Bears GM Ryan Pace knows what he wants and is confident he’ll get it
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The glitz and glamor of the Cowboys’ home base — a sprawling complex over 91 acres in Frisco, Texas, appropriately named “The Star” — was difficult to ignore.
But that’s what Bears general manager Ryan Pace tried to do as he toured the lavish facility in September 2016 with chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips.
“One thing that struck a chord with me was the balance that they had with recognizing their history but also recognizing their current players,” Pace said.
The facility featured monitors with quotes from current players, not Emmitt Smith or Troy Aikman.
“To me, that was cool to see,” Pace said. “That resonates with your own current players.”
But beyond those monitors, an atrium with 40-foot-long light installations, a 12,000-seat stadium, an on-site luxury hotel and more, Pace saw a modern-day football facility with a modern flow.
“Outside their meeting rooms, there is a walk-through space out on the balcony,” Pace said. “It was where their trainers’ room was.”
It was inside “The Star” where the lightbulbs went off for the Bears’ trio. Pace was two draft classes into rebuilding the team. It was time to build everyone a proper home.
“There was this look that we all gave each other,” Pace said. “We all three knew that we could do something here.”
The next offseason, Pace embarked on a trip in search of more inspiration. This time, other members of the organization went with him: director of football administration Joey Laine, sports-science coordinator Jennifer Gibson, head equipment manager Tony Medlin, director of team-building and operations Geoff Bunzol and director of human resources Liz Geist.
They visited some of the best sports facilities in the country: the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs; the University of Colorado; the University of Oregon; Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon; the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, the home of the Seahawks; and the University of Washington.
“Instead of getting caught up in the flash — because the colleges have to do that for recruiting — [we looked at] what of substance equates to winning,” Pace said.
On Nov. 17, 2017 – in the middle of John Fox’s final season as coach — the Bears announced a modernization plan that will double the size of Halas Hall. It will provide Pace with a digital draft board and his players with even more.
At that time, Pace had his quarterback in Mitch Trubisky. In several months, Pace would hire a new coach in Matt Nagy. A new foundation soon would be laid for the modernization of Halas Hall, while a new one took hold organizationally.
“Where we’re at right now, this is what I envisioned,” Pace told the Sun-Times. “Now it’s just building upon this and growing this. But to have this head coach here and this young quarterback here — who is 24/7 passionate about the game — and a really good culture in our locker room, then all of these auxiliary pieces around him and with a brand-new facility to come, that’s a great feeling. But we’ve got to win.”
Tuning out the noise
The radio in Pace’s SUV is tuned in to The Highway, Coffee House and Alt Nation on SiriusXM. He’ll pass on NFL talk, locally or nationally.
Pace is aware that criticism of his Bears exists, of course, but he tunes it out. He said he doesn’t have a burner account on Twitter, either.
“For whatever reason, I’m relieved that it doesn’t really affect me that much,” Pace said. “You just focus on the people that are around you, and you have confidence in the decisions you’re making. You can’t get caught up in that stuff because that can paralyze you.”
Pace’s tenure has had its controversies, whether it’s the incident with Jeremiah Ratliff, the signing of Ray McDonald, the failed “year” of Mike Glennon or even rookie linebacker Roquan Smith’s contract dispute.
Pace also has made plenty of bold decisions, from acquiring outside linebacker Khalil Mack from the Raiders to trading up to draft Trubisky to replacing Fox with Nagy to saying goodbye to receiver Alshon Jeffery and kicker Robbie Gould while they still were productive and reliable.
Fox’s 14-34 record with the Bears belongs to Pace, too. He accepts it. But Fox was a Band-Aid used during a major surgical operation. Pace never promised McCaskey or Phillips a quick fix. They didn’t want it, either. Former GM Phil Emery already had attempted that.
“Before you even take the job, you realize . . . the age of the roster, the makeup of the roster and the amount of the cap allocated to older players, all those things,” Pace said. “And it takes time to change those things.”
In some cases, Pace’s changes were unpopular. In others, they were overdue.
“I look at it like I’ve only got one shot at this,” Pace said. “I never want to look back with regrets.”
Other GMs, past and present, told Pace to take that approach.
“I’ve heard it from multiple guys: ‘If I could do it again, I would trust my gut more. I would trust my instincts more,'” Pace said. “Sometimes that’s bold moves. Sometimes it’s not making a move. It’s just trusting your gut and your instincts.”
“Matt says it all the time: ‘No regrets,'” Pace said.
Installing core beliefs
The advice of Bill Quinter, a former Saints scout and GM in the Canadian Football League, forever will stick with Pace.
“He was kind of my mentor,” Pace said. “He used to always tell me, ‘Believe in what you see,’ no matter what anybody else was saying.”
It happened when Pace was a scouting assistant for the Saints in 2003 and boldly declared his affinity for Osi Umenyiora, an undersized defensive end from Troy, which was the only college to offer him a scholarship. Umenyiora had been a nose guard in high school.
“I went into the draft room and the meetings with all the veteran scouts, and I said I really like this guy and got chuckles,” Pace said.
The Giants drafted Umenyiora in the second round. By his third season, he was voted to the Pro Bowl and was named a first-team All-Pro after making 14½ sacks.
Umenyiora also won two Super Bowls with the Giants. He was part of a pass rush that harassed and beat Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in Super Bowls XLII and XLVI.
It was an early sign of Pace’s rise. Quinter died at 74 in April 2014. On Jan. 8, 2015, Pace was named the sixth GM in Bears history.
“You’re not going to be always right,” Pace said. “But when you see something like that go on, it gives you inner confidence, [where] it’s OK if the rest of the room doesn’t [like him]. Just believe in what you see and have conviction and don’t be afraid to state your opinions.”
It’s how Pace wants the Bears to scout. He retained some of Emery’s scouting staff and promoted Mark Sadowski, a former Saints colleague, to director of college scouting.
Pace implemented a new grading scale for his scouts. He has five specific things he wants his scouts to look for in players. But it also was built on Pace’s guiding principles of passion and conviction.
“In our business, it’s very easy to ride the fence a little bit,” Pace said. “We don’t want that. We totally discourage that. Right or wrong, I want the passion and the conviction with how you feel about somebody.”
It’s a scale that now has a history. Pace is able to look back critically at his first draft with the Bears in 2015. He knows whom the high and low graders are and which positions those grades specifically affect. He knows which scouts are better at digging up information. And he knows what it all means to finding a true consensus.
“I’d rather you have a stance one way or the other than not be passionate either way and you’re just right down the middle,” Pace said. “There are too many people in our business sometimes that are just trying to survive rather than being passionate about what they want to do and have conviction in what they’re saying.”
A ‘genuine partnership’
As the Bears left Canton, Ohio, after the Hall of Fame Game, Pace noticed that Nagy was busy texting. Nagy sent messages to Gibson, director of security of John Tarpey and others responsible for the travel plans of his first game as a head coach.
“He’s texting each one of them individually, just telling them how much he appreciates them,” Pace said. “I think that comes from that path that he took. That’s real. That’s just him.”
That might be both of them.
“We were both kind of overachievers when we played,” Pace said. “And then we’ve fought and scratched and clawed for every inch we’ve gained in this business.”
Pace’s and Nagy’s stories are similar. They’re from divorced homes and played for non-major programs at Eastern Illinois and Delaware, respectively. They also worked their way up from the bottom of their respective sides of football.
“It’s crazy how similar it was,” Nagy said.
When Pace discussed his vision for the Bears during Nagy’s interview, Nagy focused on two words.
“The No. 1 thing that struck me were the words ‘genuine relationship,'” Nagy told the Sun-Times. “He’s looking for a partnership that is built on authenticity, trust and just hard work. And I instantly felt that. I could feel it.
“I feel like I’m a pretty good people reader. And within three minutes of me being in that room, the person side of it, I felt connected instantly. Then we started getting into the business side of it. I could tell right away this guy needed a partner, and I knew that I was that guy.”
Finding his Brees
Drew Brees always has been part of Pace’s vision. He was there when Pace inherited Jay Cutler and when he shocked the NFL by selecting Trubisky.
“It’s very easy for scouts or anybody to get enamored with this prototypical height and this prototypical arm strength,” Pace said. “To me, there are so many other more important qualities that come with being a good quarterback than that.”
It starts with accuracy and processing information quickly.
“Brees, as we know, isn’t the tallest guy, and he doesn’t have a rocket,” Pace said. “But, man, he’s got unbelievable accuracy and an unbelievable ability to process and see the field. It’s instincts. That was always with me.”
There was more, too. Pace saw firsthand how Brees changed the Saints. He saw what he meant to his teammates. He saw him become the face of the franchise, a man who helped New Orleans recover from Hurricane Katrina. And, of course, Pace saw Brees win Super Bowl XLIV and set records.
“Brees has just this relentless drive to be great,” Pace said.
Pace pointed to Brees’ background. He was a state champion at his high school in Texas, but the major college programs in the state didn’t recruit him. Instead, Brees starred at Purdue.
“People forget that there’s a reason why he got to the Saints,” Pace said.
Brees was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001. By 2004, however, his time with the team was up with Philip Rivers’ arrival. The Chargers said goodbye to Brees after the 2005 season.
But Brees was too determined too fail. Pace saw that. He believed it.
“Brees always had that chip on his shoulder,” Pace said. “When you walk out of the facility and it’s 11 o’clock at night and he’s in there watching tape — and he’s this far in his career — that’s awesome.”
“Mitch is like that, too,” Pace said. “This drive and this passion to be great.”
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