At 36, Ryan Poles is a first-time general manager and the second youngest general manager in the NFL. And he looked the part of green rookie at the opening press conference prior to the start of Bears training camp –a little nervous, unsure and hardly in command of the room like the GM often is.
And never more so than when it came to the touchy subject of Roquan Smith, the Bears’ All-Pro linebacker who was expected to hold out of training camp practices because of a contract impasse.
Smith is arguably the team’s best player, and at 25 is considered the cornerstone of the rebuild under Poles and head coach Matt Eberflus. Most general managers know better than to negotiate in the media, but the veteran GMs know how to address a hot-button issue without revealing any details — the Cubs’ Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and White Sox GM Rick Hahn do it all the time.
It’s a finesse part of a public job that Poles had no interest in.
“I know I’m going to get a lot of question [about Roquan] and I get it,” Poles said. “[But] I’m just not gonna talk about contracts and all that. I just want to make sure we addressed it in terms of my feelings for him — nothing changes.”
And sure enough, those questions that were sure to come elicited no new information.
“Has Roquan communicated his intentions for training camp?”
“Again, I’m not gonna get into that situation at this time,” he said.
Poles was so careful about talking about Smith, he wouldn’t even acknowledge whether Smith had an agent after representing himself in offseason negotiations.
“Umm, uhhh, you’ll have to –yeah, I’m not gonna talk about that,” Poles said.
Fast forward two weeks later and Smith’s “hold-in” — which had been a non-issue with Roquan reporting to camp, attending practices but not participating –blew up significantly when Smith announced via social media that he was asking for a trade and accused the Bears of failing to “negotiate in bad faith.”
This time, Poles stepped up. Following the Bears’ Family Fest practice at Soldier Field, Poles addressed the Roquan situation at a post-practice press conference and provided a little more substance in answering questions
“I thought we’d be in a better situation, to be completely honest with you,” Poles said. ” I’ve always believed and always will that we take care of our homegrown talent. We pay them. We take care of them and we take everyone for what they’ve done and what they can become in the future.”
Poles even divulged at least a hint of what the Bears were offering — indirectly responding to the charge that the Bears were not negotiating in good faith.
“We’ve showed respect from a very early time-frame and … there’s record-setting pieces of this contract that I thought was going to show him the respect that he deserves –and obviously that hasn’t been the case.”
That’s a huge difference from the Ryan Poles everybody saw the day camp opened. He went from looking like a rookie doing this job for the first time to a veteran GM who’s done this before.
And that’s what it’s going to take for Poles to succeed at Halas Hall, where three general managers before him have been fired in the last 10 years –he’s going to have to grow into the job.
Already, Poles has been tested in his new job. A deal to sign defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi — Poles’ biggest free agent target at the most critical position in his defense — fell through when Ogunjobi could not pass his physical. Poles had not been told of a complication following Ogunjobi’s offseason foot surgery.
Three players were arrested in the offseason — wide receivers Byron Pringle and David Moore and linebacker Matt Adams. All-Pro defensive end Robert Quinn skipped the mandatory veteran mini-camp in June. And then Roquan Smith held out.
“You’ve got to take one thing at a time,” Poles said. “That’s part of this job, there’s something new –literally every single day there’s something thrown at you with your team [and] you’ve got to talk through things. And you want to do what’s best for the Bears.
“I feel like it’s going well. There’s going to be more things on the way and we’re just going to keep chipping away and working through them.”
When Poles was hired in January to replace Pace, his first decision raised some eyebrows — hiring first-time head coach Matt Eberflus as his head coach less than 48 hours after getting the job. It seemed a little too convenient –Eberflus had already been interviewed by the Bears’ searching committee for the coaching job before Poles was hired.
Poles pushed back against the notion that he was hiring ownership’s candidate and not his own. Would he have preferred to do a more expansive search on his own?
“I did have that opportunity. I found him,” Poles said, pointing toward Eberflus on the dais at the George “Mugs” Halas Auditorium in January.
Poles’ intuition about people will be a huge key to his success. And in fact, the hiring of Eberflus is also an indication that Poles is willing to go against the grain.
He hired a defensive coach for a team when other teams with quarterbacks like Justin Fields are hiring quarterback whisperers (as Pace did with Matt Nagy for Mitch Trubisky). And one reason he did that was because Eberflus not only had a plan to hire Luke Getsy as offensive coordinator, but also was prepared to hire his replacement if Getsy leaves to take a head coaching job. They both were thinking long term.
“[His plan] made sense to sustain success for a long period of time,” Poles said when asked what impressed him about Eberflus. “It wasn’t short-sighted, where we have success –[as] we saw with Atlanta and [Mike] Shanahan –and then it crashes. What’s the progression of it? He had that laid out.”
And with a gaping hole at wide receiver in a wide receiver-heavy draft — and a need on the offensive line –Poles instead used his first two draft picks on defensive players, both in the second round. He took Washington cornerback Kyler Gordon with the 39th overall pick and Penn State safety Jaquan Brisker with the 48th pick.
And while the Bears look very needy on offense in training camp, Gordon and Brisker already look like they were the best players available. Both are in line to be Week 1 starters, with star potential. More importantly at this point, both players look like good fits for Eberflus’ defense — physical, aggressive and athletic.
That’s the part that goes beyond the normal honeymoon and general manager and his coach usually have.
“The communication’s been great,” Eberflus said when asked how his relationship with Poles has grown. “What the six or seven months now has proven to me is that we’re in line with what we want the team to look like. You can see that. We want an athletic, fast, tough football team. And that’s what we’re striving to get every day.”
As a 36-year-old general manager — less than five years older than defensive end Robert Quinn –Poles often dresses and looks more like a coach than a GM and is particularly engaged with the players and staff.
“He’s a hands-on GM,” Eberflus said. “He’s in the building, working with the players, talking to the guys, encouraging them throughout the day. And in practice, he’s observing [and] might come in the middle sometimes and I’ll be talking to him about what plays we’re running. He’s been great.”
Poles became a popular general manager candidate in NFL circles because of his 13 years with the Chiefs when they went from a 2-14 doormat the year before he was hired to Super Bowl champions. He turned down an interviewHe was hired by Scott Pioli, retained by John Dorsey and retained again by Brett Veach.
He arrived with glowing endorsements from all of his bosses, but also knows what he doesn’t know. He hired Ian Cunningham as assistant general manager — the first time the Bears have had an assistant GM.
“I thought it was more important to bring someone else in with more experience from a different place,” Poles said. “With Ian’s background with the Ravens and the Eagles, he’s seen a lot from Howie Roseman and Ozzie Newsome. To add that experience is critical.”
While Poles’ inexperience makes for some challenges in his first year as a general manager, his youth can be a boon. He has a healthy appreciation for the importance of maintaining mental health in today’s professional athletes. In fact, he said he still sees a sports psychologist on a monthly basis.
He made a bold move to address that with his players. He replaced LaMar “Soup” Campbell, a popular director of player engagement, with Mike Wiley, Jr., as director of player development and mental skills.
“One thing I noticed is … the pressures that this game puts on you,” Poles said. “There’s a mental piece to this that’s absolutely critical, and I wanted someone that could come in and be educated through their education — through school — on how to work with players to get their mind-set the right way.
“How do you clear your mind? How do you go to the next step and kind of push away a bad game, a bad practice or things that are wearing on you mentally? How can I overcome that? I just wanted to go in a different direction on the support that we’re giving our players in that aspect of it.”
Poles is providing Halas Hall with 21st-century leadership it desperately needs. Ultimately, he will need to upgrade the roster. And, of course, get the quarterback right — which his predecessors have failed to do. A lot depends on Poles being able to mold Halas Hall into his vision instead of the other way around. His biggest job is to grow into the job, and make it his own.