George McCaskey walked Ryan Pace around Halas Hall, past the Lombardi Trophy and old footballs and memorabilia. During his general manager job interview in January 2015, Pace complimented the Bears chairman on the treasure trove of photos that captured the greatest moments in Bears history.
Then came the zinger.
“Most of the photographs are in black and white,” Pace told McCaskey.
McCaskey had the same thoughts for years, walking the hallways of the Bears offices. Old faces — players and family members and his grandfather, George Halas — stared back at him from a past era.
It was the truth, and McCaskey knew it. That’s why the Bears were looking for a new GM in the first place.
“I didn’t say this to him,” McCaskey said, “But I was thinking to myself, ‘When can you start?’”
In deciding to fire both Phil Emery and Marc Trestman at the same time, McCaskey staked his reputation on the performance of their replacements: Pace and the GM’s hand-picked head coach, John Fox. McCaskey, though, argues that’s not new.
“I feel a responsibility every day to my family, to the people in the building and to Bears fans,” McCaskey told the Sun-Times in a sit-down interview. “They deserve a winner.”
One season into the Pace and Fox era — the Bears open Sunday in Houston — McCaskey is confident in the direction of the team despite last year’s last-place finish.
“It’s more a vibe in the building than what you saw on the field last year,” he said. “Now we need the vibe in the building to translate into results on the field.”
Particularly, Soldier Field.
The Bears went 1-7 at home last year, the worst mark in franchise history, and lost all three divisional games at Soldier Field for the first time since the NFC North was created in 2002.
“You want to play well at home,” said McCaskey, whose team was outscored 45-7 in two preseason home losses last month. “That’s part of the formula. As Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame coach, used to say, ‘It’s simple but it’s not easy.’
“For me, the simple formula is to dominate at home, dominate your division and if you can play .500 ball on the road, you should be in the playoffs.
“We didn’t play well at home and we didn’t play well in our division.”
McCaskey said that “one of the great things about the NFL is you can go from a six-win team one team to a playoff team the next,” but, when asked for his realistic expectation for the Bears, hedged.
“You never know,” he said. “Injuries are such a big question mark. How are individual guys going to perform? How is the team going to come together? At what point are they going to come together? How are they going to handle adversity? Because there’s adversity every season.”
He’s excited for Kevin White to be paired alongside Alshon Jeffery, and to see how newcomers Danny Trevathan, Jerrell Freeman and Akiem Hicks bolster a defense three years removed from its franchise nadir.
“We’re going to be better up front,” he said. “I think we’ll do a better job of getting after the quarterback, and that says a lot about whatever success you’re going to have in a particular season.”
Still, success is a matter of a perspective. The last time the Bears finished above .500, in 2012, Lovie Smith got fired.
Fox and Pace improved the Bears from 5-11 mess that prompted the Bears’ housecleaning in 2014, but only by one game. They began a roster makeover, however, that figures to take at least another season to round into form.
On Opening Day 2014, the Bears were the third-oldest team in the NFL. Last year, they were the 19th-youngest. This season, they’re the 10th-youngest.
While McCaskey doesn’t like to portray those moves as a tear-down — “We don’t like rebuilding; we like building,” he said — only 14 players on the Bears’ 53-man roster were acquired by the previous regime.
Since Pace arrived, he’s parted with Pro Bowlers Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Jared Allen, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and, on Sunday, Robbie Gould.
“Robbie was a great Bear, a fan favorite, and rightly so,” McCaskey said. “He made so many clutch kicks, it’s hard to pick a favorite.”
He cited Gould’s 49-yarder to defeat the Seahawks in overtime, the first playoff victory of the team’s Super Bowl XLI run.
“My memories of Robbie will also be of him off the field,” he said. “He always found the young fan that wanted to be recognized or needed someone to talk to and he always made them feel special.”
Such turnover is “not pleasant when it’s happening,” McCaskey said, “but you understand it’s part of the process.” He is not involved in the Bears’ personnel decisions.
“That goes back to the autonomy you give your general manager or head coach,” he said. “My job in large measure is to stay out of the way. To be supportive when I can when necessary, to be a sounding board if that’s what they want me to be.
“But in terms of personnel decisions, I’m not involved — and Bears fans should feel very good about that.”
He’s been impressed with the man he hired to do just that. While Fox has lived up to his reputation as a player’s coach, Pace, he said, holds the same magnetism.
“Ryan, in many of the same ways, has whatever it is that people really respond to,” McCaskey said.
He first noticed that a year ago January, walking past black-and-white photos.
“We’re very proud of our history,” McCaskey said, “but we need to make it.”