With much work ahead, Bears GM Ryan Poles smart to keep expectations realistic

The Bears’ plunge under Ryan Pace was made worse by empty sales pitches. Poles is taking a different approach.

SHARE With much work ahead, Bears GM Ryan Poles smart to keep expectations realistic
A photo of Bears general manager Ryan Poles at a press conference this year.

New Bears general manager Ryan Poles has kept expectations realistic since taking the job in January.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

It’s too early to ascertain whether general manager Ryan Poles will be a hit — not only by building the Bears into a winner, but also by resonating with a restless fan base — but he’s off to a good start by keeping expectations realistic.

Unlike predecessor Ryan Pace, Poles isn’t trying to sell anyone on something he can’t deliver. Pace kept insisting the Bears were close right up until they imploded, and the empty sales pitches only made things worse. While Poles shares every other GM’s allergy to transparency, he has been reasonably honest about the scale of the rebuild he undertook.

So on the cusp of opening his first training camp, he didn’t waste time by saying the Bears were taking aim at the Super Bowl. He acknowledged that’s always the overarching mentality and mentioned intermediate benchmarks of competing within the division and vying for a playoff spot, but he prioritized a vague-yet-plausible first step.

“It’s maximizing who your team is,” he said of a roster that has just six players who were full-time starters for the last three seasons. “[Being] the absolute best version of your team is first and foremost. There’s different levels to it, but I think you should always have the mindset of going to the top.”

Sure, but not this season. That’s the intended destination eventually, but no GPS has directions there. Poles has to figure that out himself.

The first step on his to-do list was demolition, and that almost always leads to a rough season. Now he’s on a quest to determine which players can contribute to what he hopes will be an ascending team in 2023 and beyond. He’ll have loads of salary-cap space and draft capital to allocate after this season, but any problems he can solve now will accelerate construction.

At the moment, the Bears have just three players who could be counted as certainties for their future: Linebacker Roquan Smith (if he signs an extension), cornerback Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney. Everyone else has a lot to prove — none more so than quarterback Justin Fields.

Poles hopes to find many of his answers in the recent draft class, but none of that will crystallize until they start playing. And there’s a long list of bubble players like tight end Cole Kmet and even new wide receiver N’Keal Harry who could blossom, but those are also unknown at this point.

This project requires patience, which is a big ask from a fan base that has been waiting three decades for the Bears to become a powerhouse again. Poles is preoccupied by personnel maneuvers, but he’s also chiefly responsible for managing public relations.

It’ll be one of his biggest challenges. He never has had to worry about that before, but he seems to grasp that it’s a legitimate part of his job in a way that Pace didn’t.

Poles is familiar with this stage of building a team, however. His last employer, the Chiefs, went into the last few seasons with a credible Super-Bowl-or-bust point of view, but that wasn’t always the case. When Poles climbed from college scouting to the pro personnel department in 2018, the Chiefs were coming off a 10-6 season and transitioning to unproven quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

“There was a journey . . . I was part of that,” said Poles, who joined the Chiefs when they were near the bottom of the NFL in 2009. “You’re relentless in your attempt to improve the football team by bringing in the right players and by making sure guys are put in a position to succeed as well.”

He’s only at the onset of that endeavor. It took Pace until his fourth season to dig the Bears out of a ditch, and Poles surely hopes to fix things faster than that. But it won’t be immediate, and he has been smart to be upfront about that.

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