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Risks with rewards: Why Ted Phillips sees a ‘special’ future for the Bears

Before the Bears concluded the preseason last year against the Bills, coach Matt Nagy, general manager Ryan Pace and president/CEO Ted Phillips gathered in Nagy’s office at Soldier Field.

Earlier that day, conversations with the Raiders had intensified. The tone had changed. The unbelievable had become possible. Outside linebacker Khalil Mack was available.

Pace and Nagy had talked about the possibility of acquiring Mack during training camp. The superstar also remained a topic of conversation throughout the Bears’ elongated preseason.

And now — with the Bears’ regular-season opener in Green Bay only 10 days away — Mack was available via trade.

Bears general manager Ryan Pace is greeted by team president Ted Phillips in 2015. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

“I remember [Pace] saying, ‘Geez, I’m hearing that they might move him,’ ” Phillips said. “And I never really gave it much of a second thought. I thought, ‘Why would they do that?’

“So now fast forward, he would bring it up periodically. But [it was] never like, ‘Oh, my God, if they do, we’re going to make a move.’ It was not really like that.”

Until it was — on the final day of the 2018 preseason. 

But Pace was prepared. Of course, he was, Phillips thought. It’s one of the attributes that Phillips has come to appreciate about him.

As Pace explained the positives — from Mack’s age to him playing a “need” position to his lack of baggage — Phillips said that trading for him started to make too much sense.

“I don’t need to have four committee meetings and let’s discuss it all,” Phillips said. “That’s why you have to have the right people in place.

“You have to be decisive. It wasn’t a long, drawn-out, lengthy discussion. Once I understood it all — because [Pace] never leaves a stone unturned, he’s very thorough — and when I hear it all, it’s, ‘Go get him.’ ”

And Pace did.

Mack is one of the many reasons why the Bears arrived in Phoenix for the NFL’s annual owners meetings this week in a good place. This season will be Phillips’ 37th with the organization, and it already feels different.

“I’ve never had more passion and been more fired up about the outlook of this team ever,” Phillips said in a wide-ranging interview with the Sun-Times. “It’s special.”

* * *

It was during negotiations with Nagy’s agent, former Bears defensive end Trace Armstrong, that Phillips realized his general manager was about to be in an unsure position.

“Once it became Matt, it became apparent that they wanted a five-year deal,” Phillips said. “Ryan only had through four.”

So Phillips turned to Pace.

“Do you need another year?” Phillips said. “Are you OK with his?”

Phillips needed his general manager to feel good about “all the aspects of hiring that head coach.” Pace did. Nagy always was his guy.

“No, this is fine,” Phillips recalled Pace saying at the time. “We’ll let it play out and see how it goes.”

On Sunday, Pace was named the Sporting News’ NFL Executive of the Year. The honor was voted on by his peers. In February, Nagy was named the NFL Coach of the Year.

In other words, everything played out just fine.

Pace never approached Phillips about a possible extension. That started with Phillips, who talked to chairman George McCaskey as the 2017 season neared its conclusion.

If coach John Fox was on the chopping block, what did that mean for Pace?

“I said, ‘We need to talk about Ryan before we go get a head coach because he only has two years left [on his contract],’ ” Phillips said. “Either he’s our guy or we need to make another change there, too.”

They discussed Pace’s signings in free agency.

“I would say it was 50-50 at best,” Phillips said.

And they discussed Pace’s draft picks.

“There was at least a sense in the ’16 and ’17 picks that, ‘OK, we may have hit something special here,’ ” Phillips said. “But we don’t know yet.”

But what Phillips did know is that he still felt strongly about the person they hired. Their conversation quickly turned into praise for Pace.

Together, Phillips and McCaskey highlighted Pace’s positives, such as his straightforwardness and thoroughness, and their strong belief in him when he drafted quarterback Mitch Trubisky.

“I can go on and on,” Phillips said.

Phillips called extending Pace’s contract by three years a “pretty easy decision.” It was a quick negotiation, too. No agents were needed.

Pace’s new deal still was criticized when it was announced. Fox’s 14-34 record still belonged to him. But Pace now was empowered to run his own coaching search — the one that resulted in Nagy.

More than a year later, Pace’s extension should be remembered as the starting point for the Bears’ turnaround. Without it, Nagy isn’t hired, Mack isn’t acquired and the Bears don’t win the NFC North.

“Whether it’s drafting a quarterback, signing a coach, signing a GM, extending a player, extending a coach or GM, there is always a risk,” Phillips said. “[But] I’m a big believer in this: When you find the right people, your risk is drastically reduced.

“Especially with the GM, you need someone you can trust, who can build relationships in the building, and [Pace] does that so well.”

* * *

When Pace presented his first-round “cloud” for the 2017 draft to Phillips and McCaskey, it included a quarterback from North Carolina who started one season. 

Pace went over Trubisky’s positives and negatives. He did the same for others, too. 

But Trubisky stood out because of his position. The Bears’ draft started with the third overall pick.

“Obviously, the quarterback position has been an Achilles’ heel for us literally for most of the decades of Bears history,” Phillips said. “So clearly, it’s a position that we need to address.”

If Pace wanted Trubisky, Phillips was “all in.” So was McCaskey. Even if it meant moving up.

“If you’re strong in your convictions at that position, you got to go for it,” Phillips said. “I never had a problem with [Pace] trading up, especially with the rumors of what might be going on up ahead of us.”

Pace wanted his quarterback and got him. All that mattered was that the Jets, Browns and Bills didn’t. There would be no regrets for Pace. Phillips loved that.

Under Pace, the Bears have a detailed five-part grading system. When Phillips looked at the Bears’ draft board, he saw what Trubisky represented.

“Very few players on our draft board check all those boxes, where [Pace] can put that little Bears hat up that says he’s a perfect fit,” Phillips said.

Trubisky had that “hat.” He was hope and change personified in one pick.

“I’ve been in that draft room, when you pick a player and you had hoped — not that you weren’t happy — but where it hasn’t been quite the celebratory feeling,” Phillips said. “But after that selection, the place erupted. Every scout. Every executive in there. Ownership. We were all so excited. It was as exhilarating of a moment on draft day as I remembered for many years.”

* * *

Mack didn’t disappoint in his Bears debut at Lambeau Field. He followed his sack, strip and fumble recovery with a 27-yard pick-six. He was an absolute terror.

“I get goosebumps thinking about that start,” Phillips said.

The Bears still lost to the Packers that night. But they made a statement on national television. The Bears were back, though Phillips already had believed it.

The trade for Mack — which required what Phillips called “scary” compensation, including two first-round picks — took it to another level.

“It’s easy to say now when we had the good year,” Phillips said. “But it’s all about what you think is going to happen. We felt that we were going to be a much better team. How much? I don’t know. [But] that’s going to make the first-rounders be less valuable.

“And then the whole key to that trade was we decided we are not giving up getting that second-round pick back [in 2020]. That was critical.”

The Bears also had to be prepared to make Mack the NFL’s highest-paid defender after Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald’s blockbuster deal. 

In two days, the Bears worked out a trade and a massive contract for Mack. All of it was another risk worth taking.

“Given that kind of player, we thought that the time was right,” Phillips said. “We got our franchise quarterback. We got our head coach. We got a long-term commitment to Matt and Ryan.”

And now the Bears had their top-tier pass rusher.