Bears GM Ryan Pace has vision, now must make decisions

Chicago Tribune

On the morning Ryan Pace was introduced as Bears general manager, he cut right to the chase in expressing his vision for the brand of player he prefers building around.

“We are not just collecting athletes,” Pace asserted. “We are acquiring football players who fit the Chicago Bears. There will be a major emphasis on character, toughness, instincts and intelligence.”

A month later at the scouting combine, Pace was asked what qualities he believed new coach John Fox would immediately infuse into a success-starved team.

“Confidence. Accountability. Discipline,” Pace said.


From the outset, the 38-year-old GM has shown a keen understanding of what he believes the Bears need to resurrect themselves from last season’s wreckage. And while those sentiments may have initially registered as little more than wishful rhetoric, Pace has now proven he won’t shy away from bold action to advance his vision.

Friday’s move to trade wide receiver Brandon Marshall to the Jets for a fifth-round pick made a major statement. To win big in the NFL, Pace believes, talent must be maximized and drama minimized. And as the Marshall move portends, Pace won’t delay in ridding the Bears roster of players who don’t fit the desired profile.

With one authoritative move, Pace set the stage for what promises to be a critical stretch ahead.

On Tuesday afternoon, the NFL’s free-agency frenzy will explode, with the Bears dashing into the cluttered flea market seeking to find the right pieces.


Already, Pace and Fox have established their emphasis on strengthening the team’s leadership.

“I think sometimes that’s the edge you have with a league built for parity,” Fox said.

That’s context to keep in mind as the Bears reload the roster. Yet along with this week’s free-agency shopping, Pace faces another critical decision on quarterback Jay Cutler.

Keep him? Trade him? Cut him?

On Thursday, if Cutler remains on the roster, $10 million of his base salary for 2016 will become guaranteed. Yet Pace’s big-picture assessment will take so much more into account.

The leadership question clearly became a factor with Marshall, with the Bears ultimately not confident that the standout receiver could create or maintain the right synergy within the team.

Marshall remains a proven on-field producer whose passion and work ethic are impossible to question. But the receiver’s mercurial nature also created a seemingly unbreakable tension throughout Halas Hall.

Marshall wanted coaches and teammates to see him as a fearless, upbeat leader. But in three years with the Bears, he left many throughout the organization with a sense that his presence was more exhausting than steadying.


Leadership requires respect. And respect emerges most easily from a proven track record of elevating others. So while Marshall’s averages of 94 catches, 1,183 yards and eight touchdowns over the past eight seasons register as elite, his history of never having played a playoff game is also difficult to ignore.

Some teammates who shared a locker room with Marshall admit that while they wouldn’t cast him as a bad guy, they preferred steering away from him as much as possible with constant worry that they’d say something to unnerve him.

Cutler, meanwhile, registers as a true NFL oddity, a talented quarterback who has never attained a high level of success — only one Pro Bowl trip and one playoff win in nine seasons — yet has always been given chance after chance to continue trying.

The 31-year-old quarterback has been a starter for nine consecutive seasons, his arm strength and athleticism continually teasing coaches into believing he’s on the verge of a breakthrough. Yet it wasn’t until last December, when coach Marc Trestman’s ship was sinking fast, that Cutler was told his ongoing inconsistency would have significant ramifications.

When Trestman named Jimmy Clausen the Bears’ Week 16 starter, Cutler characterized it as the first time he had ever been benched in anything.

It’s an overstatement to characterize Cutler as aloof and disengaged from his leadership responsibilities. His study habits and push to strengthen relationships all over Halas Hall were appreciated by the last regime. But it has also become clear over a decade that Cutler will never be a rallying presence. When a team’s fire needs to be lit, he too often has been more soggy twig than high-powered blowtorch.

So now what?

It’s Pace’s turn to forecast Cutler’s future.


As a backdrop, Pace spent the last nine seasons in New Orleans, witnessing the positive energy and motivation Drew Brees stirred in the Saints. And while Pace insists he won’t seek a Brees clone as his preferred quarterback, he does want several boxes checked.

“The one common trait that you have to have is passion for the game,” Pace said. "(Quarterbacks) will have different personalities. But if they love football and that’s their No. 1 priority in their life, then that’s attractive for me.”

The framework for Pace’s overall roster evaluations is becoming clear. Now it’s decision time.

Twitter @danwiederer

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