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 ...
“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.