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Fire Matt Nagy? Fire Ryan Pace? Fire himself? George McCaskey has a lot of options

With the Bears’ abysmal record in the post-Ditka era — seven playoff appearances and four playoff victories in 28 seasons — at some point, George McCaskey has to consider that McCaskey family leadership is part of the problem.

The Bears are 42-54 (.438) in six seasons with Ryan Pace (foreground) as general manager, though 28-20 with two playoff appearances in the last three seasons. After back-to-back 8-8 seasons, Bears chairman George McCaskey (background) will decide if Pace will remain as GM.
The Bears are 46-61 (.430) with one winning season and two playoff berths in seven seasons with Ryan Pace (foreground) as general manager — with six games left in the 2021 regular season. Bears chairman iGeorge McCaskey (background) will decide if Pace will remain as GM.
Tim Boyle/Sun-Times Media

It’s all about the quarterback in the NFL, especially when the quarterback is a talented rookie capable of one day putting a struggling offense on his shoulders and lifting a wayward franchise out of the muck.

But as the Bears’ 2021 season has veered off course in Justin Fields’ first season, coach Matt Nagy’s fourth and general manager Ryan Pace’s seventh, not even the quarterback will command the entire spotlight in the final six weeks of the season.

It’s all about the owner, now.

Bears chairman George McCaskey spoke to the team last week prior to the Bears’ 16-14 victory over the Lions on Thanksgiving Day at Ford Field. But he has been silent publicly since the Bears’ end-of-season press conference in January in which he and president Ted Phillips almost sheepishly acknowledged their decision to bring back both Pace and Nagy was an unpopular one.

McCaskey usually talks to the media at least once each offseason. But not this year, with the possibility of leaving Soldier Field and the future of Pace and Nagy obvious hot topics.

So he wasn’t asked the most obvious question heading into the 2021 season: How does he define “progress” after stating that as the barometer of success when he decided to bring back Pace and Nagy?

That question looms larger than ever with the 4-7 Bears unlikely to make the playoffs, but Fields starting eight games — and possibly getting as many as six more starts when he recovers from cracked ribs he suffered against the Ravens last week.

The firing of Nagy is considered by many as fait accompli, with “Fire Nagy” chants breaking out at various Chicago-area venues. But the fate of both Nagy and Pace are unclear after last week’s chaotic episode in which it was erroneously reported that the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions would be Nagy’s last as Bears coach — in part because it’s hard to know what George McCaskey is thinking.

We’ll find out soon enough. But until then, speculation about Nagy, Pace — and McCaskey and Phillips themselves — will continue to fester as the season concludes. All we know now is what could happen. So here are four scenarios to consider when the Bears’ 2021 season ends, or possibly sooner:

1. George McCaskey and Ted Phillips step aside.

The McCaskeys are not going to sell the Bears, at least not while Virginia McCaskey is the owner. But with the Bears abysmal record in the post-Ditka era — seven playoff appearances and four playoff victories in 28 seasons — at some point George McCaskey has to consider that McCaskey family leadership is part of the problem.

(Only three NFL teams that have been in the league throughout that span have fewer playoff victories. Only three have fewer playoff appearances.)

The McCaskeys could still retain ownership but restructure the franchise so that a president of football operations — presumably a someone with a proven history of football, management and public relations expertise — is making all football decisions, including the hiring of the general manager.

That’s no assurance of success. But better leadership alone would be an improvement — especially in a scenario like last week, when a weak crisis management plan created another embarrassing episode for the Bears organization.

2. George McCaskey cleans house — fires GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy.

This is what many frustrated Bears fans are expecting after Pace and Nagy appeared to be a singular entity — with their valued collaborative working relationship a major reason for hope that 2021 would be an improvement after back-to-back 8-8 seasons.

The Bears are 46-61 (.430) with one winning season and two playoff berths in Pace’s seven seasons as general manager. That’s a little misleading because his first three seasons were a virtual tear-down of the roster before the re-build. But two major Pace mis-evaluations have kept the Bears on the skids — trading up to draft quarterback Mitch Trubisky in 2017 and hiring Nagy in 2018.

Trading up to draft Fields in 2021 could end up being a masterstroke. But poor management of the offensive line among other personnel errors have prevented the offense from showing enough improvement to support Pace’s case.

Pace has had hits and misses, but the overall ledger is in the negative. Outside of linebacker Roquan Smith, even Pace’s biggest hits have struggled to sustain success or stay on the field — Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks, Eddie Jackson, Allen Robinson, Eddie Goldman and Tarik Cohen among them. But his misses are forever — Trubisky, Kevin White, Mike Glennon, Adam Shaheen, Cody Parkey, Nick Foles, etc.

3. Ryan Pace fires Matt Nagy, stays as GM.

This is arguably the most plausible scenario. It would give McCaskey the change that would prevent Bears fans from storming Halas Hall or talking boycott. And it would spare McCaskey and Phillips the chore of finding another general manager — their third in 10 years after firing Jerry Angelo after the 2011 season and Phil Emery in 2014 — which is not their strength. And Phillips’ refusal to divulge Pace’s contract status after last season is a strange twist that now looms as a red flag.

The best argument for Pace is based almost entirely on potential — he addressed two of his biggest offensive issues in the 2021 draft with Fields and offensive tackles Teven Jenkins and Larry Borom. But he hired Nagy, drafted Trubisky, has a defense that is aging quickly, has injury issues, salary cap issues and doesn’t have a first-round draft pick in 2022.

Pace is a capable general manager who could win big in optimum conditions — the Buccaneers’ Jason Licht had a worse history as a GM before striking gold with Bruce Arians and Tom Brady. But Pace’s luck really has to change in a hurry.

4. Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy both stick around.

For Bears fans, the doomsday scenario. It’s unlikely that McCaskey instructed Nagy to start Fields, as has been reported. But it wouldn’t be that far-fetched that McCaskey told Nagy he values having a young quarterback in place more than a playoff berth with Andy Dalton.

And if that was the impetus for Nagy’s decision to go with Fields, it’s possible that if Fields continues to make the improvement he showed against the 49ers and Steelers when he returns from his injury, that could fit McCaskey’s definition of progress.

It’s not likely, but possible. At Halas Hall, anything is possible.