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Ryan Pace (left) has been the Bears’ GM since 2015 and hired Matt Nagy (right) in 2018.

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Bears’ brain trust on the brink: What’s at stake for Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy in 2020?

The Bears are eight games under .500 during Pace’s tenure. Nagy’s offense has been bottom 12 in points and yards. Can either man keep his job if it’s more of the same this season?

Ryan Pace (left) has been the Bears’ GM since 2015 and hired Matt Nagy (right) in 2018.
| Nam Y. Huh/AP

It must have been bewildering for Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy as they sat side-by-side at a New Year’s Eve press conference to confront the reality of a failed season.

Everything that worked so beautifully in 2018, Nagy’s debut, imploded in 2019. Sure there were some significant new twists, but essentially, the same plan produced disappointingly different results as the Bears dropped from 12-4 to 8-8.

Each had his own interest to guard, and both spoke diplomatically and in generalities about what went wrong.

If it was the personnel, that’s Pace’s fault. He wasn’t ready to make many specific concessions at that point and even defended quarterback Mitch Trubisky against the highly unfavorable comparison to rocketing superstars Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson by saying he’s just developing at a different speed.

Maybe he thought he delivered the right parts for a functional offense and the stumbles were the result of user error.

If it was the strategy, that’s on Nagy. He did set the franchise record for fewest rushing attempts in a game, and it’s hard to excuse someone building a career as an offensive guru and then overseeing the NFL’s fourth-worst offense.

But then again, Nagy isn’t the one who traded up to draft Trubisky, paid big money for an underperforming offensive line and had no Plan B at tight end due to another major draft mistake in Adam Shaheen.

To Nagy’s credit, he never shifts the blame to Pace. If he does feel like he’s trying to make lemonade out of Pace’s lemons, he never even hints at it publicly.

It’s especially admirable at quarterback. Nagy was part of the Chiefs’ staff that fell in love with Mahomes and coveted Watson. Instead, he has Pace’s guy and hasn’t been able to fix him.

At some point, though, Bears ownership will have to determine whether their fates are intertwined or separate. Nagy and Pace are screeching toward that decision if they can’t lift the team into legitimate contention. So is it the chef, or the man picking out the ingredients?

As for the latter, Pace has the dubious claim of assembling an unquestionably championship-level defense but undercutting that fantastic work on the other side of the ball. That’s his résumé in a sentence. Since he took the job in 2015, the Bears have allowed the ninth-fewest points in the NFL and scored the third-fewest.

That’s a precise formula for mediocrity, and it’s no surprise that the Bears are 34-46 in his tenure. That’s tied with the Dolphins for the eighth-worst record in that span and puts the Bears in a class with other meandering franchises like the Raiders (36-44), Lions (34-45-1), Bengals (33-46-1) and Buccaneers (32-48).

That record usually gets someone fired. Of the 17 teams that have a losing record over the last five years, 11 have made a change when it comes to who has roster control.

Then there’s Pace’s love-hate relationship with the draft. Beyond making a franchise-altering error on the Trubisky pick and whiffing on Shaheen, he used top-10 selections on Kevin White and Leonard Floyd. But he also plucked Eddie Jackson, Tarik Cohen, Bilal Nichols and Jordan Howard from the fourth and fifth rounds.

He spent the offseason working feverishly to course correct.

Wrong call on Trubisky? Give up a fourth-round pick and commit to Nick Foles for $24 million over three years.

Poor planning at tight end? Shell out $16 million over two years for Jimmy Graham.

Floyd couldn’t become a true pass rusher? Here comes Robert Quinn at the hefty price of about $30 million over the next two seasons and $70 million if he stays for his full five-year contract.

Pace’s future with the Bears depends on whether Nagy can turn those into actual solutions. He can save Pace’s job by making it work. They’re both gone if he can’t.

The path for staving off a double firing is Nagy making good on what the Bears believed they were getting when they hired him. So far, he hasn’t.

Nagy has been an excellent manager of personalities, he is infectiously positive and he made a lot of smart moves in 2018. He also has benefited tremendously from a defense engineered by Pace and coached by Vic Fangio and Chuck Pagano, but the team has scored fewer points under him than it did with Marc Trestman — the punchline of recent Bears coaches.

The Bears were 12th in scoring and 15th in yardage under Trestman over the 2013 and ’14 seasons, but their defense was bottom-three. Nagy’s Bears have been 21st and 26th in those categories over the last two seasons while playing with a top-four defense.

If he and Trestman had each other’s defensive fortunes, their outcomes might have been reversed.

Regardless, if year-end decisions are made fairly, Nagy should be judged by how the offense performs relative to the talent he’s been supplied. The Bears should aspire to topple the defending champion Chiefs. Why even play if that’s not the goal? But Nagy doesn’t have Mahomes and Travis Kelce and that highly rated offensive line, so he can’t be expected to match the Chiefs’ scoreboard-busting theatrics.

But if Pace has given Nagy just enough and Nagy does just enough with it, he’ll buy them both another year.

It’s a low bar, but making the playoffs is usually sufficient for the Bears. They’ve missed it 21 of 27 seasons, post-Ditka. They can talk Super Bowl, but really they’ll settle for any morsel of success.

That’s good news for Pace and Nagy at a time when making the playoffs has never been easier now that the NFL added an extra wild card to make it a 14-team field. The 8-8 Steelers would’ve made it last season, and the 2018 Vikings at 8-7-1 would’ve gotten in, too.

That’ll be the internal criteria for the Bears: If Nagy takes this team to the playoffs, he and Pace get to stay. Whether that satisfies the fan base or the media will be irrelevant. That’s all it’ll take.

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