The unlikely convergence of a suddenly bright future and the Bears’ glorious past took the Bears100 Weekend Celebration in Rosemont to another level.
The energy and excitement was palpable as Hall of Famers, NFL championship heroes and former and current players joined Bears fans in reveling not only in the franchise’s magnificent history, but also the possibility of Super Bowl contention in 2019 and a sustained run of postseason success under general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.
So on a weekend to celebrate the 1963 NFL championship team, 1985 Super Bowl team and all the Hall of Famers in Bears history, the story of the Khalil Mack acquisition last year was also compelling Sunday. As it turns out, even those closest to Pace dismissed the possibility when it first came up early in training camp.
“As soon as we got to Bourbonnais, we start loosely talking about it. But even at that point I think all of us were like, ‘What are we doing? They’re not gonna trade this guy,’ ” Bears director of player personnel Josh Lucas said at the “Building the Future” panel with assistant director of player personnel Champ Kelly and director of college scouting Mark Sadowski. “It was a topic all through camp, but for the most part it was fun to talk about, but we need to focus on what we’ve got here.”
That attitude changed on Aug. 30, the night of the Bears’ preseason finale against the Bills. Lucas went to the Bears’ operation box in the press box at Soldier Field.
“I am always the last to be anywhere,” Lucas said. “So I got up there about 50 minutes [before] kickoff and no one was in the box, I immediately was like, ‘Oh, something’s going on.’”
Indeed it was.
“What they were told that night was, ‘Prepare your best offer for Friday. We’re going to field offers from multiple teams that are interested and we’re gonna come to a decision by Friday night,” Lucas said.
While Lucas and other personnel department members were preoccupied with a massive final cut-down from 90 to 53 players and preparing to peruse other team’s cuts for possible roster additions, Pace, Nagy director of football administration Joey Laine were holed up in Pace’s office working the Mack deal. “Joey, Ryan and Matt never came out of Ryan’s office. Not once,” Lucas said. “We knew we were in it.”
The Bears won the Mack sweepstakes, agreeing to trade first-round draft picks in 2019, 2020, a third-round pick in 2020 and a sixth-round pick in 2019 for Mack, a second-round pick in 2020 and a fifth-round pick in 2020. But the drama wasn’t over.
“Probably about 6 or 7 p.m. Friday night the Raiders agreed to trade him to us,” Lucas said. “We had 24 hours to get a deal done with Khalil. Probably around 10 p.m., Joey came in and said, ‘We got a deal done [six years, $141 million]. So I think it ended up getting released via social media probably early Saturday morning, but we all knew at 10 or 11 that night. Speaking only for myself, I slept really well that night.”
2. As director of college scouting, Sadowski treasures first-round draft picks, but acquiring Mack was too good to pass up. He was on the road scouting when the news broke.
“I didn’t know anything [until Saturday morning]. But I haven’t stopped smiling since,” he said. “Everybody says, ‘You gave up [a lot].’ But from a college perspective, there were some really good players we could have gotten in the first round, but nobody as great as him. To me it was a no-brainer. I might have given up one more [pick].”
3. The Bears saw early that Mack was a “multiplier” — a player who made teammates better.
“His character matches his ability,” Kelly said. “His first day of practice, he wins the first one-on-one [drill] so impressively that people stopped to see what was going on. The next rep, Aaron Lynch gets stopped. And he’s kind of jogging back and Khalil says, ‘No, you gotta run.’ Lynch runs. He’s that type of tone-setter. You add a guy like that and it adds to the collective belief that we are for real. And we are going after championships. That’s the type of person and player he is.”
4. Lucas lauded the Bears’ cost-efficient offseason in free agency, including the ostensible trade of safety Adrian Amos for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix after signing running back Mike Davis, nickelback Buster Skrine and wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
“The way Ha Ha fell to us was just complete icing on the cake,” Lucas said. “For Ha Ha to want to be a part of us, and sign the deal he signed … and we’re not saying this now because he’s here and Amos is in Green Bay. We have consistently graded Ha Ha as a better player than Amos for four years. For that to happen really solidified the pro side of it.”
5. Lucas told it like it was when discussing rookie running back David Montgomery (and Davis) replacing Jordan Howard:
“With our running back situation right now, it’s extremely important that you’re not predictable,” Lucas said. “When you have a running back that doesn’t excel at running routes and creating mismatches on the perimeter in the passing game, it makes you predictable — one of the reasons we moved on from Jordan.”
6. Dick Butkus’ tribute to Hall of Fame defensive end Doug Atkins stood out among all the accolades offered this weekend. At 6-8, 255, Atkins was an unusually athletic player for his size and had a mean streak that rivaled even Butkus.
“Doug Atkins was probably the closest man to Superman,” said Butkus, who played with Atkins in 1965 and 1966. “He never worked out. If that guy would have trained properly, they would have had to ban him from the league. I firmly believe that. He was unbelievable.”
7. Gale Sayers’ appearance at the opening ceremony obviously was the emotional highpoint of the weekend. But former Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown couldn’t avoid choking up when asked about missing Super Bowl XLI because of a torn achilles tendon. It still hurts.
“I still struggle with it,” Brown said in a panel with fellow safeties Gary Fencik, Doug Plank and Eddie Jackson. “You play for the ring. Our team made it and I couldn’t be out there. It’s the one game for a championship. The biggest game in America. I still struggle with it, especially when I get around all [the Bears fans].
“Now that I have children, it makes it a lot different. The past is the past. Now I’m looking forward to watching my children grow and be solid citizens. I’m trying to teach them the right way to do things. … To me that’s what it’s all about. [But] if I could get it back. I wish I could.”
8. Kudos to Bears play-by-play announcer Jeff Joniak for a yeoman’s job in moderating 10 hour-long convention panels with analyst and former Bear lineman Tom Thayer.
9. Timing is everything. If George Halas had started the Bears two years earlier, the celebration of the 100th season in franchise history might have been a gripe-session as much as a festival if John Fox were still around.
“Thank God John Fox’s ass is out of town,” Hall of Fame defensive lineman Dan Hampton said. “Thank God.”
It marked the second time in as many days that a former player took a shot at Fox to praise Matt Nagy.
“What I find refreshing, I liked John Fox, but John Fox didn’t treat fans with respect,” Fencik said Friday night. “And I’m a [Bears] fan. I’m a season ticket holder. And it was kind of like, ‘You don’t deserve to know,’ or ‘I’m not going to give you a lot of information.’ What I really like about Matt is I think he recognizes and respects that the fans aren’t idiots.”
10. Bear-ometer: 16-0 — vs Packers (W); at Broncos (W); at Redskins (W); vs. Vikings (W); at Raiders in London (W); vs. Saints (W); vs. Chargers (W); at Eagles (W); vs. Lions (W); at Rams (W); vs. Giants (W) at Lions (W); vs. Cowboys (W); at Packers (W); vs. Chiefs (W); at Vikings (W).
Playoffs: vs. Eagles (W); vs. Saints (W); vs. Chiefs (W)