Despite a couple of setbacks early in free agency, Ryan Poles is enjoying a honeymoon as the Bears’ new general manager.
After the team went seven years with only one winning season under Ryan Pace, every Poles idea seems like a good one — from hiring Matt Eberflus to trading Khalil Mack to hiring Ian Cunningham to wanting lighter, quicker offensive linemen to signing Trevor Siemian as a presumed replacement for Nick Foles. Even Poles’ measured enthusiasm for quarterback Justin Fields is seen as a prudent move, even if it douses a bit of Bears fans’ enthusiasm for the franchise quarterback they’ve been pining for.
The disappointments don’t seem like a big deal right now. Defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi couldn’t pass his physical and was not signed after agreeing to a three-year, $40.5 million contract (and Poles hasn’t ruled out re-signing Ogunjobi later in free agency, pending his physical condition). Guard Ryan Bates — like newly acquired center Lucas Patrick — looked like a good early test of Poles’ acumen for offensive linemen that could make him an upgrade over Pace. But the Bills matched the Bears’ four-year, $17 million offer.
Bears fans who have been here too many times before seem more hopeful and cautiously optimistic that Poles is the real deal. His best suit so far is not being Pace, but let the record show that Pace was just as popular if not more so when he was in the same position in 2015.
Pace sang many of the same notes that Poles is singing today. His honest assessment of the roster helped him get the job. His hiring of two-time Super Bowl coach John Fox six days after he was hired was seen as a masterstroke — almost universally lauded locally and nationally. When Fox hired Vic Fangio as his defensive coordinator, Pace looked even more like a genius.
That was just the start. Pace traded problematic wide receiver Brandon Marshall, and everyone cheered. His restraint in the first wave of free agency (linebacker Pernell McPhee, wide receiver Eddie Royal and safety Antrel Rolle) was applauded. He reached out to Bears alumni — just as Poles has promised to do. Pace and Fox pledged to re-connect with Brian Urlacher and undo the damage of Phil Emery’s awkward dismissal of the future Hall of Fame linebacker after the 2011 season. Pace paid due respect to Love Smith-era stalwarts Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman letting them go.
Pace had a misstep when he signed defensive lineman Ray McDonald, who had been cut by the 49ers after accusations of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Bears cut McDonald two months later after an arrest on suspicion of domestic violence and child endangerment in California, and it was no harm, no foul.
Heading into his first draft in 2015, Pace seemed like just what the Bears had been looking for. Even longtime media critics approved — some of them, anyhow. By and large, Pace was an early hit.”He has shown he has what it takes to become a successful general manager in the NFL,” former Bears director of college scouting Greg Gabriel wrote in the National Football Post.
That was true at the time, but sometimes things that look so good quickly turn the other way. The 37-year-old Pace and 59-year-old Fox seemed like a “perfect marriage” at the beginning. But when Pace was scouting quarterbacks for the 2017 draft he kept Fox out of the loop — so much for collaboration — and the rest is history.
And besides the eventual missteps in the draft and free agency, some of Pace’s good intentions did not materialize.
“I think it’s a good idea to add a quarterback every year [in the draft],” he said at his first owners’ meetings in Phoenix. But he drafted only one in his first six seasons — the ill-fated trade-up for Mitch Trubisky — before taking Fields last year.
Like everyone else before him, Pace knew what he was looking for — “character, toughness, instincts and intelligence” — but his own instincts too often failed him. He came in as a guy who had a hand in the Saintssigning Drew Brees in free agency, but his first quarterbacks with the Bears were Mike Glennon, Trubisky and Foles. He valued Matt Nagy’s leadership, but misjudged Nagy’s ability to develop an offense and a quarterback.
Poles knows he has a lot to prove. He wants lighter, quicker offensive linemen, but if he doesn’t have good offensive linemen, it won’t matter what shape or size they are. Poles already has made moves that could make a difference. Hiring Cunningham as his assistant general manager makes sense. He reorganized the strength-and-conditioning staff, including the hiring of Brent Salazar as the director of high performance.
But more than that, Poles has made one move that could give him a bigger edge over his failed predecessors: He has quickly put the Bears in their clearest, unobstructed rebuild mode since the firing of Lovie Smith — with retooling on both sides of the ball and a young first-round quarterback to build around.
By trading Mack, cutting nose tackle Eddie Goldman, letting guard James Daniels — and likely defensive end Akiem Hicks — go in free agency, Poles’ path for the Bears’ rebuild is in focus: using the 2022 season to see what he’s got and establish a new offense and defense, then having a lot more salary-cap space and draft capital in 2023 to set the stage for a giant leap.
(With $45 million in 2022 “dead-cap” money off the books — including Mack ($24 million), Goldman ($5 million), Andy Dalton ($5 million) and Jimmy Graham ($4.6 million) and Nick Foles out of the way ($10.66 million cap hit, $7.66 million dead-cap if he’s cut), the Bears will be flush with cap cash in 2023. And Poles will have a first-round draft pick — maybe in the top-10 –that he does not have this year.)
This is a rebuild without a lot of transition. When Emery replaced Jerry Angelo as general manager in 2012, he inherited Smith. When Marc Trestman replaced Smith in 2013, the Bears were still trying to hang on to Smith’s defense — with new coordinator Mel Tucker adjusting to them as much as they were adjusting to him.
When Pace and Fox replaced Emery and Trestman in 2015, they inherited Jay Cutler at 32, gave him his fifth offensive coordinator in seven seasons in Adam Gase and traded his favorite receiver in Marshall as part of an offensive house-cleaning. Even on defense, with Fangio a huge upgrade, there was a problematic transition, converting 4-3 defensive ends Jared Allen and Willie Young to 3-4 outside linebackers.
And when Nagy replaced Fox as coach in 2018, he had a second-year first-round quarterback in Trubisky, but also an offense on the ground floor with a defense that was ready to win. When Fangio left after that season, the defense suffered, and the offense never developed.
By Poles’ design, he and Eberflus have fewer transition impediments than those who preceded them. The offense will be built from the ground up with a 23-year-old quarterback drafted 11th overall. The defense isn’t what it was, but it’s getting younger. Without Mack (30), Hicks (32), Danny Trevathan (31) and Tashaun Gipson (31), the only projected starter over 30 is Robert Quinn (31), who not only is coming off a franchise-record 18.5-sack season, but prefers to play in a 4-3 than a 3-4.
There’s no telling what will happen. Two years from now, the Bears could be trying to get bigger and stronger on their offensive line — and Poles could even be looking for a new franchise quarterback if Fields doesn’t pan out or a new offensive coordinator if he does.
Poles still has to draft well. Eberflus still has to manage well — and be good on Sundays. There’s a long way to go. But more than any previous regime since the demise of the Smith era — 11 seasons and zero playoff wins ago — Poles and Eberflus have a clear path to success. The rest is up to them.