Ryan Poles getting a baptism by fire as Bears GM

Three player arrests and the aborted signing of free agent Larry Ogunjobi are among the hurdles he has faced in the early going. But those mishaps could end up being the trials of a rookie GM more than an indicator that Poles wasn’t the right guy for the job.

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Bears general manger Ryan Poles sitting at a podium.

Ryan Poles has revamped much of the Bears’ roster — among other organizational changes — since being hired as general manager in January.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

As a first-time NFL general manager at 36, Ryan Poles knew he’d be challenged by episodes that would test his leadership abilities. 

After 13 years with the Chiefs, he was prepared for the scouting, evaluating and organizing. Draft picks, trades and other roster decisions were responsibilities he’d worked his entire career to learn how to manage. 

But finding out your presumed No. 1 free-agent acquisition didn’t pass the physical? Getting a call from a player who tells you he’s just been arrested? 

Those are the kinds of curveballs you figure you’ll eventually see, but Poles has had more than his share in his first six months as the Bears’ GM: 

  • A three-year, $40.5 million deal with free-agent defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi fell apart when Ogunjobi failed his physical. He was coming off surgery after injuring his foot in the Bengals’ wild-card playoff game against the Raiders. 
  • Wide receiver Byron Pringle, who signed a one-year, $4.125 million contract in free agency, was arrested April 23 in Florida on charges of reckless driving and driving with a suspended license. 
  • Free-agent linebacker Matt Adams (one-year, $1.047 million contract in free agency) was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor firearms possession June 24 in downtown Chicago. 
  • Wide receiver David Moore (one-year, $1.035 million contract in free agency) was arrested on charges of possession of a controlled substance and unlawful carrying of weapons when he was found with three pistols and marijuana edibles in his car at a Taco Bell drive-thru, according to NFL.com.
  • In an unexpected move that became public July 1, Poles fired LaMar “Soup” Campbell, vice president of player engagement, who was part of the five-person search committee that hired him. 

To cynical fans who are reflexively skeptical after witnessing just four Bears playoff victories in the last 31 seasons (only three teams have fewer in that span), those are red flags that don’t bode well for Poles. When former GM Ryan Pace was hired in 2015, his first red flag was the signing of defensive end Ray McDonald that March — with the blessing of the McCaskey family — despite McDonald being under investigation for suspected sexual assault. The Bears released McDonald in May after he was arrested and charged with domestic violence and child endangerment. 

That was an embarrassing episode for Pace and the McCaskeys, but it was more of a blip than a harbinger of the bad things to come. Under Pace, the Bears went from 3-13 in Pace’s first season under coach John Fox to 12-4 and the NFC North title under coach Matt Nagy in 2018. Pace’s misses on Nagy and quarterback Mitch Trubisky were the big reasons the Bears were unable to sustain that initial success. Signing the 30-year-old McDonald was a roll of the dice to stay relevant during a rebuild. 

And, just the same, the mishaps in the opening months of the Poles regime could end up becoming the trials of a rookie GM more than an indicator that Poles wasn’t the right guy for the job. 

The Ogunjobi miss bears watching, especially after the Steelers signed him to a one-year contract in June. Poles took a chance on an injured player — something rebuilding GMs are more prone to do — and learned an early lesson. 

The three arrests are problematic, especially because Poles has a history with Pringle with the Chiefs and coach Matt Eberflus has a history with Adams with the Colts. But in the context of NFL transgressions, none of the charges crosses into the more dangerous territory of domestic violence or sexual assault, which are clearly fireable offenses. 

It remains to be seen how Poles responds to the Adams and Moore arrests. (He called Pringle’s arrest a “disappointment” but vouched for Pringle’s character; “It’s not a reflection of who he is at all,” he said.) 

And he has some explaining to do on the firing of Campbell — a well-respected confidant to many players. Did the arrests have any impact on the decision to fire Campbell? And, if not, why did he wait until July to make that move? 

On the other hand, that Poles has the authority to fire someone who had a hand in hiring him is a good sign at Halas Hall. The Bears need a football authority figure more than anything — someone who will rule on his own accord rather than be guided by George McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips. 

The Bears’ best hope is that Poles grows into that overarching authority role. And if some manageable rookie mistakes are the price they have to pay, it might just be worth it.

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