The Bears’ search for a general manager wasn’t expansive. In a way, it was Chris Ballard, the favorite, against everyone else.
As it turned out, Ballard’s own experiences with the Bears and his desire for change might have hurt his chances, according to team sources.
The Bears hired Ryan Pace away from the Saints, making him the franchise’s sixth general manager on Thursday.
“It’s a stunning hire,” an NFL source said. “Ballard’s familiarity worked against him in this one.”
Ballard spent 12 years with the Bears, his last as Phil Emery’s director of pro scouting in 2012. Ballard, whom Emery viewed as a considerable loss, spent the last two seasons as the Chiefs’ director of player personnel.
“There were changes in structure that [Ballard] wanted,” a second source familiar with the workings of Halas Hall said. “Those changes and being very forthright with those ideas very well could have turned people off.
“In the NFL, everybody tries to protect their own butt. The only person that doesn’t have to protect his butt is the owner.”
Chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips interviewed Ballard, Pace, Titans vice president of player personnel Lake Dawson and Texans director of pro personnel Brian Gaine. But it’s apparent that Pace said the right things to sway McCaskey.
Greg Gabriel, the Bears’ former director of college scouting, said on WSCR-AM (670) that Ballard’s experiences “may have scared” the Bears.
Gabriel said later in a phone interview with the Sun-Times that Ballard certainly knows “where the skeletons are buried.”
“They were familiar with Ballard,” said Gabriel, who worked with him. “But you know what? Ballard is familiar with them.”
That said, Pace was as respected a candidate as Ballard and others. He joins the Bears with the full backing of Saints GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton after managing the team’s college and pro scouting departments.
“I know Sean well, and I trust his opinion,” Gabriel said, recalling one of their conversations. “He said a lot of good things about this guy. . He said this guy is an up-and-comer.”
Pace’s people skills have been highlighted by those who have worked with him. At 37, Pace’s youth also allowed him to relate to players. Having a good rapport with agents also is important, and most speak favorably of Pace.
“[He’s] very knowledgeable [and] identifies draftable, high-football-character talent,” a veteran NFL agent said.
“He’s very respected [around the NFL],” another longtime agent said.
There’s plenty of work ahead for Pace. First, there’s a coach to hire, then there’s a scouting staff to evaluate — and possibly retool — with the Senior Bowl’s practice week starting Jan. 19.
Gabriel, who worked under legendary Giants GM George Young, said it will be important for Pace to surround himself with different and strong voices.
Also looming is a precarious quarterback situation to address. Jay Cutler is guaranteed $15.5 million for 2015, and it becomes $10 million more for 2016 on March 12.
“You got to get that right,” Gabriel said. “He’s been with a franchise quarterback [Drew Brees]. . But where is he going to find one? It’s not like you can pick one off the street.”
But tough decisions were made in New Orleans, too.
“We will miss Ryan,” Loomis said.