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Sports Saturday

Bears rejects spark Buccaneers’ Super Bowl run

The Bears chose Phil Emery over Jason Licht for their general manager job in 2012, then chose Marc Trestman over Bruce Arians for head coach in 2013. Now, Licht and Arians are one step from a Super Bowl title.

Bruce Arians chats with Bears coach John Fox prior to a preseason game between the Cardinals and the Bears in 2017.
Bruce Arians chats with Bears coach John Fox prior to a preseason game between the Cardinals and the Bears in 2017.
Ross D. Franklin/AP

The Buccaneers ought to at least tip their cap to the Bears as they prepare for Super Bowl LV on Sunday.

The Bears, however unwittingly and indirectly, played a hand in the Buccaneers’ sudden rise from perennial also-rans to the Super Bowl under coach Bruce Arians and general manager Jason Licht.

In 2012, when the Bears were hiring a general manager after Jerry Angelo was fired, Licht (pronounced “Light”) was the runner-up to Phil Emery.

In 2013, when the Bears were hiring a coach after Lovie Smith was fired, Arians was a finalist for the job that went to Marc Trestman.

While the Emery-Trestman combination failed miserably and ended up with both being fired after the 2014 season, fate moved its huge hands for Licht and Arians to end up in the Super Bowl. After finishing second in Chicago, Licht was hired by the Cardinals as director of player personnel. After the Bears passed over Arians a year later, Arians also was hired by the Cardinals, as coach.

In their lone year together in Arizona before Licht became the GM with the Buccaneers, Licht and Arians forged a bond that paid dividends in 2019, when Licht was in charge of the coaching search after Dirk Koetter was fired after the 2018 season. Arians was in his first year of retirement after five seasons with the Cardinals but was lured back into coaching in part because of his relationship with Licht.

“I trust him; I respect him,” Arians told the Tampa Bay Times in 2019. “He’s the reason I’m here.”

Many Bears fans celebrated when the Buccaneers beat the hated Packers in the NFC Championship Game, but the Buccaneers being one step from a Super Bowl championship might actually be a greater insult.

The Packers, from top to bottom, just have a better operation than the Bears. They hire the right personnel people and find their own quarterbacks and change on the fly — from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers; from Mike McCarthy to Matt LaFleur; from Ted Thompson to Brian Gutekunst. (And while they only have two Super Bowl championships to show for it, their 21 playoff appearances in the last 28 seasons have provided a lot more excitement for their fans than the Bears’ seven in the same span.)

But the Buccaneers under the Glazer family ownership are more in the Bears’ league. Since winning the Super Bowl in 2002 with coach Jon Gruden, the Buccaneers were in the playoffs only twice in the next 17 seasons, with a composite record of 107-165 (.393). They’ve fired three general managers and five coaches in that span before striking gold — eventually — with Licht and Arians.

And even then, the Glazers kind of stumbled into this sudden success. After firing coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik after the 2013 season, the Glazers hired Smith as coach, then Licht as general manager — the opposite of the traditional NFL hierarchy.

Smith was fired after only two seasons, replaced by the offensive coordinator he hired, Koetter, who himself was fired after a three-year record of 19-29.

At that point, Licht was 27-53 with no playoff appearances and four last-place finishes in five seasons as general manager — a record that clearly paled compared to Ryan Pace’s ledger at the same stage.

That’s when fate stepped in. Licht’s friendship with Arians — a relationship that probably never would have happened had the Bears hired Licht instead of Emery — helped seal that deal.

“We had the same situation in Arizona as we have here [in Tampa] — scouts and coaches, we’re on the same team,” Arians said. “We work hand-in-hand, so when Jason was running the meetings for [Cardinals general manager] Steve Keim — Steve and I were great friends, and Jason was right there with us.”

The hiring of Arians in part led to an even greater stroke of good fortune that made the Super Bowl appearance happen — Tom Brady’s surprising departure from the Patriots and his signing with the Buccaneers in 2020. Even Licht acknowledged it “sounded like a pipe dream.”

“It was kind of weird,” Licht said on Peter King’s podcast last week. “I think [quarterbacks coach] Clyde Christensen, I walked by his office one day, and he was watching tape on all the quarterbacks [in free agency], and he said, ‘This is really weird. I’m watching Tom Brady, like there’s a chance that he could become free if he didn’t go back to New England.’ He said he was looking around to see if there was a camera — if this was some kind of prank.

“But for me, it was a little bit like, ‘I don’t know if this is ever going to happen.’ But Bruce, being as confident as he is, he was like, ‘Well, why the hell wouldn’t this happen? Why the hell wouldn’t he want to come here?’

“John Spytek is my personnel director. . . . We were in my office one day, and Bruce was in there, and I posed that very question, ‘Why would he come here?’ And Bruce said, ‘Why the hell wouldn’t he?’ And then Spytek pointed to the depth chart and said, ‘This is why he would come.’ And he pointed to Mike Evans and [Chris] Godwin and O.J. [Howard], our defense, Lavonte [David] and company. He said, ‘We built it, he will come.’ It became known as Operation Shoeless Joe Jackson.

“Throughout the process, Spytek would pop in my office or Mike Biehl, my college director, or Mike Greenberg, our cap guy, or Rob McCartney, my pro director, and just like every once in a while would say, ‘Go the distance’ and drop little lines from ‘Field of Dreams.’ It was a fun time. They were just trying to keep my sanity but also realize, ‘Hey, this could happen.’ ”

Bears personnel-department people tell similar stories of the Bears’ pursuit of Khalil Mack in 2018 — the almost giddy excitement they felt as it went from a pipe dream to reality. But while Mack is one thing, Brady is another. Even when the football gods smile on the Bears, they still need better luck.