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Keeping Pace: Bears GM leads culture change at Halas Hall

Bears GM Ryan Pace. (AP)

BOCA RATON, Fla. — John Fox had a message he wanted to convey from the get-go while at the NFC coaches breakfast during the NFL owners meetings this week.

Asked for his thoughts on the Bears’ free-agent additions, Fox offered up a new fact about his team.

“[General manager] Ryan [Pace] and his staff did a good job of getting what was probably the oldest roster in football now to where we’re probably in the top three youngest, if not the youngest,” Fox said.

It was an overdue overhaul that required trades, cuts, free-agent signings and one solid draft class from Pace. The Bears are adding their own guys and getting younger in the process. All of it has helped spur Fox’s oft-mentioned culture change at Halas Hall.

But Pace also deserves credit for an identity shift that goes beyond player acquisitions and departures. Getting the right players with the right attitude is essential. The Bears seem to respond to Pace as much as they’ve taken to Fox’s personality and tactics.

“I don’t know quite how to put a finger on it,” chairman George McCaskey said, “but there’s just kind of a feel in the building, a sense of positive energy that comes from John, who’s a force of nature, but as much so or more so from Ryan.”

If he could, Pace would prefer to stay in the background. He connects with players but only to a point. Coaches, not front-office people, are the ones who are supposed to develop bonds with players. But Pace’s methods have left an impression.

New right tackle Bobby Massie said he felt Pace was upfront and honest during his pitch and contract talks. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks said his previous relationship with Pace from their Saints days swayed him toward the Bears over the Patriots. Kick returner/wide receiver Marc Mariani described Pace as “awesome” around Halas Hall and when he interacts with players.

When Pace decided to move on from running back Matt Forte after eight seasons, he told him, as he promised he would. It wasn’t the outcome Forte wanted, but at least there wasn’t a surprise press release a la Brian Urlacher’s unceremonious end. Forte announced his own news on social media.

“[Pace’s] people skills are tremendous,” Fox said. “And it’s a fine line. Being firm yet not too easy. He’s done a terrific job, and he has a bright, bright future.”

In a long-winded answer, Fox likened Pace’s impact on the Bears’ culture to how Ivy League schools, such as Yale and Harvard, are selective.

“I feel like he’s looking for hard-nosed, tough guys who lay it all on the line every single week,” said defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, who was re-signed to a two-year deal. “He’s a younger guy. He’s full of energy. But he knows what he’s looking for.”

Pace’s approach to free agency was, indeed, selective. He had money to spend, but he was measured, as McCaskey put it, and made signings that many around the league have viewed favorably. He targeted players the Bears were familiar with in positions of need, while not grossly overspending.

“We have some needs, and he got what we hope are several starters out of it,” McCaskey said. “He took a good, measured approach, and we’ll see if it bears fruit.

“We know that the foundation of our team has to be through the draft, but if you see the right person in free agency, you go get him.”

Mariani, who was re-signed to a one-year deal, said players can see what Pace is doing and want to be a part of it.

“When you look at it from a numbers [standpoint], an improvement standpoint and on paper,” Mariani said, “things look like they can fall into place. We can see what’s coming together.”

And they like it.

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Email: ajahns@suntimes.com