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Fire alarm: What the Bears must do on ‘Black Monday’

Chairman George McCaskey can’t give way to inertia this time. He can’t operate the way his franchise has acted all too often in the past. 

Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy talk in 2019.
Bears GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy talk in 2019.
Nam Huh, AP Photos

Seven years and one day ago, Bears chairman George McCaskey took Saints executive Ryan Pace on a walking tour of the photos that lined the walls at Halas Hall. The pictures documented almost 100 years of the franchise’s history and most of its amazing moments. McCaskey beamed with pride as he told Pace the stories behind some of the photos.

Pace was only 37, but he still appreciated the Bears’ history when he interviewed for the team’s vacant general manager job. But he also knew why the job was open in the first place.

He turned to McCaskey and stated the obvious.

“Most of the photographs are in black and white,” Pace said.

The next day, Pace got the job. Exactly seven years later, Pace realistically can frame one season and hang it on the wall — a 12-4 showing in 2018 that earned the Bears a double-doink loss in the wild-card round of the playoffs. In Pace’s other six seasons, the Bears are 36-60.

McCaskey will decide to make changes once the Bears’ season ends Sunday in Minneapolis. The only question is how many.

Coach Matt Nagy is almost certain to be fired. Pace could be, though some around the league point to the McCaskeys’ affection for Pace and their trust in him — they put him in charge of the $100 million Halas Hall renovation in 2019 — as a reason he could stay. Pace even could assume a new role if Bears president/CEO Ted Phillips retires or changes his focus exclusively to the Arlington Heights stadium project.

McCaskey, though, must make sweeping changes. He can’t give way to inertia this time. He can’t operate the way his franchise has acted all too often in the past.

In a year in which his franchise could close on a forward-thinking stadium project that is so delightfully different than typical Bearsthink, McCaskey needs to look into a Zoom camera Monday and say something out of character himself: This is the year the Bears are being bold.

If he has any doubts — inertia is powerful stuff when it comes to the Bears — McCaskey should go for a stroll through the office in Lake Forest. Some of the pictures are in different places and better frames since the renovation. But most of them remain in black and white.

• • •

We’ll call our proposal the Build Back Bolder Plan. On Monday, McCaskey should create an upper-management position and fill it with someone who has a football background — not a businessman like Phillips. Call him the executive vice president of football operations. Better yet, something less clunky: the architect.

The architect’s job would be to guide McCaskey — who’s famously a football fan, not an expert — through the most important offseason decisions a franchise can make.

In the past, the Bears have had to outsource that role — which is ridiculous given the stakes. When the only “football guy” in the Bears’ corporate structure is the GM, there’s a void in leadership — at the worst possible time — when his firing becomes inevitable.

In 2015, former GM Ernie Accorsi, a paid consultant, helped lead McCaskey and Phillips to Pace. Farming out that enormous responsibility to an outsider with no stakes in the team’s success, either personal or professional, is baffling. The architect fixes that on Day 1.

The Lions seemed to recognize that last year. After bringing on former player Chris Spielman to help lead their search for a coach and GM, the team gave him a full-time job as a special assistant to the owner and CEO.

The ideal Bears architect would be well-connected around the league and have an established relationship with the McCaskeys. A pipeline to former players would be beneficial, too, given the desire among them to help the franchise. He would not make day-to-day decisions — that’s the general manager’s job — but would instead serve as a strong voice in robust front-office debates.

Trace Armstrong, the former Bears player and current agent certainly qualifies. After a report surfaced in December that he’d spoken to the Bears about a front office-role, Armstrong tweeted that he has “utmost respect” for the Bears and the McCaskeys but “any assertion that I have engaged in conversations with them about joining the club in any capacity is simply not true.”

At a time when the NFL’s progressive teams are looking outside the football world for inspiration, the Bears hiring a “football guy” to make their most important football decisions is bold only by their standards. At Halas Hall, change comes slowly.

If the Bears don’t fire Pace, perhaps they’ll put him in the architect role. That wouldn’t represent real change, though, even if Pace hires a new general manager and gives him day-to-day control. It would be viewed as a mere shuffling of grandiose titles. Besides, what general manager candidate would want to work for someone whom the rest of the league would view as a de facto decision-maker?

The architect would have to be hired next week. Then the Bears would search for a general manager and coach at the same time. Choosing the coach first might make sense. The Bears haven’t done that in the past — but isn’t that a reason to try?

If the Bears decide to turn to someone with head-coaching experience, letting the coach hand-pick his GM might make the Bears’ job more attractive than that of their peers. The Jaguars’ and Raiders’ jobs are open. The Vikings’ and Broncos’ — with old friends Mike Zimmer and Vic Fangio — could be, too.

Hiring the coach first worked in Seattle, where Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider went to back-to-back Super Bowls. The Chiefs hired Andy Reid about one week before former GM John Dorsey in 2013. In Washington, GM Martin Mayhew reports directly to coach Ron Rivera.

There have been notorious flops, too. Last offseason, one NFL owner said he was thrilled to be moving toward “a coach-centric team and organization, where the head coach really has to lead the kind of players he wants, the kind of team we need to be.” The general manager’s role would be to support that coach, he said.

The owner? The Jaguars’ Shad Khan, who hired Urban Meyer — and then fired him -after 13 games.

• • •

Cleaning house Monday would put the coach and general manager on the same timeline. That wasn’t the case in 2017.

That year, Pace was so determined to keep his first-round draft choice a secret that he didn’t tell coach John Fox that he planned to take North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky until draft day. Fox was facing a must-win season and figured the team was getting a defensive player.

Fox made veteran Mike Glennon the starter at the beginning of the season. Glennon was so bad that Trubisky was promoted after four games. The Bears went 5-11, finished last in the NFC North and fired Fox at the end of the season. Pace got to stay.

Nagy — and, presumably, Pace — faced a win-or-else 2021 when the GM traded up to draft Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields in April. Nagy began the season with Andy Dalton as the starter. Fields — who took few snaps with the starters in training camp — was made the starter in Week 3 only because Dalton hurt his knee.

Sound familiar?

Pace’s big swing-and-miss on Trubisky will define his tenure with the Bears, regardless of whether Trubisky eventually figures it out somewhere else. The Bears could have had Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson.

Still, McCaskey and Phillips let Pace draft another quarterback in a year when his coach needed to win or be fired. The push-pull of future gains against present performance set Pace’s pick of Fields at odds with the job-saving goal this season. If Pace and Nagy were assured of their job status beyond this season, they would have set about developing Fields, not playing Dalton.

Can Pace find a way to stay this time around, too? Pace’s boss linked his fate to Nagy a year ago. In the Bears’ end-of-season news conference Jan. 13, 2021, Pace, Nagy, Phillips and McCaskey used a version of the word “collaborate” 11 times. Nagy and Pace’s relationship remains collaborative.

“For four years, it’s been every day where there’s communication,” Nagy said this week. “And we talk through things and we do it together and I think that’s what’s important. It doesn’t mean you’re always going to agree with everything that you say or do — not always. But I think because of who we are as people, both Ryan and I, there’s a mutual respect for each other from the very first time we interviewed until today.”

The futures of Nagy and Pace were intertwined as of a year ago. Since then, Pace has drafted Fields, who has an incomplete grade at best in 10 starts, and signed Dalton. He traded up to draft tackle Teven Jenkins, who has started two games after missing most of the year with a back injury.

Pace, who tore the Bears down to the studs seven years ago, began the season with the oldest team in the NFL. The Bears are 6-10, with only one victory coming against a playoff team.

That’s not a résumé that would — or should — cause the Bears to rethink their position from a year ago.

• • •

In January 2018, the Bears went into a coaching search with a five-win team and a second-year quarterback who had a 75.5 passer rating in 12 starts.

This year, the Bears will go into one with a six-win team — or seven if they beat the Vikings on Sunday — and a second-year quarterback with a 73.2 passer rating.

The Bears should look for the same thing they sought when they hired Nagy in 2018: someone to develop the quarterback. Hiring a head coach/play-caller to grow with Fields is the only way to ensure stability. Otherwise, the Bears run the risk of their coordinator being hired away after a good season, as happened when the Dolphins made Adam Gase their head coach after the 2015 season.

There’s no surefire hires among this year’s list of coaching candidates. Coordinators Josh McDaniels (Patriots), Kellen Moore (Cowboys), Brian Daboll (Bills) and Greg Roman (Ravens) can point to Mac Jones, Dak Prescott, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson, respectively, as evidence they can develop quarterbacks. Buccaneers coordinator Byron Leftwich is coaching the greatest quarterback of all time. Former Eagles coach Doug Pederson and Chiefs coordinator Eric Bienemy run the same offensive system as Nagy, which might not represent a drastic enough change from what the Bears are doing.

The Bears have hired one coach with head-coaching experience (Fox) since 1957. If they go in that direction, some around the league already have wondered if Saints coach Sean Payton, having experienced life without a quarterback and a team that keeps pushing salary-cap burdens down the road, would consider a change of scenery. The Naperville Central High School alum is under contract next year, so the Bears would have to trade for him — without a first-round pick in 2022 — and then pay him a top-three salary. That seems far-fetched.

Every rumor about Michigan coach — and former Bears first-round pick — Jim Harbaugh eyeing the NFL must come with this context: Michigan State coach Mel Tucker just signed a 10-year, $95 million contract extension. Perhaps Harbaugh wants one of those from his school.

Ohio State’s Ryan Day could get consideration from the Bears — at the least, he knows Fields. Given the changing college landscape, though, Day and Harbaugh could argue their current jobs are better — and perhaps could pay more — than the Bears’ opening.

The Bears shouldn’t rule out defensive coaches, but they must have a well-constructed plan for how their staff will help the quarterback.

The next coach won’t matter, though, unless the organization starts behaving differently. There’s a reason the Bears will be looking for their fourth new coach in nine years.

At the end of last season, McCaskey said the standard for keeping Pace and Nagy was “progress” — not a set number of victories. He must remind himself of that this weekend.

He knew last year that keeping Pace and Nagy would be unpopular.

“I want to take a moment to tell Bears fans, we understand your frustration. We’re frustrated, too,” he said. “And it would be a perfectly natural reaction to say, ‘Back up the truck. Major overhaul.’ ”

It’s even more natural this year. Back up the truck.