DECATUR — General manager Ryan Pace’s optimism on the eve of Bears training camp sounded awfully familiar. Almost too familiar.
“We know we have a lot of hard work ahead of us as we head into training camp,” Pace said. “We feel we have the right people in place, and we’re excited to get started.”
No matter how right it sounds, “the right people in place” will always strike a raw nerve in many longtime Bears fans who remember how Dave Wannstedt’s declaration that “all the pieces are in place” for a Super Bowl run in 1996 blew up in his face.
Wannstedt had the worst luck of any coach in recent Bears history. Though he’s ripped to this day for “all the pieces are in place,” it wasn’t as if John Fox had declared his 2015 Bears a Super Bowl contender. The Bears in 1996 were coming off a promising 9-7 non-playoff season. Quarterback Erik Kramer set franchise records for passing yards (3,838) and touchdown passes (29) that still stand today. And he was fourth in the NFL in passer rating (93.5).
Those 1996 Bears beat the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys 22-6 on opening night at Soldier Field. But Kramer struggled to back up his career year, then suffered a season-ending broken neck in Week 4. The Bears finished 7-9.
Still, when it comes to having all the pieces in place, Pace’s 2019 Bears are way ahead of Wannstedt’s 1996 team with undeniable credentials. The Bears return 20 of 22 starters from a 12-4 team that made the playoffs last season, including 10 of 11 from a defense that arguably was the best in the NFL.
They have a true game-wrecker in outside linebacker Khalil Mack and two other returning All-Pro players in safety Eddie Jackson and cornerback Kyle Fuller. They have five players who were named to the Pro Bowl team and seven others who were alternates — including quarterback Mitch Trubisky and offensive linemen Charles Leno and Cody Whitehair.
But, interestingly, when Pace was asked what gives him the best hope that the Bears will take the next step forward and not plummet back to also-ran status like other teams that have surged from nowhere to the playoffs, he did not point to any of those pieces.
“Our culture,” Pace said. “You start with coach [Matt] Nagy and what he’s doing and the type of players that we have in our locker room and our entire staff. I think culture is what sustains success.”
After being wracked by systemic dysfunction for years, the Bears are counting on systemic cohesion to keep them heading in the right direction in a season that likely will have more bumps, hurdles and distractions than last year. Not everybody will stay healthy. Not everybody will play as well as they did. The competition will be tougher. But the Bears were expert at handling adversity last season and will have to step it up a notch in 2019.
Even with Mack, the best thing the Bears have going for them is “how close we are as a team,” Pace said. “These guys are all great teammates. They’re all passionate about football. They’re all highly competitive. It’s just a really close, tight-knit group — no egos — and I think that all comes together, it all jells together to what we have going right now.”
No doubt the Bears are one big happy family entering 2019 — with a culture that, based on last season’s locker room, is as real as it gets. But the wave of unity the Bears are riding right now is as fragile as it is precious. Even when all the pieces are in place, maintaining that magical state of togetherness could be the biggest challenge of all.