Infusing the Bears’ roster with “intelligent, tough players, passionate and good teammates,” Ryan Pace successfully changed the culture at Halas Hall in his first year as general manager. The Bears lost with their dignity intact in 2015, with nary a discouraging word nor a locker-room rattling outburst.
“When teams have losing seasons as we’ve had, normally there’s a lot of chatter in the locker room … a lot of finger pointing,” said veteran safety Antrel Rolle, who was signed in free agency last offseason. “There are a lot of things that can take place that you really don’t want to take place. And we haven’t seen any of that here. That’s a huge step.”
Now comes the hard part for the 38-year-old Pace in his second season as an NFL general manager: finding more players who can sack the quarterback, take the ball away and score touchdowns from anywhere on the field. That is a huge Step 2 for Pace and his staff following a 6-10 season that exposed the overall weakness of the roster.
“We just need to keep adding playmakers,” Pace said when asked about expectations for 2016. “And I know we’re going to do that with all the different avenues we have. And I think going into Year 2 of an offensive and defensive system is going to benefit us. But we’re going to add a lot more playmakers.”
Pace feels much better equipped to do that this year than last, when he was spending as much time learning his current players as he was finding new ones. When Pace was hired last Jan. 8, he had to hire a head coach, assemble a personnel staff and basically reorganize the entire operation at Halas Hall. By the time he caught his breath, the draft was over.
This year, Pace begins the offseason with everyone running at full speed, particularly Josh Lucas, his director of player personnel, Joe Douglas, the director of college scouting and Champ Kelly, the director of pro scouting. Pace has gobs of salary cap space ($59 million, the second most in the NFL, according to spotrac.com) and a better grasp of what he has and what he needs. That should pay dividends in the offseason.
“This will be our first free agency and draft together,” Pace said. “Josh [Lucas] was here last year. But Joe Douglas and Champ _ those are all new guys and major assets for us behind the scenes to give us extreme confidence. I’m fired up about it. We’ve got a really good group of scouts.”
To get the Bears into the playoffs, Pace likely will have to hit a few home runs this offseason where he hit mostly singles last year. His biggest free-agent signing, linebacker Pernell McPhee, was a moderate hit with six sacks and one interception. He was limited by injuries for most of the second half. Rolle and wide receiver Eddie Royal also were injured and cornerback Alan Ball was ineffective. Cornerback Tracy Porter ($870,000) and defensive end Jarvis Jenkins ($825,000) were bargains, but neither was a consistent difference-maker.
Pace’s first draft provided no immediate playmakers, but hope for the future. Wide receiver Kevin White, the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, missed the season with a stress fracture. Safety Adrian Amos, a fifth-round pick, started every game and was solid but unspectacular. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman (second round) and running back Jeremy Langford (fourth) made significant impact as rookies and center Hroniss Grasu (third round) started eight games but has a long way to go to prove he’s a long-term solution.
“We’re very happy with the draft class and some of the college free agents, too,” Pace said. “And we’ve got Kevin coming back — he’ll be full-speed for the offseason program and that’s obviously going to be a huge component for that draft class.”
All in all, not a bad start for Pace. But a long, long way to go. He’ll need to have a better second year than his first. But — with Kevin White healthy, all that cap space, a scouting staff in high gear and a lot of lessons learned — he’s got a good chance to make the next step a big one.
“I have mixed emotions on the season,” Pace said. “The record is frustrating. The close losses are frustrating — those can give you some sleepless nights. But when I think bigger picture, I’m excited about what we’ve got going here.
“I’m excited about our staff … our younger players … our culture … the foundation we have. The whole building really feels like everything is going up and that’s a genuine, sincere feeling. It’s gone by really fast. This is the fastest year of my life, but it’s been all good.”