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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