Before Ryan Poles was named the Bears’ general manager or won a Super Bowl with the Chiefs — or even before he cashed his first $40,000 per year entry-level paycheck in an NFL front office — he was a Boston College graduate assistant in the fall of 2008.
Poles was working in the football office when he met Scott Pioli, then the Patriots’ vice president of player personnel. Pioli knew Poles as a standout college football player before he tore his Achilles tendon, went undrafted and was cut by the Bears at the end of training camp. A month later, Poles took the job at his alma mater. With BC’s Chestnut Hill campus about 25 miles from the Patriots’ home base, Pioli stopped by the football office often to watch tape. He quickly noticed the grad assistant.
“In hiring people, there’s certain things that you look for,” Pioli said. “It’s like scouting.”
The Bears liked what they saw, too, when they interviewed Poles virtually Friday and then at Halas Hall on Tuesday. After he accepted the GM job, he set about leading his own hiring process. He interviewed Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus for the Bears’ vacant head-coaching job Wednesday, one day after talking to former Lions and Colts head coach Jim Caldwell.
How did Poles, at 36, go from grad assistant to GM in under 13 years? It starts with what Pioli and others saw in him at the college level, and continues through to his role in helping draft Patrick Mahomes, the transcendent quarterback of this generation, in Kansas City.
“He was inquisitive,” said Tom O’Brien, who coached Poles for all but one season at BC. “He always wanted to know anything that was going on up front on the line. It’s not a surprise for him to have the success that he’s had in the NFL.”
Poles — who began a friendship with future NFL MVP Matt Ryan at BC that continues to this day — redshirted as a freshman in 2003. He then played left tackle behind a future second-round draft pick before being moved to guard. He was typical of BC offensive linemen, O’Brien said: he knew that the team’s success depended on how physical he could be.
Pioli saw it on film. When he got to know him in 2008, he found someone who had a love and respect for the game of football. Not all people who work in the sport are like that, Pioli said. He was bright and “exceedingly humble,” Pioli said.
In January 2009, just months after meeting Poles, Pioli left the Patriots to become the Chiefs’ general manager. That May — when front offices typically turn over after the draft — Pioli made Poles one of his first hires. Less than a year after the Bears cut him, Poles became a low-level Chiefs scouting assistant making $40,000 — though he took the job when he thought it paid $35,000.
“People like to talk about success, but there’s also a lot of disappointment,” Pioli said. “If you’re not resilient, it’s a tough life. It’s a tough life at the beginning.”
Pioli’s advice for Poles was the same that Bill Belichick once gave him: “The more you could do, the more you could do.” Translation: his reward for doing well was to be assigned more work. But that gave him the experience he couldn’t get anywhere else. It led to Poles earning the trust of his coworkers. Poles had many of them, too — he worked for three general managers and three head coaches in Kansas City.
“He has this combination of confidence and humility that’s a really interesting balance,” said Pioli, who now works for NFL Network, CBS and the league office. “His organizational skills are incredible. I learned that very early on. I could never overwhelm him with workload. . . .
“He’s got a great personality. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s thoughtful, empathetic, he’s compassionate and he’s tough as nails. He can be tough as nails. I’ve seen him be demanding. . . .
“That’s an important thing. . . . You need that duality of personality for different situations.”
It wasn’t until last year that he set about seriously condensing his experience — and personality — into a well-rounded plan. When he was a finalist for the Panthers’ GM job, he wrote down what he wanted his ideal team to be. His ability to pitch a plan to the Bears landed him the job — and made him a finalist with the Giants and Vikings this month, too.
“He has these experiences and then he stands back from it and reflects,” Pioli said. “This is where his organizational skills come in. He saw that, ‘OK, here are all these things that happened. Here’s what I knew well and what I didn’t know well. Let me organize my thoughts and let me organize a plan better.’ ”
He moved up quickly after joining the Chiefs. Within a year, he was overseeing the next crop of entry-level front-office employees. Within six years, he was the scouting director for a Chiefs team that traded up to draft Mahomes eight spots after the Bears picked Mitch Trubisky in 2017.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that the Chiefs’ draft picks over the last decade — not just Mahomes, but tight end Travis Kelce and receiver Tyreek Hill — have changed the sport. The Bears undoubtedly would like Poles to replicate the Chiefs’ draft success.
In a statement Wednesday, Chiefs GM Brett Veach called Poles an “integral part of this organization’s success” during his time there.
“I think the Bears are in a nice position with him,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters Wednesday. “He’s smart. He knows football. He knows players. He works hard and he’s organized. That’s what they’re getting. And that’s a pretty good intangible thing to be putting in your department there. He’s good with people also. I think he’ll do a nice job. I’m happy for him. . . .
“I think the Bears are gaining a tremendous person, and a great guy for that position.”