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Hoge: McCaskey, Phillips must learn from past mistakes

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Just a little over 10 years ago, Chicago Bears president Ted Phillips made the bold decision to fire then-general manager Jerry Angelo, who had held his position for 11 seasons, while winning four division tiles and an NFC title. 

A decade has gone by and the Bears are in a worse position, except for that they might have a golden ticket in quarterback Justin Fields. 

But that will depend on if Fields is put in the right position to have success, which means the Bears can’t afford to screw this up again. Over the last decade, Phillips and chairman George McCaskey have now been a part of three general manager searches and four head coach searches.

Mistakes have been made — many of them.

The key this time will be to learn from those mistakes. With that in mind, here’s a look at what went wrong with the Chicago Bears’ last five interview cycles and what they must do differently this time around:

2012: GM Phil Emery

The biggest mistake was firing Angelo — the architect of the Bears’ most recent run of success — without knowing they could do better. The Bears were just a year removed from the NFC Championship Game and were 7-3 in 2011 before quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte suffered injuries. George McCaskey had just taken over as the team’s new chairman the prior spring, but he made it perfectly clear it was Phillips who fired Angelo: “It was Ted’s decision,” he said.

The Bears did not cast a wide net in their search for a replacement and Phillips would not allow the new general manager to fire head coach Lovie Smith. Only five candidates were interviewed and the two finalists were Chiefs director of college scouting Phil Emery and Patriots director of pro personnel Jason Licht, who eight years later would sign Tom Brady as a free agent and win a Super Bowl as GM of the Buccaneers. 

 

Emery got the job, and a few months later he drafted Shea McClellin — who wasn’t a fit in Smith’s defense — in the first round, a sign of things to come.

2013: HC Marc Trestman

While Phillips wouldn’t let the new GM fire Smith after an 8-8 season, he allowed it after a 10-6 season in 2012. Granted, the Bears missed the playoffs for the fifth time in six years and they had struggled to beat the Green Bay Packers since Aaron Rodgers took over as quarterback.

But what happened next was one of the worst decisions in the history of the Chicago Bears: hiring Marc Trestman from the Canadian Football League instead of Bruce Arians, the reigning NFL Coach of the Year. 

Emery was a huge believer in Cutler and that drove his quest for the next head coach. He interviewed at least one candidate that wanted to get rid of Cutler completely, but Trestman’s vision for the quarterback matched Emery’s, which clouded the reality that Arians was clearly the most qualified man for the job. 

Trestman only lasted two years in Chicago and flamed out in spectacular fashion during a 5-11 season in 2014, while Arians had instant success in Arizona and left as the Cardinals’ winningest head coach.

2015: GM Ryan Pace

McCaskey’s first four years as chairman could not have gone worse, with the Bears now facing a complete teardown and the next GM getting strapped with the inexplicable 7-year, $126 million ($54 million guaranteed) contract Emery gave Cutler. McCaskey even admitted his mother, Virginia, was upset.

"She's pissed off,” McCaskey said. “I can't think of a 91-year-old woman that that description would apply, but in this case, I can't think of a more accurate description.”

This time, McCaskey got more involved in the search process with Phillips and hired longtime NFL executive Ernie Accorsi as a consultant. 

Once again, the Bears failed to make the obvious hire. Most identified Chiefs director of player personnel Chris Ballard as the most qualified candidate, especially because he was just two years removed from a decade-long stint with the Bears as a scout. That turned out to hurt him. He knew the organization’s weaknesses, and witnessed the mistakes made in 2011 and 2012 before leaving for Kansas City. Cutler was not his preference at quarterback and Ballard wanted to see a reshuffling at the top of the organization that would result in the GM not reporting Phillips. 

The Bears hired Ryan Pace instead. 

2015: HC John Fox

Pace came with glowing reviews from Saints GM Mickey Loomis and head coach Sean Payton, having worked his way up from an intern to New Orleans’ director of player personnel. He was qualified for the job, but he was also 37 years old and willing to work with McCaskey, Phillips and Accorsi on the ensuing head coach hire. Perhaps scarred by Emery's hire of Trestman, the trio insisted on being heavily involved in the head coach hire.

 

Thus, when John Fox sprung loose from Denver after a surprising divisional round playoff exit, Pace was heavily influenced by Accorsi -- a longtime friend of Fox's -- and shifted his attention away from his own favorites, one of which was Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. Pace flew out to Denver with his wife and had dinner with Fox and his wife, and came around on the idea of quickly hiring Fox in Chicago. 

It didn’t take long for Pace and Fox to realize what they had gotten into — a full-blown rebuild. While McCaskey and Phillips had publicly stated they thought the Bears could win quickly, Pace had no choice but to teardown the roster and build it back up. Like Ballard, he wasn’t a believer in Cutler, but was stuck with the quarterback for two more seasons before he could realistically get out of the contract. 

The forced marriage with Fox was awkward and led to a disconnect when Pace fixated on Mitchell Trubisky in 2017 NFL Draft. The Bears never won more than six games in a season from 2015-17.

2018: HC Matt Nagy

Phillips rewarded Pace with a two-year extension and indicated the GM would have the power to hire his own head coach this time. Simultaneously, Phillips and McCaskey also insisted on being involved in the interview process, saying that they would be “support resources for Ryan.”

In the end, Pace was able to hire his guy, opting for Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy over Josh McDaniels, John DeFilippo, Pat Shurmur, George Edwards and Vic Fangio. Pace knew Nagy would be a target in Indianapolis, where Ballard was the GM, and he moved quickly to close the deal once the Chiefs were ousted from of the playoffs. 

Like with Emery’s search for a head coach in 2013, Pace’s search focused on the pairing with Trubisky. Targeting a trusted assistant of Andy Reid’s — especially with Doug Pederson having success in Philadelphia — made sense, but the offense never worked out in Chicago.

So what is there to learn?

The Bears have tried many different approaches and they’ve all yielded poor results. McCaskey has gradually reduced Phillips’ say — or at least made it publicly look that way — as the new GM will now report directly to the chairman, as Ballard suggested seven years ago. 

But because no one at Halas Hall is qualified to lead a GM search, the Bears were once again forced to bring in another advisor. The good news is, you can do a lot worse than Bill Polian as an advisor, who coincidentally was fired by the Colts the day before Angelo was fired by the Bears and this whole mess started. Meanwhile, Soup Campbell and Tanesha Wade will be better “support resources” in the room than Phillips and McCaskey could have been for Pace four years ago.

 

The key this time will be to make sure there are no forced marriages between the new GM and head coach. The Bears are conducting the interviews simultaneously, which is OK as long as the pairing is also made simultaneously. That means finding a fit between the GM and head coach, but making sure the GM is completely comfortable with the head coach without a heavy influence from Polian.

And while there is still a ton of optimism about Fields, the new GM can't focus too much on an offensive pairing between the new head coach and the quarterback. The Bears need a good leader with a clear identity for the organization first.

In many of these previous cases, the Bears did not cast a wide net. They appear to be rectifying that this time around, with 11 GM interviews and nine head coach interviews already requested as of Thursday afternoon. But with that wide net, McCaskey and Phillips must be open to criticism, both with the roster and the organization. They need to accept that what they’ve done over the last decade hasn’t worked.

Frankly, the person they hire as GM will probably have a better plan for the team/franchise than they do. If they can accept that, they might just make the right hire this time.

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