Ryan Pace hasn’t exactly had a golden touch in his first two seasons as the Bears’ general manager. On the contrary, it seems like the football gods are putting the 39-year-old Pace through some kind of bizarre initiation to test his managerial mettle.
Wide receiver Kevin White, Pace’s first No. 1 draft pick, is on injured reserve for the second time in two seasons. Linebacker Leonard Floyd, Pace’s second No. 1 pick, got off to a slow start in training camp and remains a work-in-progress. Asked what Floyd needs to do to be a bigger factor as a pass rusher, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said simply, “to be healthy.”
Pernell McPhee, Pace’s big-ticket free agent last year, has been injured more than he hasn’t since signing with the Bears and hasn’t played since last season. Danny Trevathan, Pace’s biggest expenditure in free agency this season, has missed the last two games with a sprained thumb. Connor Barth, Pace’s hand-picked place-kicker, is 2-for-4.
At almost every turn, Pace has struggled to get bang for his buck. But linebacker Jerrell Freeman has been worth every penny of the three-year, $12 million free agent contract he signed in March. He didn’t come to Chicago with McPhee’s sack potential or Akiem Hicks’ tremendous physical presence or Floyd’s upside or Trevathan’s Super Bowl ring, but the former Indianapolis Colt has been the most dependable and most consistently productive player on Fangio’s defense.
Freeman leads the Bears with 41 tackles and 28 solo tackles (safety Harold Jones-Quartey is second with 24 and 20). He leads the Bears with four tackles-for-loss — no other player has more than two. He rarely leaves the field — playing 272-of-278 defensive snaps (97.8 percent) this season.
The key to his success? Speed? Size? Explosivness? None of the above. He’s just a good football player. “He’s been a Mike linebacker for a long time in the NFL and CFL,” Fangio said, “so he’s had a lot of snaps as a behind-the-ball linebacker and his experience and play recognition is showing up.”
The Bears trip to Indianapolis to play the Colts on Sunday underscores Freeman’s value. Sio Moore, the linebacker the Colts acquired via trade to replace Freeman, was cut Tuesday after the Colts lost to the Jacksonville in London. They miss Freeman.
Be that as it may, Freeman insists this game has not been circled on his calendar since March 12.
“I’m going into it with the same amount of passion I go into any game,” he said. “I’m always passionate. I’m always aggressive. I’m always tencious. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be playing as long as I’ve been playing. It would be a discredit to myself.”
No matter how hard he was pressed on the matter this week, Freeman refused to acknowlege that this was an opportunity to remind the Colts that they should have stepped up in free agency.
“The way it ended … it’s a business. Can’t take things personally,” he said. “It was their decision that the best thing for their organization was to let me walk, so it is what it is.”
If Colts coach Chuck Pagano regrets management’s decision to let Freeman go, he wasn’t letting on.
“Roster mechanics are roster mechanics,” Pagano said. “There’s obviously a ton of dialogue [between the Colts and Freeman’s agent] and you’d love to keep ‘em all. But you can’t.”
But he made it clear he knows what he lost.
“Love Jerrell,” Pagano said. “I’ve got the utmost respect for Jerrell as a ball player and more importantly as a man for how he plays this game. His toughness. His passion. his physicallity. He plays it the way it’s supposed to be played. We’re going to see him on Sunday, and I know and our guys know exactly what we’re going to get.”