PHOENIX — Say this for the Bears: when they revamped their front office a year ago, they took from the best.
Ryan Poles had been employed by the Chiefs for 12 years — starting as a scouting assistant and working his way up –when the Bears named him their general manager. Poles quickly made his first hire: Ian Cunningham, who had spent the previous five years with the Eagles. Poles even created a new title to help lure him away: assistant general manager.
Poles had been to two Super Bowls with the Chiefs, and Cunningham one with the Eagles. Each man had contributed to solving the most pressing conundrum in the NFL — drafting a star quarterback. Patrick Mahomes is the best passer in the NFL, while Jalen Hurts reached the Pro Bowl in only his second full season as a starter.
Poles and Cunningham each had a hand in assembling rosters that were the most complete in the NFL this season. No team gained more yards than the Chiefs, or allowed fewer than the Eagles. Both parlayed their No. 1 playoff seeds into berths in this year’s Super Bowl.
Now the question becomes: can they do the same for the Bears?
With the worst record in the NFL, the Bears might be farthest away from the Super Bowl of any team in the sport. With the No. 1 overall pick and the most salary cap space available this offseason, the real work is just beginning for the Bears’ front office.
“[Poles] is going to do a great job,” Chiefs GM Brett Veach said this week. “I think he had a lot of young guys that stepped up and played well this year.”
Veach texted with Poles, with whom he first worked in 2013, often during the season.
“He’s a smart guy and has a really good staff around him,” he said. “He has a lot of picks and a lot of money — and a chance to do great things.”
Cunningham has been the most important member of that staff.
“I miss that guy tremendously,” Eagles general manager Howie Roseman said. “That guy’s a star. He’s a star evaluator. He has a great sense of how to build a team.”
Without making a move, Cunningham was still one of the standouts of this year’s hiring cycle. He was a finalist for GM openings with both the Cardinals and the Titans — he could have had the Arizona job if he wanted it, a source said — in the past month.
“In my humble opinion, the Bears are renting him — because he’s got a tremendous future,” Roseman said. “He’s inquisitive. He wants to know about everything, every part of it. He’s going to make a great GM.”
What the Bears do next will be an important line in Cunningham’s resume. If they make progress, Cunningham will only become that much more attractive to potential suitors.
Helping to build a consistent winner, after all, was part of what attracted the Bears to Poles last year. He worked in the front office when the Chiefs drafted Mahomes, all-world tight end Travis Kelce and defensive lineman Chris Jones.
From Poles’ arrival in 2009 through this season, the Chiefs have had 31 different players be named to the Pro Bowl a combined 76 times. They had staying power — the Bears, by contrast, had 27 different players combine for just 45 combined Pro Bowl appearances during the same timeframe.
Former Bears head coach Matt Nagy — now the Chiefs’ quarterbacks coach — first met Poles in 2013. While he said he was happy to see Poles get an opportunity to run a front office, he said it’s been hard to watch Poles tear down the Bears’ roster and not take it personally.
“Obviously it’s a little different because of the situation,” Nagy said. “[Former GM] Ryan Pace and myself poured a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that situation.”
Nagy gets it. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.
“You see guys getting traded or released,” he said. “You understand a lot of times when a new head coach and general manager comes in, a lot of times that’s what happened. It’s not unexpected. But there’s still that process of knowing that … It’s tough.
“You care for the person. Roquan Smith gets traded. That was my very first draft pick. I love Roquan like a son. It’s a part of the process.”
Now comes the hard part.
The Chiefs and Eagles are in the Super Bowl in part because of the contributions of Poles and Cunningham. To get the Bears there, they’ll have to do a lot more.