Bears general manager Ryan Pace was excited but also a little dubious when the Packers surprisingly cut Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton on Saturday. It’s not often a 30-year-old, three-time Pro Bowl player seemingly in his prime is cut after being a second-team All-Pro selection the previous season.
It was a terrific opportunity for a Bears team struggling to build an offensive line. But it almost seemed too good to be true. The Packers don’t many many big mistakes. Did GM Ted Thompson know something the Bears did not?
“That’s the first thing that pops into your head,” Pace said Monday at Halas Hall. “‘This guy is talented. We’re watching every single game from last season and watching him play at an extremely high level. Hey, what’s going on here, man? What are the reasons?’”
Every move Pace makes is a test of his ability to evaluate talent and his intuition about players. But while cutting Matt Slauson and drafting Cody Whitehair is one level, splurging on Josh Sitton — who signed a three-year contract for a reported $21.75 million, inluding $10 million guaranteed — is at a much higher one. With linebacker Pernell McPhee (five-years, $38.75 million, $15.5 million guaranteed) on the physically unable to perform list and Kevin White missing his rookie season with a stress fracture, Pace needs to start hitting some home runs. Is Josh Sitton for real? Pace’s personnel staff, his medical staff and his own intuition has convinced him he is.
“You’ve got to do a ton of research on these things, coupled with meeting the player and feeling his personality and getting the medical report,” Pace said.
“But that’s a question you ask yourself. This is a good player that’s getting released a week before the season. I have a lot of respect for [the Packers] organization. They’ve been a highly successful franchise, so everybody makes decisions internally for what they feel is best and I’m sure that’s what they did. But we did all our research and felt good about it.”
Sitton has had back issues that have limited him in practice — though not prevented him from playing games. He dropped weight in the offseason, from the 325-300 range to a listed 318, to help avoid further injury problems.
“We went through all that yesterday and it was a thorough process,” Pace said. “Obviously we wouldn’t have signed him if there were major concerns. So we felt OK about it.”
Once those concerns were alleviated, Pace and the Bears stepped up to make it happen, with an aggressive contract offer that quickly ended the process almost as soon as it started. Sitton had other offers. But Bears coach John Fox, the potential of a young team, the chance to stay in the NFC North, play on grass and play in a northern climate — you’ve got to love a guy from Pensacola, Fla. who loves the cold weather — were all lures to sign with the Bears. And the Bears seemed to get a break by being the team closest to Sitton’s home in Green Bay.
“I wanted to get the decision made [Sunday or Monday],” Sitton said. “I wanted to get to … be able to jump right in this week and learn the offense. The longer it took, the harder it would have been to learn the offense. Chicago, they had me in first, and they got it done.”
That the Bears are the Packers rival was coincidental.
“It’s all really a business decision,” Sitton said Monday in the Bears’ locker room. “It didn’t have anything to do with sticking it to the Packers. I don’t have any vendetta against Green Bay. I’m not really like that.”
If Sitton can stay as healthy as a Bear as he did as a Packer — no sure thing, given the Bears’ injury luck — he helps solidify a Bears offensive line that has been in flux since Fox got here. Sitton will be plugged in at left guard, with rookie Cody Whitehair moving to center. You already can see the residual benefits. Last week, Whitehair was playing left guard between Charles Leno and Ted Larsen. On Sunday against the Texans, he could be playing between Sitton and Kyle Long, who have six Pro Bowl berths between them.
And the signing of Sitton has invigorated the offensive line and the offense.
“I think it shows that we want to win. It’s an exciting time,” Long said. “At the beginning of the year when I think about guys I’ve got to beat out to be the [best] guy, No. 71 is usually one of the two or three guys that I circle. Now he’s on our team. It’s a great thing for our group. I know Jay Cutler probably appreciates it.”