The Last Dance of Ryan Pace?
Ever heard the name Stu Inman? As a Chicago sports fan, you should be familiar with him. In fact, you owe him an everlasting debt of gratitude. Why? Because he’s the man who passed up on Michael Jordan in the 1984 NBA draft, instead opting for Kentucky big man Sam Bowie with the 2nd overall pick. His decision forever altered the course of two franchises, and ultimately NBA history. Bowie did make the all-rookie team that year, the lone accolade of his career, while Jordan won six championships en route to becoming the greatest player in the history of the sport.
I wonder if fans of the Kansas City Chiefs or Houston Texans’ are just as grateful for Bears’ GM Ryan Pace, who passed on Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in order to draft Mitchell Trubisky with the second overall pick in the 2017 draft.
Four years later, Mahomes is arguably the most electrifying player in the NFL, and barring serious injury, a perennial MVP candidate, Super Bowl contender, and future Hall of Famer. Watson, who has proven himself every bit as dynamic, led the NFL in passing yards this season and was named to his third Pro Bowl. Meanwhile, Trubisky has become but the latest example of Bears’ quarterbacks melting into the abyss of futility that has defined the position for this franchise for the last three decades.
Yes, Mitch was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018 (as an alternate; replacing a Super-Bowl-bound Jared Goff), but the honor was ill-deserved. Trubisky ranked 10th in the conference that year in passer rating, 11th in passing yards, and threw more interceptions than all but three NFC quarterbacks (Cam Newton, Josh Rosen, and Jameis Winston). Yet considering it was only his second year in the league, and his first full season as the starter, the fact that Trubisky led the team to a 12-win regular season and an NFC North title made it easy to obscure the fact that he didn’t even rank in the top half of quarterbacks in his own conference. That being said, Ryan Pace had to be pleased with the quarterback’s trajectory, and optimism abounded that he would continue his ascension in 2019.
That never happened. Trubisky finished the 2019 campaign ranked 28th in touchdown passes, 30th in total QBR, and 32nd in yards gained per passing attempt and completion. To be clear, his head coach and his offensive line deserve a lot of the blame, but it was clear to anyone watching that Trubisky had majorly regressed. Similarly, the beginning of this season did little to inspire confidence, affirming a painful truth that Bears’ fans like myself had tried to convince ourselves didn’t exist from the very beginning: that Mitchell Trubisky was destined to be enshrined in a robust history of Bears’ quarterback infamy, a Mount Rushmore of Bears’ quarterback ineptitude.
But there are many levels to this colossal, career, and franchise-defining (some might say unforgiveable) error of judgement on the part of Ryan Pace. It’s not just that Pace struck out when he chose Trubisky over Mahomes and Watson; it’s the fact that he mortgaged the Bears’ future in doing so.
Convinced that the San Francisco 49er’s were poised to select Trubisky with the 2017 No. 2 overall pick, Pace brokered an unconscionable deal, sending a third (No. 67) and fourth-round pick (No. 111) in that year’s draft, as well as a third-round selection (No. 70) in 2018 to the 49ers, all so that he could move up ONE spot to take a mostly-unproven one-year college starter in Trubisky. San Francisco ended up trading the No. 67 pick to the Saints (who then selected a running back named Alvin Kamara), and used the third-round pick acquired from the Bears in the following year to draft linebacker Fred Warner, who was just selected to his first Pro-Bowl. And it should be noted that the Niners still ended up getting a quarterback that season, acquiring Jimmy Garoppolo (who has plenty of detractors in his own right, but clearly better than Trubisky in my opinion) from the New England Patriots…and only for a second-round pick.
Now I am not going to pretend that I even knew about Alvin Kamara coming out of college, or Fred Warner for that matter, and the reality is that there were several NFL GM’s who passed on those players. Hindsight is 20/20. And yes, I also understand that New England did not decide to deal Garoppolo until the 2018 season had already started, and Pace did not know that he would be on the trading block going into the draft. However, they are aggravating factors that underscore just how egregious a maneuver Pace had engineered.
Bears’ ownership may have decided to retain Pace, at least for now, but the clock may have already started ticking on his tenure in Chicago. The Bears will have to make a long-term determination on Pace in the next year, and his 2017 draft-day blunder will likely weigh the heaviest, and rightfully so. However, it will certainly not be the only factor. Truth be told, no NFL GM is immune to a poor draft selection or bad free-agent signing. If this were an exact science, or if copies of the Gray Sports Almanac from Back to the Future II were available, then no GM would ever be fired.
With that being said, Pace has amassed a body of work with mixed results over the last six seasons. Here are some of the more notable “hits” and “misses” from the Ryan Pace era that will ultimately determine whether 2021 will be his last with the Bears.
HITS: (In no particular order)
Pace drafts Eddie Jackson in the 4th round (April, 2017): I have to be honest, I actually had to think about this one before deciding to put it in the Ryan Pace “hits” column. Why the hesitation? Despite accumulating 10 interceptions and 5 fumble recoveries in his first three seasons, five of which he returned for touchdowns (3 pick-sixes, 2 FR’s for TD), Jackson did not record a single interception in 2020, and at times looked utterly lost in coverage. He did however notch a career high in tackles in 2020 (63 solo) and forced fumbles (3). Whether we attribute his drop-off this season to Chuck Pagano is debatable, but clearly Jackson was not the kind of impact player that we have come to expect by virtue of his stellar performance the last three seasons. However, Jackson’s body of work, which includes two Pro Bowl selections (2018 & 2019) as well as being named a First-Team All-Pro in 2018, affords him the benefit of the doubt. Considering that Pace drafted him in the 4th round is all the more reason why Jackson should firmly remain in the “hits” column…at least for now.
Pace pulls off a trade for Khalil Mack (Sept. 2018): Much like Eddie Jackson, Khalil Mack’s production has also seen a drop-off from the past two seasons. Could we attribute this to lingering injuries, having to deal with more double-teams, as well as the now-retired Chuck Pagano? Probably all of those have made an impact. The challenge for Mack is performing up to the level of his 6-year, $141 million contract, which at the time made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. In 2018, Khalil Mack was worth every penny (and the two first-round picks Pace sent to the Raiders), and more, of his lucrative contract. He was an absolute game-wrecker that year, registering 12.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 18 QB hits, and 6 forced fumbles en route to earning First-Team All-Pro honors. He vaulted an already-good Bears’ defense into an elite unit. Since then, his numbers have declined, albeit moderately, but enough to question whether giving up first-round picks in 2019 and 2020 was too steep a price to pay for Mack. However, the now 6-time Pro Bowler and 3-time First-Team All-Pro is still a force to be reckoned with, and should remain a fixture on the Bears’ defense for years to come.
Pace signs Aikem Hicks (March, 2016): Since signing with the Bears in 2016, Hicks has not only been a dominant centerpiece of the Bears’ defense, he has also elevated the play of his teammates. Next Gen Stats analyzed the impact of Hicks on the pass rush of Khalil Mack in the 2019 season, and found that Mack had QB pressures on 16.4% of snaps with Hicks on the field, and only 8.7% when Hicks was off the field. To take another example from last year, the Bears defense was allowing 76.7 rushing yards per game before Hicks suffered an elbow injury which landed him on IR until the last week of the season. Without Hicks in the lineup, that number shot up to 110.5 rushing yards allowed per game. That trend was painfully obvious in the games Hicks missed due to injury in 2020. The point is, Hicks is an indispensable asset to this Bears’ defense, and perhaps one of the best free-agent signings of the Ryan Pace era.
Drafting Roquan Smith with the No. 8 pick (April, 2018): Since coming to Chicago, Roquan Smith has been a tackle machine. He has 361 combined tackles in his three seasons as a Bear, and ranked second in the league this year both in solo tackles (96) as well as tackles for loss (20). Perhaps what’s most impressive about Roquan is his motor and compete level, which was evidenced by his 20 “hustle-stops” this year (when a defender covers more than twenty yards total distance to make a tackle). According to Next Gen Stats, “Smith also recorded 16 run stuffs — tied for second-most among inside linebackers — while also finishing with 13 disruptions, 13 QB pressures, and four sacks.” Regardless of which metrics you look at, it is clear by now that by drafting Smith, Pace successfully added another foundational piece that will solidify this Bears’ defense for years to come.
Pace signs Allen Robinson to a 3-year, $42 million contract (March, 2018): If you think the Bears’ offense has been bad the past few seasons, just imagine how horrific things would have been without Allen Robinson. Pace deserves credit for his foresight in signing Robinson, who was coming off a torn ACL in 2017. Robinson has established himself as a bona fide #1 receiver the last three seasons, amassing 255 receptions for a total of 3151 yards and 17 touchdowns. (Imagine what he would have done with a better quarterback and play-caller) Furthermore, during the past two seasons, Robinson was 6th (2019) and 4th (2020) in targets amongst wide receivers, highlighting just how much the Bears’ offense has depended on him.
Pace trades up to draft David Montgomery (April, 2019): If you asked me a year ago, or even a few months ago, whether it was worth trading up to select Montgomery with the 73rd overall pick in the 2019 draft, I would have answered in the negative. However, between Weeks 12 through 18, Montgomery averaged 137.3 yards per game and totaled 8 touchdowns, proving that he is capable of being an every-down back with remarkable versatility.
MISSES: (In no particular order)
Hiring John Fox as head coach (Jan. 2015): In his first major move as Bears’ GM, Pace hired John Fox to be the 15th head coach in franchise history. The Bears suffered through three straight losing seasons under Fox, finishing 14-34 in that span and winning a total of three games in the NFC North.
Pace Signs Mike Glennon to a 3-year, $45 million deal (March, 2017): Do I even need to say anything other than that? The headline is a punchline in itself. Glennon lasted all of four games as the Bears’ starting quarterback, throwing 5 interceptions (and 3 lost fumbles) to only 4 touchdowns, before being benched during a Week 4 loss at Green Bay.
Drafting Kevin White with the 7th pick in the 2015 draft: Despite having only one standout season in college (sound familiar?), Pace drafted White mainly to fill a void that was left when Brandon Marshall was traded to the New York Jets. White missed his entire rookie season with a stress fracture in his shin, and ultimately played in a total of only 14 games for the Bears, catching 25 passes and zero touchdowns.
Trading up to draft Leonard Floyd (April, 2016): Despite concerns regarding his size and durability, Pace traded a 4th-round pick to be able to move up two spots to select the outside linebacker from Georgia. His athleticism and versatility were highly-lauded, but it never translated into the kind of production you would expect from a top-ten draft pick. Floyd managed just 18.5 sacks in four seasons with the Bears, before being released last March. Ironically, Floyd registered his highest single-season sack total (10.5) with the Rams this season.
Pace gives Robert Quinn a 5-year, $70 million contract to replace….Leonard Floyd (March, 2020): Robert Quinn was brought here to do what he had done best in his nine years in the league entering this season: rush the passer. Quinn had a career total of 80.5 sacks before putting on a Bears’ uniform in 2020; he now has 82.5. Quinn seemed invisible for large stretches this season, and for a one-dimensional player who has proven to be a liability against the run, registering only two sacks qualifies this signing as a “miss.” The fact that Pace gave a descending player entering his tenth NFL season $70 million…may qualify the move as an utter failure.
Pace cuts Robbie Gould (Sept. 2016): Yes, it is true that despite being the most accurate kicker in Bears’ history (85.4% accuracy between 2005-2015), Robbie Gould was uncharacteristically inaccurate at the end of the 2015 season, when he missed 6 of his final 24 field goal attempts, and was cut by Ryan Pace before the beginning of the 2016 campaign. Since Pace let the veteran kicker go, and up until the beginning of the 2020 season, a combination of Connor Barth, Mike Nugent, Eddie Piniero, Cairo Santos, and Cody Parkey collectively converted on just 77.6% of their field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, Robbie Gould, since leaving Chicago, has connected on 89.4% of his attempts. It should be noted that even during Gould’s last season with the Bears, he still managed to have an 84.6% accuracy rate. Pace’s decision to cut ties with the franchise’s all-time leading scorer was premature and reactionary. Until Cairo Santos’ breakout year in 2020 in which he converted 93.8% of his attempts, poor field-goal kicking has haunted the Bears, not to mention my memory (double-doink anyone?)
Trading down to draft Adam Shaheen (April, 2017): Pace traded down in the second round with the Cardinals, swapping the No. 36 pick in exchange for the No. 45 selection, to draft Shaheen, who tallied only 26 receptions for 249 yards in his three seasons in Chicago. Shaheen was plagued by injuries and inconsistent play before being traded to the Dolphins this past summer. And for what it’s worth, Arizona used the No. 36 pick on safety Budda Baker, who was just named to this third Pro Bowl in four years.
Pace signs Trey Burton to 4-year, $32 million contract (March, 2018): Burton was seen as an up-and-coming player who was uniquely-suited to thrive in new head coach Matt Nagy’s offense. Burton proved to be a valuable asset in his first regular-season as a Bear, as he posted career highs in receptions (54), receiving yards (569), and touchdowns (6). However, Burton was a surprise inactive for the Bears’ playoff game against Philadelphia, an inexplicable absence which to this day remains clouded in mystery. Burton was virtually invisible in 2019, appearing in only 8 games and recording just 14 receptions before the Bears decided to let him go.
Pace trades up to draft Anthony Miller (April, 2018): It’s hard to believe that the Bears gave up anything to draft Miller, let alone a 4th-round draft pick. Miller has not come anywhere close to fulfilling his potential after being the sixth wide receiver taken in the 2018 draft (51st overall selection in draft). Questions surrounding Miller’s work ethic and professionalism have plagued him since coming into the league. Last Sunday’s ejection during the Bears’ playoff loss to the Saints was a microcosm of Miller’s lack of focus and discipline. As was the case when Miller was unanimously voted by the Bears’ wide receivers’ corps during Allen Robinson’s charity gala event “A Night Within Reach,” as the most-likely player to be late for practice. Of course, this was all in jest, but it is emblematic of the concerns the Bears’ coaching staff have expressed about Miller’s preparation and attention to detail. The excitement and optimism that abounded after Miller’s rookie season, in which the former Memphis standout caught 7 touchdowns, has all but dissipated as he has only managed to find the end-zone four times in the last two seasons.
Hiring Matt Nagy to replace John Fox (January, 2018): Pace looked like a genius after the 2018 season for hiring Nagy, part of the reason he was named the Sporting News NFL Executive of the Year. Nagy led the Bears to a 12-4 season, and their first NFC North title since 2010. If not for an infamous double-doink, Nagy and the Bears could have made a serious run at a Super Bowl. Nagy deserves credit for changing the locker room culture since becoming head coach, winning the respect of his players, and somehow managing to keep the Bears’ ship afloat by salvaging 8-8 records each of the last two regular-seasons when things seemed to be spiraling completely out of control.
But for an offensive coach, Matt Nagy’s offense sure has been bad, at times almost epically-inept. The last two seasons the Bears’ offense has ranked near the bottom the league in total yards, points scored, and 3rd-down efficiency. Nagy has shown himself not to be so much of a play-caller, but rather a play-collector. Rather than demonstrating any real vision, Nagy’s offense has been a schizophrenic assortment of gadgetry. Not since ceding his play-calling duties to Bill Lazor in Week 10 did the Bears’ offense show any signs of life, and consequently, Mitchell Trubisky as well. In the end, this may be the biggest criticism of Nagy; his failure to develop his quarterback. Nagy will return as head coach in 2021, but his fate is inextricably linked with Pace. And unless the Bears can turn things around quickly, Nagy’s days in Chicago are numbered.