PHOENIX – Where the relationship between Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox goes beyond 2017 remains to play out with their third season together. At this point, however, despite a combined total of nine wins over their first two, the critical bond between coach and general manager appears both clear and solid.
Which is no small state of affairs with the growing pressure on both and the organization, pressure that will only intensify if the on-field fortunes of their team does not begin to dramatically reverse. And both know it. Losing doesn't build character, it reveals it, and the same applies to a relationship; if there are cracks, adversity of the kind the Bears have endured the past 32 games will widen and expose them.
That relationship has been the subject of speculation virtually since its inception, when Pace hired Fox following the end of his tenure with the Denver Broncos. Much of it centered around who was in fact making the final decisions on personnel and who was the advisor, with some positing that Fox was in fact the final authority if only because age, seniority and experience. The primacy of Pace, however, has become clearer with each decision and traces or shadings of any fractiousness are conspicuously absent.
"His people skills are tremendous," Fox said Tuesday during the NFL owners meetings. "His evaluation skills are very good. I think humility is always a great quality in this business. And I've seen that. He's the same guy. He hasn't changed. Sometimes people get [elevated] positions, whatever position that may be and they change. It's just how some people react. And I haven't seen that."
Pace, who recently turned 40, is by his own description wanting buy-in on decisions. In the cases of free agency, which have involved the high-dollar commitments designed to have immediate payoff, he has identified pro targets and involved Fox in the decisions.
Looking for an immediate hit at linebacker to upgrade the entire defense about this time last year, Pace targeted Denver leading-tackler Danny Trevathan. Fox was his first consult.
"Just having drafted [Trevathan] and seeing him develop and get better and his work ethic and his preparation and study habits and how he is as a teammate in the locker room," Pace said of what insight Fox provided. "Those were all things that were taken into consideration."
This year, with the max need of improvement, the franchise-grade decision was to make a change at quarterback. Jay Cutler effectively made the decision on himself and he was out. Whether Mike Glennon is or is not an upgrade will play out this year, but Fox was involved in and endorsed the decision to go in a decidedly less-experienced direction.
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Pace had attempted in the past to trade for Glennon, which Fox agreed with. Fox had familiarity with Glennon from his time coaching in Carolina.
"I was in North Carolina when [Glennon] was playing [at N.C. State], actually," Fox recalled. "I was exposed to two guys there. A good friend of mine was the head coach at NC State. Both Russell Wilson and Mike Glennon were coming through at that period in time, so I got exposed to them, watching games and kinda following them.
"And obviously evaluating both of them coming out, they were in different schools then. So I had a high opinion of them then. And then really [Glennon] was talked about a little bit before this year as a potential guy to get, and then this year, being free and without any kind of compensation, we dove in pretty good and feel good about it."
Most expectations are that the Bears will not repeat a three-win season, and that an improvement from the first two years keeps both Pace and Fox in their jobs. Key players (Trevathan, Eddie Goldman, Kyle Long, Kevin White) returning from injuries, free-agency upgrades on both sides of the ball and a draft class currently with two picks in the first 36 point to perhaps the kind of turnaround Fox has produced (in years two) at Carolina and Denver.
Fox did not dwell on what the roster was or wasn't when he arrived, or on how much of an overhaul Pace needed to do when he took over from Phil Emery and brought in Fox to replace Marc Trestman. But the reality was there.
"Going back to a lot of the changes, we've had a lot of change," Fox said. "I think we're better for it. Unfortunately, you can't walk around with your chest out about that because of our record the last two years. But I have total confidence and [Pace] has done an outstanding job and will continue to.
"I understand you have to win. And I finally feel like we're in striking distance."