The silence around Halas Hall has been more strange than deafening lately.
The Chicago Bears have lost five straight games since a strong victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 7, and a fairly promising season — three victories over teams currently in the playoffs — has gone south. That has led to rampant speculation that head coach John Fox, owner of the worst head-coaching mark in franchise history right now, is in dire trouble.
But what about general manager Ryan Pace?
Just as no one has spoken about Fox’s immediate and future status, Pace also remains in limbo, even if the belief is that he is expected to keep his job and likely be at the center of picking Fox’s successor.
Pace has kept a low profile, not speaking to the media publicly of late. Although that has led to whispers about his own status — and what role Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips will play in all of this — it could be that Pace is just quietly working on how the Bears will move on from here and who will be their top choices to replace Fox.
The Bears have a flawed roster to be sure, and you could argue there’s as much blame on Pace’s head as there is Fox’s for the 12-32 record the team has amassed since both of their arrivals to Chicago. Although some injuries can be blamed for the team’s lack of progress the past two seasons — and especially for its backslide in 2016 — and the breaking in of rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky must be accounted for, there’s no question that the personnel department needs to be mentioned in the team’s three-year failures.
Pace has overseen what appears to be a successful draft haul in landing Trubisky, even at what he determined to be the cost of doing business. Although the rookie has not burst onto the scene, most NFL observers believe he could be the future franchise passer with the proper supporting cast.
Some of that has been found with Pace’s late-round draft picks, such as 2016 fifth-round running back Jordan Howard and 2017 fourth-round back Tarik Cohen. Those were inspired choices, along with 2017 fourth-round safety Eddie Jackson, who has started and played relatively well as a rookie. The jury remains out on second-round tight end Adam Shaheen, who remains a work in progress.
In fact, it has been Pace’s higher selections that have received the most ambivalent reactions. Wide receiver Kevin White and pass rusher Leonard Floyd have not yet consistently performed like the top-10 picks they were, although injuries clearly have limited both players’ impact, especially White, who has barely played.
Along with Shaheen, second-rounders Cody Whitehair and Eddie Goldman are a mixed bag. They are starters who have played well at times but each has also experienced some sophomore struggles although Goldman appears to have overcome his in his third season. Third-rounders Hroniss Grasu and Jonathan Bullard have contributed as reserves and replacement-level starters, but it’s hard to call either one future building blocks.
Pace’s free-agent haul — outside one notable addition — has not fared as well. Akiem Hicks was an A-plus signing, and he has earned every penny of the extension he recently signed, having played at a Pro Bowl level this season. Danny Trevathan and Josh Sitton also have been very good additions; the team doesn’t play as well when they are not on the field. Others, such as right tackle Bobby Massie and defensive lineman Mitch Unrein, have done what has been expected of them and perhaps even a bit more.
But other positions have proven more difficult. With several misses at wide receiver and in the secondary, Pace’s work must be called out. Eddie Royal, Victor Cruz, Markus Wheaton, Kendall Wright, Tre McBride and others have not helped give Trubisky the pass catchers he has needed. (You can throw tight end Dion Sims in there too, to date.)
Corners Alan Ball and Tracy Porter and safety Antrel Rolle have been set free. Marcus Cooper and Quintin Demps have not proven to be money-well-spent investments to date. The same maybe can be said for Pernell McPhee, Prince Amukamara and Jerrell Freeman, even if all three are good players.
The biggest miss, of course, was quarterback Mike Glennon. He was benched after four weeks, so spending as much as they did — and appearing to outbid themselves in doing so — looks foolish now. The fact that quarterbacks Josh McCown and Case Keenum have played as well as they have at relatively bargain-basement prices for other teams makes the Glennon miss even more egregious.
Sources have indicated that Pace can’t be put fully on the hook for signing off on Fox as coach, as he was one of the names recommended strongly by Ernie Accorsi, who was hired as an advisor in the process to help shepherd the new GM through the initial process.
Plus, one of the missions of both Fox and Pace at the time was to cleanse a locker room that had been toxic. Even if the wins have not come as expected, that goal certainly was achieved. Prior to the recent rash of losing, it’s clear that the facility has been a far better environment.
We will find out in the coming weeks what the Bears’ plans are and what changes — beyond the coaching staff — might occur or not. The feeling is that Pace and his scouting department might remain largely the same, outside of some minor adjustments. And then it will be on Pace, assuming he’s given the opportunity, to help pick a new coach.
That responsibility is a big one, and it’s rare for a general manager to be given the chance to hire a third head coach — barring unusual circumstances. Pace must secure a promising new coach, continue building around Trubisky and minimize the free-agency misses in order to assure he’ll get the chance to continue operating as general manager.
In this turnaround league, that’s certainly possible. But the Bears have been on a downward trend since Lovie Smith’s final season with the team in 2012 and not even getting a whiff of the playoffs since Marc Tresman’s first year as head coach in 2013. When other teams are making worst-to-first improvements, it’s hard to view what has happened over the past few seasons — especially the three with Fox and Pace in charge — as any kind of positive development.