New GM can look to Bengals as he seeks to burrow Bears out of hole

As much as chairman George McCaskey would like to compare his team to the Chiefs — he has hired a GM and coach from Kansas City in the last four years — the Bears look a lot more like the Bengals.

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Joe Burrow faces the Titans in the AFC playoffs last week.

Joe Burrow faces the Titans in the AFC playoffs last week.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

New Bears general manager Ryan Poles won’t have to turn on his TV Sunday to know the value of a quarterback. The Chiefs, his employer for almost 13 years until the Bears hired him Tuesday, had never hosted an AFC Championship Game until they drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017. When they throw open the gates at Arrowhead Stadium, it will mark the fourth straight season the Chiefs have played a home game to try to get to the Super Bowl.

Poles was part of a Chiefs college scouting staff that drafted Mahomes, who, with speculation about Tom Brady retiring, became the defining quarterback in the sport. No matter his greatness, though, Mahomes is not nearly as instructive for Poles’ building of the Bears than the team he will be facing: the Bengals.

The lesson from both AFC finalists is the same: a transcendent quarterback can, by the pure power of his skill, turn around the fate of a franchise. The Bengals should ring more true in Chicago. As much as chairman George McCaskey would like to compare his team to the Chiefs — he has hired a GM and coach from there in the last four years — the Bears look a lot more like the Bengals.

From 1991 to 2020, the Bengals made the playoffs seven times — and didn’t win a postseason game. The Bears have been nearly as inept. In the same 30-year span, they won four playoff games. Only two franchises that have fielded teams each season since 1991 have fewer playoff victories than the Bears during that span — the Bengals and Lions. If the Bengals win Sunday, they will go from zero playoff wins since 1991 to three — one shy of the Bears — this postseason alone.

That the Bengals are 60 minutes from a Super Bowl berth proves the power of the quarterback. Second-year star Joe Burrow masks a lot of flaws — even those of a franchise that had a reputation for being cheap and adding players with questionable character.

From 1991 on, the Bengals picked four quarterbacks in the top six of the NFL Draft. Two were failures. Akili Smith, the third pick in 1999, started only 17 games in four years, winning only three times. David Klingler, the sixth pick in 1992, went 4-20 as the starter over four years. By contrast, Burrow has won seven games — as many as both men did in their Bengals career combined — since Nov. 21.

Before the Bengals made Burrow the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, they took another quarterback first overall: Carson Palmer in 2004. He started for seven seasons and lost five more games than he won. Palmer went to two Pro Bowls but was inconsistent.

He led the NFL in touchdown passes in 2005 and interceptions in 2007. At the end of the 2010 season, Palmer was so disgusted with the Bengals — who had two winning seasons in 20 years — that he demanded a trade. When the Bengals wouldn’t move him, he went into quasi-retirement. He was eventually traded to the Raiders in the middle of the 2011 season.

Despite his pedigree, Palmer wasn’t more accomplished than Andy Dalton, who started as a rookie because of the holdout. The third pick of the second round in 2011, Dalton went to three Pro Bowls, won nine more games than he lost and played in four wild-card losses.

That Dalton was the best quarterback they had drafted over the last 30 years is damning of the Bengals, given the picks they spent on Palmer, Smith and Klingler. As they were preparing to draft Burrow two years ago — the LSU national champion and Ohio native was a no-brainer — it was fair to wonder whether the Bengals, the common denominator in almost 30 years of inconsistent first-round quarterbacks, would ruin Burrow.

Quite the opposite has happened. Burrow has elevated the franchise. If he stays healthy, he could have them in the playoffs every year for a decade.

That should be comforting for Bears fans currently wondering about Justin Fields. Four years after trading up to draft Mitch Trubisky second overall, the Bears did the same and took Fields at No. 11.

If former general manager Ryan Pace was right, Fields will have a chance to be one of the best quarterbacks in franchise history. If he’s wrong — and Fields didn’t do enough his rookie year to convince anyone he’d be a star or a flop — it won’t be because the franchise has a quarterbacks curse.

The Bengals must have felt that way the last 30 years. Now look at them.

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