Culture, collaboration, process.
With those three anemic buzzwords, the Chicago Bears tried—and failed—to market a six-game losing streak as a legitimate reason general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy are keeping their jobs for another season.
During an 87-minute press conference Wednesday, chairman George McCaskey, president and CEO Ted Phillips, Pace and Nagy used culture seven times, collaboration nine times and process 18 times. After another national TV game featuring a downright offensive lack of offense, McCaskey decided not to fire anybody. This franchise is among the most directionless in the league, but it will stay the course, whatever that course is.
The word adversity popped up just as often as collaboration did. NFL teams have long made a habit of hiding behind the former to avoid culpability for what they are really describing: self-inflicted failure.
"The popular opinion is to make a change because we hit adversity," Phillips said.
The Bears "hit adversity" because they played bad football and lost football games. It's not random. It's not luck. The rival Packers, a team that should serve as a measuring stick, beat Chicago by 16 and 19 points. The Bears went 2-4 in the NFC North.
"In life, you get challenged a little bit," Nagy said. "We all get challenged in different ways of how are we going to react. What I think it taught me as a head coach is that we have a group of guys that we've built over the last couple years here, and Ryan has built since he's got here, and it's taken time to be able to get through moments like that."
Reporters asked 12 questions about the most important issue looming over the Bears: the quarterback situation. What do you see as the most important part of the quarterback evaluation process? Why do you have confidence in Ryan to take a swing at the next quarterback? What have you identified as the missteps to be avoided going forward in this next pursuit of a franchise quarterback? Will you explore re-signing Mitch?
Yet, in return, the Bears brass talked around the topic and did not give a concrete answer, except to say that "everything is on the table" when it comes to acquiring a quarterback and that they know they need to get more out of the position, which seems to be an admission that they don't view Mitchell Trubisky as the best solution for next season.
Pace was asked what he learned specifically from picking Trubisky over Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2017 (and trading up for Trubisky, an error that several sources I'd spoken to around the league felt certain would cost Pace his job). The general manager gave a winding answer that ended with the Bears' unofficial 2021 team slogan: collaboration.
"I think not to get fixated on the past, we're focused on the future, but I think you're right," he said. "You always have to learn through every one of these experiences and what we go through, and we can talk about that today. I think as I reflect back—and you're going to hear this word a lot today, because it's true, is collaboration; the collaboration that Matt and I have. I just have a lot of confidence in doing that together because it's boded well for us in other positions we've selected."
Despite saying he would talk about what he learned, Pace didn't actually talk about what he learned, and that's alarming. He needs to be fixated on the past so that he doesn't repeat the mistakes he made in drafting and committing to Trubisky. (Zeroing in on one quarterback early in the process, projecting too much just based on the prospect's athletic traits, not drafting another quarterback since then when it's been clear for two years that Trubisky is not the guy.)
Pace was asked the question again later in the press conference, and that time more specifically about what led to his misevaluation, and he still wouldn't answer, saying only that taking on the task together with Bears coaches gives him confidence. Before drafting Trubisky, Pace took a swing and missed on another quarterback in March 2017. He signed veteran Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract that surprised many around the league, since other teams' interest in Glennon didn't seem to be serious enough to force that number.
That "collaboration" was the word of the day was pretty funny, given that in 2017, the vast majority of the coaching and scouting staff, even executives and coordinators, were clueless that Trubisky was even in consideration for the Bears' first-round pick until the phone call was made.
The one small hope for the franchise's future at the position is that Nagy will be a better evaluator of quarterback talent than Pace. Nagy was the Chiefs offensive coordinator when Kansas City selected Mahomes. But when he was asked about what the most important factor is in evaluating quarterbacks, he wouldn't give a straight answer. And Pace and Nagy are already 0-1 when collaborating to acquire a quarterback. The trade for veteran Nick Foles, who famously had experience in Nagy's system, has been an outright failure.
This postseason press conference was one big orchestration to shift blame and to try to sell the decision to keep everything status quo, but the Bears' message missed the mark. Someone should have told McCaskey, Phillips, Pace and Nagy that it's OK to be honest. It's OK to tell the truth and admit that this season revealed some ugly realities about a team good enough to sneak into an expanded playoff field but bad enough that McCaskey admitted to receiving emails from fans demanding he fire somebody.
There's no starting quarterback to speak of, Nagy and offensive coaches failed to develop Trubisky over the last three seasons, there's no young quarterback developing on the roster, the offense struggled to find an identity as Nagy's first-half-of-the-season play-calling didn't suit Trubisky, the offensive line couldn't hold up when Foles was starting, and the defense has shown evidence that it may be past its championship window. There's limited cap space, and the Bears will pick 20th in the 2021 draft.
"The fans just want to have answers and real, honest talk," said former Bears offensive lineman Kyle Long, who called in to vent to Chicago sports radio station 670 The Score. A parade of angry callers marked the station's coverage, and one show block was dedicated to picking another NFL team to root for. (The Bills and Browns were popular choices.)
In one of Pace's tangents about culture, he amazingly spun the six-game losing streak as real proof that this is a good team with a promising future. "I do think there's a lot of teams in this league that would not come out of the six-game stretch we went through," he said. "And I think that speaks to—you say culture, but I think it speaks to the coaches, and I think it speaks to the young talent on our team."
Well, he's right about one thing. There aren't many teams that can recover from a six-game losing streak, because there aren't many that get themselves into the position in the first place.
There were only two other teams that faced a six-game losing streak this season: The 2-14 Jets, who fired head coach Adam Gase, and the 1-15 Jaguars, who fired head coach Doug Marrone and general manager David Caldwell.
The list of teams that didn't lose six games in a row yet still fired leadership this season is a lot longer:
- The 4-12 Texans fired Bill O'Brien.
- The 4-11-1 Eagles fired Doug Pederson.
- The 4-12 Falcons fired Dan Quinn and general manager Thomas Dimitroff.
- The 7-9 Chargers fired Anthony Lynn.
- The 5-11 Lions fired Matt Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn.
And by the way, the 8-8 Bears pulled themselves out of that losing streak by finding an offensive explosion against three of the worst defenses in the NFL: the Texans, Vikings and Jaguars. They continued to lose to strong teams: Green Bay and then New Orleans in the playoffs.
"Frankly, I don't know that a lot of people have confidence in this course of action," McCaskey said. "But sometimes you have to take the route that you think is best, even if...when it's not the most popular decision."
McCaskey took over as Bears chairman in 2011. He owns just two winning records in his time in the position: 12-4 in 2018 with Nagy and Pace, and 10-6 in 2012 with head coach Lovie Smith, who was fired after the season when the Bears missed the playoffs. Since firing Smith, the Bears have only had one winning season, and under McCaskey's leadership, Chicago has been perfectly and consistently mediocre—with four 8-8 campaigns—and have hired and fired two unsuccessful head coaches, Marc Trestman and John Fox, in between Smith and Nagy.
McCaskey said he leans on other NFL franchise owners for advice on decisions like the one he faced in determining whether he should retain Phillips, Pace and Nagy.
"Well, there are a number of people that I trust and respect in the league, just a few of them, certainly not an inclusive list, are John Mara, Art Rooney and Michael Bidwill," McCaskey said. "They have been through these type of situations, and it's an unusual dynamic in the NFL I think. I think people are reluctant to tell other people how they should run their business, but those three in particular have been very helpful whenever I've had a question or a concern or ask them for advice or to share their experiences. I've found their feedback to be very helpful."
One league executive said it's not common for NFL franchise owners to bounce firing decisions off one another but that McCaskey, Rooney, Mara and Bidwell make up a tight clique that has a reputation for being more old-school and conservative regarding decision-making.
Along with the Bears, the Steelers, Giants and Cardinals are among the league's oldest franchises, and the teams have been owned by the same family for all or nearly all of their existence. "That is not the group where you are like, 'Hey, we are going to go push the envelope!'" the executive said.
Within that context, McCaskey's decision to stay the course isn't surprising. He trusts Pace and Nagy to find the franchise quarterback who has eluded the Bears long before their arrival, and three times already under Pace's watch. After an hour-and-half press conference, there are few details as to how they will do it or how long they will do it for. (McCaskey, Phillips and Pace all dodged a question on how many years were left on Pace and Nagy's contracts.)
One thing we do know: It'll be a process, you know, the collaborative type.