Bears

OK, Bears GM Ryan Pace is NFL EOTY for ’18 – but what is he really up to now?

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USA Today

OK, Bears GM Ryan Pace is NFL EOTY for ’18 – but what is he really up to now?

What did Bears GM Ryan Pace know, and when did he know it?

And what is he really, really up to now?

Because a gnawing suspicion is that Pace has positioned the Bears to make NFL news again when the inevitable surprise cut is made closer to the end of training camps and the start of the season. Pace had the Bears in position to move on a Pro Bowl guard (Josh Sitton) when Green Bay released him at that point of the 2016 offseason. Pace had the Bears positioned to move on Khalil Mack late last preseason. And he presumably did not restructure the contracts of Mack and defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, pushing cap hits totaling $3 million annually into years 2020-2022 just to give capologist Joey Laine some math practice.

The Bears general manager was named the NFL’s Executive of the Year over the weekend after a season that produced the second-biggest jump in win total (seven games, from five to 12) in the history of the NFL’s charter franchise, topped only by the eight-game bump from five in 2000 to 13 in 2001 under the late Mark Hatley.

But that was a long time ago, in NFL years, the past being for cowards and losers and all that. And so is 2018, for that matter. It’s what’s percolating now that becomes the interesting part of this time leading up to the 2019 season.

The reasons for the EOTY award were pretty simple. Pace hired rookie head coach Matt Nagy to replace John Fox. Then he put the Bears squarely on a win-right-now footing when he mortgaged a significant piece of the franchise’s future by trading away two No. 1 draft choices eight days before the season for rush-linebacker Mack.

What was intriguing about the Mack deal, which in one epic strike effectively replaced the entire sack/forced fumble production (14-1/2; three) lost in free agency to that point, was that Pace had known for weeks that Mack and the Oakland Raiders were having serious contract problems. Best suspicion is that Pace had gotten a whiff of the Oakland mess even before that, which is hugely to his credit.

So what is he up to now? Who does he suspect is going to (yet?) come available? And has he been stashing and keeping his powder dry for a move for, say, a Ndamukong Suh or Muhammad Wilkerson in the unfortunate case of an injury to Goldman or Akiem Hicks, for instance? The Bears dodged injury nightmares last season but Pace knows too well not having quality fills for a Pernell McPhee or Willie Young can do.

What a difference a year makes

In the meantime, the EOTY award does come with some of those ironic chuckles looking back at what problems conspired to make Pace a decided non-exec of the year for his 14-34 previous three years. What a difference a year indeed makes.

Pace in the 2017 offseason outbid himself for Mike Glennon, paying $18.5 million for four games of quarterback. Pace of course is hardly the only one misguessing on Glennon. The Arizona Cardinals signed him for $8 million over 2018-19, then cut him two weeks ago and are carrying $3 million in dead cap after a 3-13 season in which they skipped over him and went straight from Sam Bradford to rookie Josh Rosen, then fired their head coach after one year.

Pace’s 2017 included defensive backs Quintin Demps and Marcus Cooper on top of receiver Markus Wheaton, tight end Dion Sims and a revolving door at kicker (Connor Barth, Mike Nugent, Cairo Santos) and then on to Cody Parkey.

But two bigger points fold into any evaluation of Pace, more significant than the so-so record in free agency and beyond the Mack deal.

First, Pace has produced one of the NFL’s best hit rates in the draft, even folding in a shaky start in 2015 that produced Goldman, Adrian Amos and little else (Kevin White, Hroniss Grasu, Jeremy Langford, Tayo Fabuluge). Pace’s last three drafts have yielded more than a dozen starters on offense, defense and special teams. Four of his top five picks last year (Roquan Smith, James Daniels, Anthony Miller, Bilal Nichols) were regular or rotational starters, and the fifth (Joel Iyiegbuuniwe) tied for team high in special-teams tackles.

And second, Pace has established himself as having an aptitude for recognizing talent in a head coach. This second point takes in more than Nagy. Fox wasn’t necessarily forced on Pace, but the GM’s first choice was then-Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who was hired by Atlanta and had the Falcons in the Super Bowl two seasons later and in the divisional round his third season. Pace went along with the hiring of Fox in 2015 when the organization, using consultant Ernie Accorsi’s referral services, agreeing to a bridge coach with a record for turnarounds and who ostensibly brought a veteran perspective under which Pace could learn. Neither Fox nor Pace worked out for three years but the organization gambled on continuity at the higher position.

Pace also made do with Jay Cutler as his quarterback for two seasons. While George McCaskey said at the outset of Pace’s tenure that the Bears Chairman would not impose personnel directives on Pace based on money, the organization was not unhappy that Pace did not choose to eat the massive guaranteed money remaining on Cutler’s deal from Phil Emery and go all-in trading up for Marcus Mariota in ’15.

All that was then; this is now. But what is next is the bigger question.

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Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

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USA TODAY

Finding the 'It Factor' – Teams pondering draft mega-deals need to study Bears’ hits, misses trading No. 1’s

At some point of Thursday’s first night of the draft, history says that some team will push a big pile of draft chips over in front of another team at the NFL table in return for the latter’s pick. Some of those will work out; others will be considerably less than successful.

Just ask the Bears. Ask them why some of those mega-deals work and others don’t.

Last year it was Arizona trading up from No. 15 to Oakland’s spot at No. 10, taking quarterback Josh Rosen. The deal netted little, unless you believe that the NFL’s worst record and this year’s No. 1-overall pick count for something.

In 2017 it was the Bears going all-in for a one-spot move and Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears at least cashed one playoff check. Kansas City traded two No. 1’s and a 3 to move from 27 to 10 for Patrick Mahomes. Two slots later Houston traded two No. 1’s to move from No. 25 to 12 for Deshaun Watson.

The Bears, Chiefs and Texans all cashed playoff checks last offseason.

In 2016 the Rams traded up from 15 to No. 1 overall for Jared Goff. Philadelphia jumped from No. 8 to No. 2 for Carson Wentz. Both teams were in the 2017 and 2018 postseason, the Rams in the last Super Bowl.

In the might’ve-been category, Bears general manager Ryan Pace pondered a move from No. 7 to No. 2 in 2015 in a quest for Marcus Mariota but judged the price too steep.

The Cardinals’ Rosen gamble and the Bears’ for Trubisky – plus three other Bears mega-deals – offer case studies on the do’s and don’t’s of blockbuster trades involving top draft picks.

Three times in the past decade, and once 10-plus years before that, the Bears rocked the NFL with franchise-altering trades for what they hoped would be franchise-defining talents. Twice they appear to have gotten what they bargained for; twice, not so much, for intriguingly similar reasons.

These deals form a collective object lesson for teams (Oakland? Arizona?) contemplating the kinds of trades this week that the Bears made that brought them Jay Cutler, Khalil Mack, Rick Mirer and Mitchell Trubisky. Only the Bears-49ers deal that secured Trubisky represented a specifically draft-weekend trade; Cutler happened 10 years ago, ahead of the 2009 draft, Mirer was moved in February 1997 for a Bears No. 1 and Mack was a late-preseason deal.

But the four together serve as a collective trail of breadcrumbs regarding what is typically the difference between those kinds of blockbusters working out vs. blowing up on the acquiring team, in those cases the Bears, this draft, someone else.

Finding “It”

The critical element is, pure and simple, football character. It’s not talent. It’s the “It Factor.”

“The competitiveness, a guy playing with, we call it ‘dog’ or energy or swagger, those kinds of things,” Pace said. “There's more specific things I don't want to get to, but I would just say you can feel a guy's football character on tape and we're really strong on that.”

Mack and Trubisky have that essential football character, the “It Factor;” Cutler and Mirer didn’t. And the results reflected it.

The Cleveland Browns snagged “undersized” quarterback but leadership-heavy Baker Mayfield and improved by seven wins last season and by four prime-time games going into this one. Irrespective of any trade situations here, the Browns, like the Bears, can vouch for what happens without “It” – Johnny Manziel, Brandon Weeden, Brady Quinn.

Cutler, Mirer: leadership-lite

If there is a jolting difference that sticks out, it is that Pace very clearly has made football character a priority (Mike Glennon notwithstanding). Others haven’t.

Those inside Halas Hall at the time recall the personnel staff asking for evaluations of Cutler by the coaching staff. Those were done and included prescient, serious reservations about Cutler’s leadership and personality.

Those were disregarded by the dealmakers as not significant. They were. Cutler's Chicago teammates said all the right things about him, even as he was shoving one offensive lineman coming off the field, told another to shut up and play his own position at another point and was telling one position coach, on the practice field, to back off his fundamentals.

Cutler took a Lovie Smith team that reached the 2005 postseason behind Kyle Orton and the 2006 Super Bowl with Rex Grossman, and missed the playoffs four of his five Smith years, then in both of his Marc Trestman years and both of his John Fox years. Grossman and Orton were a combined 40-24 in Chicago. Cutler was 51-51.

Cutler simply wasn’t worth what the Bears gave up for him. It seemed obvious at the time (certain commentators who will remain nameless here were roasted for saying so at the time) and it proved out. He was in Chicago exactly what he’d been in Denver. He was the same middling quarterback with suspect “weapons” as he was with Pro Bowl’ers Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, behind an offensive line that included Jermon Bushrod and Kyle Long, both Pro Bowl players.

Mirer was a disaster after the Bears chose to ignore his dismal four years with the Seattle Seahawks and give away. Mirer seemed perceptibly overmatched by the game when he was given three starts in ’97, all losses. He had no confidence and, worse, inspired none.

On the other hand, Mack and Trubisky… 

A rookie Trubisky told veteran Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton to shut up in a 2017 huddle (no one is supposed to talk in there except the quarterback), which Sitton respected and recounted. Not the same thing as embarrassing or disrespecting. Head coach Matt Nagy on more than one occasion last season made mention of Trubisky’s reactions to adversity and mistakes.

Football character. There is something to be said about a rookie quarterback who earns a complimentary nickname – “Pretty Boy Assassin" – from the defense for what he was doing to them running scout team. The defense’s nickname for Cutler doesn’t clear NBC censorship standards.

Mack brought with him from Oakland not only sacks, but also a mindset that took root in and resonated with an already-strong defensive unit.

“When you bring a guy like Khalil in,” Pace said, “I think the longer you’re around him, it’s not just the player, it’s his work ethic and it’s his professionalism and it’s everything he is as a person. And to have your best player be absolutely one of your harder workers is a great thing to have as a franchise.”

Football character.

The unfortunate reality is that character is harder to assess than talent. But as a handful of Bears transactions involving all-important high-round draft choices (and quarterbacks) have repeatedly demonstrated, arm strength, size, 40-times, all that stuff, don’t make up for a missing “It” factor if that targeted player doesn’t have “It.”

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SportsTalk Live Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Robbie Gould continues to toy with Bears fans... is a potential deal in sight?

0:00 - The Cubs crush the Dodgers as El Mago puts on another show at Wrigley. Meanwhile, is the bullpen the biggest reason why they are above .500?

5:00 - One day away from the NFL Draft. Is Kyler Murray a lock to be the #1 pick. Will the Bears move up to the 2nd round?

8:00 - Robbie Gould continues to dominate the conversation with Bears fans. Hub gives his insight on a potential deal.

10:00 - Frank Thomas and Chuck Garfien join the panel to talk White Sox. They discuss when the top prospects should get called up and if now is the time for the Southsiders to add veterans like Craig Kimbrel or Dallas Keuchel.

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Sports Talk Live Podcast

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Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Bears.