Two hours after he traded up to draft Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields on April 29, 2021, then-Bears general manager Ryan Pace bounded downstairs at Halas Hall and sat down in front of a computer for a Zoom conference.
“The excitement throughout our whole building, you could feel it as I walked down here tonight,” he said. “What he’s going to do for the future of our organization.”
Pace was right — eventually. But it was a future Pace wouldn’t be around to see.
After another underwhelming season, Bears chairman George McCaskey, at the urging of advisor Bill Polian, decided to clean house in January. He fired Pace and coach Matt Nagy, replacing them with Ryan Poles and Matt Eberflus.
Eberflus didn’t keep a single Nagy-era position coach. Poles has replaced all but 19 players who were on the 2021 Bears.
Fields, though, remains.
In the last month, he has emerged as one of the NFL’s most exciting players, albeit on a 3-7 team. If he continues on the same trajectory that has seen the Bears average 31 points in the last four games, Fields could become Pace’s ultimate parting gift to the organization that fired him: a franchise quarterback.
It would be an ironic twist for a general manager whose seven-year Bears career is best-remembered for him trading up to draft another quarterback, Mitch Trubisky, instead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2017.
The Bears released Trubisky after four seasons. In fact, no first-round draft pick chosen by Pace received a second contract from the Bears. Fields is his last hope. If he turns out to be the dynamic quarterback the franchise has coveted since Sid Luckman retired in 1950, Pace’s tenure — in which the Bears went 48-67 with two playoff losses — will be remembered far more fondly.
Pace would have to enjoy that satisfaction from afar. Less than two months after the Bears fired him, he joined the Falcons — the Bears’ opponent Sunday — as a senior personnel executive. He declined comment for this story.
Pace should be credited for taking the long view of the franchise and trading up for Fields — he gave the Giants the No. 20 pick in 2021, a 2021 fifth-rounder, a 2022 first-rounder and a 2022 fourth-rounder — even though he knew his job was riding on a must-win season.
GMs rarely make such moves. While coaching changes after a quarterback’s first season are fairly common, front-office makeovers aren’t. Pace was the first GM since 2016 to get fired at the end of a season in which he drafted a quarterback in the first round. The last to do so was the Titans’ Ruston Webster, who had selected quarterback Marcus Mariota second overall about eight months before his ouster.
Two GMs since have left their posts after drafting quarterbacks, but both were retirements planned months in advance. The Ravens’ Ozzie Newsome left after drafting Lamar Jackson in 2018, and the Steelers’ Kevin Colbert retired days after picking Kenny Pickett in the first round in April.
History might prove Pace right for picking Fields. But it shouldn’t ignore what happened afterward. Pace and Nagy believed Fields had the skills to become perhaps the greatest quarterback in Bears history, yet they announced on draft night that he would be the backup to Andy Dalton.
It took a knee injury to Dalton to force Fields into regular game action. Later, when both quarterbacks were healthy, Nagy even asked McCaskey his opinion on which player to start. That made the chairman uncomfortable. He believed it was a decision best left to the coach. McCaskey cited the incident after firing Nagy. Fields’ 10 inconsistent starts last season — and the Bears’ 6-11 record — weren’t enough to save Pace’s or Nagy’s job.
The presence of a first-round quarterback, though, made their vacancies more attractive.
Eberflus certainly noticed. In January, he went deep into the interview process with the Jaguars, who had No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, and the Bears. Having a young quarterback in place was appealing.
“When you’re looking at different types of places to go, you take spots for that reason,” he said. “The No. 1 spot you look at is quarterback. You study and look at that, and I loved what I saw. I’m loving what I’m seeing even more since I’ve been here for this amount of time. …
“The athleticism, the toughness, the grit, the ability to make special plays. And he’s done that.”