris Tabor had this to say: 

"I'm going to be honest with you, first day we went out and kicked -- and I hadn't seen him kick since the Minnesota game -- you're looking at a bigger, stronger Eddy Pineiro," he said. "I was very impressed. You could tell that he matured, he's really more comfortable." 

So good news, Bears fans: there will be no summer kicking battle this year. You can put the aspirin away.