Is Ryan Pace as Bad as Bears Fans Say He Is?

Ryan Pace was hired to be the Bears’ GM on January 8, 2015. We are now going in to season 7 of the Pace era, and the results have been, in a word, underwhelming.

In an offseason that began with high hopes of trading for Russell Wilson, the Bears wound up with Andy Dalton, and now the whole fanbase is in revolt. Most Bears fans want him fired, although team ownership opted to bring both Pace and Nagy back for another season.

Let’s take a look back at what Ryan Pace has done during his tenure in Chicago to warrant the scorn and hatred he’s the target of right now. Is he really that bad?

His first move as GM was to hire John Fox, who led the Bears to a disappointing 6-10 record in his first season as head coach. However, this was understandable given that the Marc Trestman/Phil Emery era was an absolute debacle and in 2015 the Bears entered a rebuild.

The Bears actually got worse in 2016, finishing 3-13. In 2017, John Fox led the Bears to yet another disappointing record of 5-11, and was fired after the season. Fox finished with a 14-35 overall record as Bears head coach, and was clearly unable to replicate his past successes in Carolina and Denver. Given that John Fox has a proven track record as a head coach (he was 119-89 in his 13 seasons prior, with 7 playoff appearances and two Super Bowl appearances), the fact that he was unsuccessful in Chicago would seem to indicate Fox wasn’t the problem, something else was. And that something else is usually the front office, the roster, or both.

Pace named Matt Nagy as Fox’s replacement in early 2018, and on top of that, pulled off a blockbuster trade with the Raiders for Khalil Mack just a few weeks before the 2018 season began.

The Bears went 12-4 and won the NFC North that season, and Pace was named the NFL Executive of the Year. However, their season ended with a tragic Wild Card round loss to the Eagles after the infamous Cody Parkey “double-doink.” In fairness to Parkey, the kick was actually tipped at the line by an Eagles defender.

In 2019, expectations were high, but the Bears finished 8-8 and missed the playoffs. And this past season, 2020, the Bears got off to a 5-1 start but wound up finishing 8-8. They squeaked into the playoffs by virtue of the fact that the NFL changed the playoff format and now 14 teams make it instead of 12. The Bears were largely uncompetitive in their 21-9 Wild Card round loss to the Saints, although early in the game Javon Wims dropped a wide open TD pass that might’ve changed everything.

All told, the Bears have gone 28-20 in the Matt Nagy era. At first glance you might wonder why, despite a winning record and 2 playoff appearances over the past 3 seasons, Bears fans are as discontented as they’ve ever been and are demanding team owner George McCaskey blow the whole thing up (and even demanding McCaskey himself sell the team). The reason is because given the talent on the roster, the team should have had far more success over the past three years.

Plus, not all records are created equally. If you go 4-12 one year and then 8-8 the next, that’s a nice improvement. Fans will be encouraged. But if you go 12-4, then 8-8 the next year, you’re regressing. And if you start a season 1-5 but end up finishing 8-8, that gives you hope going into next year. But if you start 5-1 and end up 8-8, that means you’re regressing and leaves fans feeling down about the team’s future.

I will give Ryan Pace credit for going out and getting Khalil Mack. However, due to Pace’s other personnel blunders, the Bears have largely wasted the talents of one of the great edge rushers the league has ever seen.

Pace has actually built a great defense. He’s clearly got an ability to identify defensive talent. There were some decent pieces already on the Bears defense when Pace arrived, like Kyle Fuller, Eddie Goldman, Adrian Amos, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, but Pace really took the defense to the next level. Of that original core, only Fuller and Goldman remain on the team from the Emery era.

But it was Ryan Pace who added the following key defenders:

  • Danny Trevathan, LB (2016 FA)
  • Roquan Smith, LB (2018 1st round draft pick)
  • Eddie Jackson, S (2017 4th round pick). Jackson is probably Pace’s best player acquisition as GM in terms of value.
  • Akeim Hicks, DL (2016 FA). Probably Pace’s best free agent signing. It’s either Hicks or Allen Robinson.
  • Khalil Mack, EDGE (2018 trade)
  • Jaylon Johnson, S (2020 2nd round draft pick). The jury is still out on whether Johnson will be a star one day, but he had a promising rookie season.

It’s undeniable that Ryan Pace can build a defense. In 2018, the Bears were #1 in points against, 4th in 2019, and this year they slipped to 14th.

But it’s the offensive side of the ball where Ryan Pace has earned his now-tattered reputation among Bears fans. As an NFL GM, you have to be able to evaluate both offensive and defensive talent.

Let’s take an in-depth look at Pace’s track record on offense–

In 2015, the Bears didn’t make much of splash in terms of offensive free agent signings. Their biggest offensive signings were WR Eddie Royal and RB Jacquizz Rodgers.

In the draft, however, Pace’s offensive selections were three swings and three misses. His first draft pick ever as Bears GM was West Virginia WR Kevin White, whom Pace took 7th overall. White was one of the biggest wide receiver busts of the past 20 years. He missed his whole rookie season due to injury, and ultimately ended up playing only 14 games for the Bears over 4 seasons, starting just 9 of them. He finished his Bears career with only 25 receptions and is now on the 49ers practice squad. The White pick was clearly a reach, as Amari Cooper was already off the board by the time the 7th pick rolled around. Pace was apparently determined to take a WR at any cost, as he took White over guys like Vic Beasley (8th pick), Todd Gurley (10th pick), and Melvin Gordon (15th pick).

Pace’s other offensive selections in 2015 were C Hroniss Grasu (R3, pick 71), who played for the Bears for 3 years before being let go and bouncing around the league to 5 different teams. He’s now on the 49ers. Pace took Michigan State RB Jeremy Langford (R4, pick 106), who only lasted 2 seasons on the Bears (737 total rushing yards) and is now out of the NFL.

Pace sort of redeemed himself in the 2016 draft, grabbing G Cody Whitehair in the 2nd round and RB Jordan Howard in the 5th round. Both guys made Pro Bowls in their career with the Bears, although only Whitehair is still with the team.

In terms of offensive free agent acquisitions, the only real notable was backup QB Brian Hoyer. Hoyer started 5 games for the Bears in 2016, throwing 6 TDs and 0 INTs, but only posted a 1-4 record.

After the dismal 3-13 record in 2016, Pace decided it was time to move off of longtime QB Jay Cutler and start fresh. The Bears had the 3rd pick in the 2017 Draft, but moved up one spot to the #2 pick to take North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky. This was the defining moment of Ryan Pace’s career, as Trubisky was supposed to be the long-awaited Savior at the QB position. So strong was Pace’s conviction that Trubisky was The Answer, he moved up a spot to take him. Obviously there’s no need to rehash Trubisky’s career. Though he hasn’t been awful, the fact that the Bears took him instead of Patrick Mahomes (10th pick) and DeShaun Watson (12th pick) will haunt Bears fans for years to come. It was an all-time blunder and Pace should be judged harshly for it. It now looks like Trubisky has played his last snap with the Bears, too, as Pace declined to pick up his 5th year option before the season and he’s now a free agent.

The Trubisky pick came after Pace signed former Bucs’ QB Mike Glennon to a 3 year contract in the 2017 offseason. I guess the thought process was to have Glennon start while Trubisky developed behind him, but Glennon only played 4 games for the Bears and was out the door after the 2017 season. You just can’t emphasize enough how badly Pace has bungled the QB position; so convinced was Pace that Trubisky was the only promising QB in the draft, he traded up to get him. Pace was terrified at the idea of missing out on him and being forced to settle for someone like Mahomes or Watson. It was one of the worst GM decisions in NFL history, and that is not an exaggeration at all. Pace gave San Francisco the 3rd pick, along with that year’s 3rd rounder (67th overall), the 4th rounder (111), and a 2018 3rd rounder. In case you were wondering, the 49ers traded the 67th pick to the Saints, who selected Alvin Kamara.

I have no idea if the 49ers wanted Trubisky in 2017, but I doubt it because of the fact that they were willing to trade the pick in the first place. That should have been the warning sign for Pace right there: if Trubisky is really as great as you think he is, why would the 49ers, who also needed a QB, be so willing to part with the pick and let you take him? The 49ers were clearly not too worried about missing out on Mitch Trubisky. That should have tipped Pace off big-time, but instead he said “Fuck it,” made the deal, drafted Trubisky and hoped for the best. I suspect Pace’s thought process was something like, “I don’t really know how to evaluate QBs, but I know we need one, so I’m just gonna draft the guy everyone says is the best one in the draft and hope it works out.” Now the 49ers look like they’re about to pick up Trubisky for cheap and turn him into a reclamation project. The Trubisky pick was a display of almost incomprehensible incompetence.

It’s hard to blame Pace for not recognizing the talent of Patrick Mahomes, although he should get some blame for that. He wasn’t the only one who failed to recognize Mahomes’ potential. But passing on DeShaun Watson was the real unforgivable sin. While Mahomes kinda came out of nowhere, Watson definitely didn’t. Anyone who paid any attention to college football from 2015-2016 knew DeShaun Watson was a special player. Not four months before the 2017 Draft, Watson led Clemson to the National Championship in dramatic fashion. He led a game-winning drive and threw the winning TD pass to Hunter Renfrow, and finished the game with 420 yards passing against an Alabama defense loaded with future NFL players. Anyone who watched that game knew DeShaun Watson was going to be a star, except apparently Ryan Pace. The Bears could’ve had DeShaun Watson and Alvin Kamara, instead they got Mitch Trubisky.

If you thought that was the extent of Pace’s offensive incompetence in 2017, you’re wrong. In the second round, the Bears had the 36th pick, but Pace decided he wanted to move back to 45 so he traded picks with the Cardinals. The Bears did come away with a decent haul, getting Arizona’s 4th round pick that year (118) and Arizona’s 2018 4th round pick, plus a 6th-rounder in 2017 (197). The Cardinals used the 36th pick to take Budda Baker, who is now one of the best safeties in the whole NFL and has already made 3 Pro Bowls. Pace used the 45th pick on a tight end nobody had ever heard of named Adam Shaheen who played college football at a Division II school called Ashland. Pace thought he was outsmarting everyone taking Shaheen, but over his three years with the Bears, Shaheen hauled in a grand total of 26 receptions and was never once the undisputed starter at tight end on the team. He now plays for the Dolphins where he had 22 receptions in just the 2020 season alone, nearly equaling his entire three-year reception total with the Bears. As a side note, Dalvin Cook was taken by the Vikings at pick 41 and Joe Mixon went at 48.

However, in Pace’s defense, the 2017 Draft wasn’t a complete offensive failure. He did acquire Tarik Cohen in the 4th round at pick 119. Clearly not enough to offset the sting of missing out on Watson and Kamara (and Budda Baker and Dalvin Cook).

After the 2017 season, Pace fired John Fox and hired Matt Nagy. I don’t think you can conclusively say Matt Nagy is a bad coach because he’s got a winning record after all, and he’s had to deal with dysfunction at QB, but I also don’t know if you can call him a good coach, either.

In that offseason, Pace made one of his few good offensive personnel decisions and signed free agent WR Allen Robinson. Pace also signed Taylor Gabriel, who was a decent WR for a little while, but was never more than a #3/#4 guy in any team’s WR pecking order. Pace also signed Trey Burton to shore up the TE position (because apparently his 2nd round pick from last year, Shaheen, wasn’t performing to his liking). Burton was the #2 tight end on the Super Bowl Champion Eagles, and Burton was the guy who threw the famous “Philly Special” trick play pass to Nick Foles. Burton had a decent season in 2018, 54 receptions for 569 yards and 6 TDs, but he quickly fell out of favor with Chicago fans after, and I’m not kidding about this, missing the playoff game against the Eagles because he was afraid to play against his former team. The official story was that he had developed groin tightness in the days leading up to the playoff game, but if you go and read the article, Burton reveals that his body “has a history of doing this when it feels any threat.” The guy just froze up due to anxiety.

Pace also drafted Memphis WR Anthony Miller, a player a lot of fans were excited about after watching his college highlight tape, but after three years, Miller hasn’t really lived up to the expectations, and apparently the Bears are shopping him around.

In 2019, Pace drafted Iowa State RB David Montgomery in the third round (pick 73), and this may be Pace’s best offensive draft pick as Bears GM. Montgomery started slow his rookie year, but this year he ran for over 1,000 yards and really came on strong towards the end of the season. That may have been because of the easy schedule, but I’ve always thought Montgomery can play because he ranks highly in broken tackles (ranked 3rd in the NFL in 2020 with 29, behind only Derrick Henry’s 34 and and Dalvin Cook’s 33), but ranks low in yards before contact, with just 1.9, meaning he himself is a good runner, but the Bears’ run-blocking stinks. In my opinion, Montgomery is legit. But he can’t live up to his true potential until that offensive line improves.

The 2020 Bears’ offensive line ranked just 20th out of 32 by PFF. PFF ranked the Bears’ offensive line 25th after the 2019 season. After 2018, they were ranked 11th in the league, so things are clearly getting worse in this category.

Now we come to 2021, and Pace has treated us all to yet another of his signature strokes genius: he signs Andy Dalton after striking out on Russell Wilson. It’s bad enough the fan base was expecting Russ and they got the Red Rifle, but here’s the worst part: Pace could’ve signed Dalton as a free agent last offseason and instead he chose to sign—check that, trade for—Nick Foles.

Pace gave up a 4th rounder for Foles and forked over $20mil for him. And now he signs Dalton this year, with Foles still on the roster. He could’ve just signed Dalton last year, and for way cheaper, too. Pace was forced to cut former All Pro cornerback Kyle Fuller in order to free cap space up for Dalton.

Now, I’m not saying Ryan Pace should be as good at evaluating offensive talent as he is at evaluating defensive talent. The guy comes from a defensive background having played linebacker his whole life. Clearly he’s more familiar with the defensive side.

He has acquired four quarterbacks during his tenure as Bears GM: Mike Glennon, Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles and now Andy Dalton. By far the biggest playmaker of all of them is actually Trubisky and that’s not really a complement. These are not guys you can win Super Bowls with. Yes, Nick Foles won a Super Bowl and even won Super Bowl MVP. But he caught lightning in a bottle that year; I still don’t even know how he did it. It sounds harsh to call that a “fluke” but what else do you call it if not a fluke?

Part of the problem here was the Bears fan base getting their hopes up for Russell Wilson. And it’s hard to blame them for it because Russell Wilson himself named the Bears as one of the four teams he wants to be traded to. But then the Bears added fuel to the fire with all these news stories that came out about the Bears trying to make the Seahawks “an offer they can’t refuse.” I’m assuming those stories came from the Bears, right? The Bears did make an offer and it was turned down; they offered 3 first rounders, a third rounder and two starting-caliber players (names not released, but presumably it was Kyle Fuller and Akeim Hicks). I can’t imagine Seattle was leaking out the trade rumors regarding the Bears. Seattle has never wanted to trade him.

The Bears thought they were getting Russell Wilson, period. And the fan base started to believe it, too. And now it has become a massive letdown. Now the fan base is in open revolt. The Raiders fan base isn’t furious at Gruden for not getting Russ. The Saints fan base isn’t irate that Sean Payton didn’t get Russ. That’s because neither of those two franchises got their fanbases’ hopes up.

The Bears didn’t have to settle for Andy Dalton. They could’ve gone for Sam Darnold. Hell, they probably still can. They could’ve gone for Mariota. But now anything short of Russell Wilson is seen as a failure because Bear Nation thought they had him in the bag.

But as an NFL GM, you have to know where your strengths and weaknesses lie and address your weaknesses. The Bears just have not been able to get it done on offense, and this is largely due to Pace’s inability to evaluate offensive talent. He never addressed that weakness of his, and it’s probably the single biggest reason he has been a failure as a GM. The Bears have gone 42-55 overall in the Pace era, and while they do have those two playoff appearances, they have not won a playoff game since January 16, 2011.

This streak is not likely to end until the team can find a franchise QB, but clearly Ryan Pace is not up to the task.

GMs and Head Coaches succeed or fail at their jobs based on their ability to obtain a star QB. If you cannot get the QB position right, you are not going to last. Pace has certainly tried to acquire a franchise QB throughout his 6 years as Bears’ GM, but he has consistently failed to do so.

As a result, Pace is unlikely to return for 2022. He’ll hope for the best in 2021 but if and when the team inevitably disappoints, he’s a goner. Unless he can somehow figure out how to get Russell Wilson, of course. That was his Hail Mary: if he could’ve pulled off the trade for Russell Wilson, he probably could’ve bought himself at least 2 more years. But now it seems like the trade is dead and the window is shut there, meaning Pace will send the Bears into the 2021 season with Andy Dalton at QB.

Octavian

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