Nearly fifty years ago, Dick Butkus delivered a challenge to George Halas.
“I said, ‘you know something, coach, I really don’t think you want to win here,’” Butkus recalled at the Bears100 Celebration in 2019. “And he got up and I thought he was going to take a poke at me. ‘What’d you say?’ (I said) ‘I don’t think you wanna win here.’
“I says, ‘who’s in the Super Bowl?’ He said, ‘oh Dallas and Miami’ or something. And I said, ‘two god damn expansion teams, when we should be there.’ And he sat down, and that was the end of the conversation.”
I wonder how chairman George McCaskey would take a similar challenge from a franchise legend.
Do the Bears really want to win a Super Bowl?
Or does McCaskey just want to be surrounded by people – president Ted Phillips, general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy – who he likes?
Because keeping the status quo in 2021 will put the Bears farther from winning the franchise’s second Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s quick to say, ‘Well, what is needed here is a major overhaul,’ and sometimes that’s the right answer and other times it isn’t,” McCaskey said. “We think the right answer at this time is continuity.”
That continuity comes with conditions, though. The Bears, under Pace and Nagy’s watch, must show progress in 2021. McCaskey and Phillips said there’s not a magic win total the Bears need to reach next year for the general manager and coach to keep their jobs (and keeping their jobs likely would come with contract extensions).
The message is clear: Improve next season or you’re both fired.
But to not be fired after a 2020 season that showed no tangible improvement aside from backing into the playoffs with a .500 record, Pace and Nagy likely presented a quarterback plan to McCaskey and Phillips – one that convinced them that, no, actually, this is finally the time we’re going to get it right.
That plan is likely an aggressive one. Pace and Nagy aren’t going to save their jobs by sitting back and taking the fifth or sixth-best quarterback with the 20th overall pick in April’s draft. They’re not going to save their jobs by diving into the free agent scrap heap to pair a cheap veteran with a cheap veteran in Nick Foles.
They’re not going to save their jobs by running it back with Mitch Trubisky.
No, they’re going to try to save their jobs by sacrificing future resources for immediate progress. No matter what Pace said today.
“Every decision I make, it's the right thing for the franchise,” Pace said. “That's just how we operate. That's just natural. And so that's what will go into it. It's not going to be thinking short-term. It's always thinking, what's best for the Bears.
“That's in every move that we make, and that's how Matt and I will attack this. There will be a number of ways we can go about it. Again, everything is on the table and we just finished the season, but it's always what's best for the team and that's long term.”
But getting aggressive means Pace and Nagy will have a nearly impossible needle to thread.
Trade up for a quarterback? You can’t address your offensive line with a top pick when you’ll need at least one better tackle. Sign an expensive veteran quarterback? You can’t pay Allen Robinson what he feels like he deserves.
An aggressive play to land a quarterback will close the other doors the Bears need to build a structure around that quarterback. Who’s going to protect Trey Lance? Who’s Jimmy Garoppolo going to throw to? How, exactly, will any of this work with a pittance of cap space and a low first round pick?
(The Bears can create cap space, of course, but doing so by restructuring contracts/offering extensions would push more money deeper into the 2020s, tying more players to Chicago for longer, and potentially creating more headaches for whoever the coach/GM are in 2022, 2023, 2024, etc.)
And that doesn’t even get into Pace’s failed history with identifying the right quarterback. Mike Glennon was a punchline in football circles. Pace couldn’t settle for two generational quarterbacks, so he traded up to draft Trubisky. Foles was one of the worst starters in the NFL when he played this year.
“It’s the entire body of work,” McCaskey said when reminded of Pace’s whiffs on quarterbacks. “Those are significant decisions, of course. And that’s part of the evaluation process. We just feel confident going into the offseason that Matt and Ryan can do what’s necessary to get the players we need to be successful.”
So theBears need to fix their quarterback problem, but Pace is the guy to do it because he’s found gems like Darnell Mooney? That’s what I heard there.
In the past, Pace has taken the “do what’s necessary” directive to burn future draft picks to get Leonard Floyd, Trubisky, Anthony Miller and David Montgomery. He’s done what’s necessary to trade for Foles (and, to be fair, Khalil Mack) and sign Robert Quinn, Danny Trevathan, Eddie Jackson and others to contracts that tie those underperforming players to Chicago for a few more years.
This is all pointing toward another all-in offseason for Pace. He’ll have been pushed there by McCaskey and Phillips’ directive to show improvement or get out.
“When we show improvements, contacts will take care of themselves,” Phillips said.
And that’s a directive that’s going to lead the Bears into a bleak, barren wasteland of football for a good chunk of this decade.
Get ready to live through the John Fox era 2.0.
Not in the sense that Fox will be the Bears’ coach again. But in the sense that the Bears, in deciding the most significant organizational change they needed to make after a disappointing 2020 season was allowing the defensive coordinator to retire, will slide further into mediocrity and irrelevancy. The moves Pace will be charged with making this offseason have the potential to set this franchise back for years.
This is not the universe in which the Chicago Bears, a franchise with too many legends, too many championships and too much pride, should be.
“There’s no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t be in the run all the time,” Butkus said. “I know you lose draft choices or whatever when you finish first all the time but how can you explain New England being up there all these years? That’s not right. The Bears should be the ones.”
Except they’re not. They haven’t been.
And in deciding on a path of continuity now, they’re setting themselves up to settle in for more mediocrity later.