The Chicago Bears have one final game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium that will close the book on another disappointing season.
The more intriguing developments are likely to come in the hours, days and weeks that follow with the team needing to establish a new path for 2022 and beyond while explaining the reasoning behind whatever changes they make.
As another transition likely begins, here are five key dynamics to assess.
1. Matt Nagy’s job status
On Wednesday morning, Matt Nagy said he hadn’t heard anything from his superiors about his job security beyond Sunday, contradicting on-air comments from NFL analyst Boomer Esiason that Nagy had been told Sunday will be his last game with the team.
“I’m very honest and open with y’all, and that has not been told to me,” Nagy said during a Zoom session with beat reporters. “There are going to be reports that come out probably at this time of the season. So anything that is said or reported by anybody is just that. I haven’t been told anything. I’m a pretty good source to ask.”
Still, it seems unlikely Nagy will retain his job. The Bears figure to make an official announcement about his status either after Sunday’s game or in the first few days of next week.
Nagy enters the game with a 34-30 record over four years. After going 12-4 and winning the NFC North in his first season, the Bears since have slid backward, finishing 8-8 in 2019 and 2020 while posting a 6-10 mark so far this season.
Nagy’s teams have made the playoffs twice — losing both times. The Bears also have had losing streaks of four games, six games and five games, respectively, in the last three seasons.
The biggest strike against Nagy has been his inability to establish a productive offense under multiple quarterbacks and two offensive coordinators. Over the last three seasons — with quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky, Nick Foles, Andy Dalton and Justin Fields — the Bears have ranked 29th, 26th and 28th in total offense and 29th, 22nd and 26th in scoring.
Nagy has faced recurring questions regarding his job status since mid-November but repeatedly has said he remains focused on the next game. Dealing with all the outside speculation, Nagy reiterated Wednesday, is part of his job.
“When you’re in a results-oriented business, you know that when you get into it,” Nagy said. “It’s just a matter of making sure you handle it the right way and you’re open and honest. That’s what I’ve been this entire time. I think the players understand and respect that. And that’s probably why we’re playing the way we’re playing.”
2. Ryan Pace’s future
What’s next for general manager Ryan Pace? That has been difficult to interpret, particularly with the extreme silence team Chairman George McCaskey and President and CEO Ted Phillips have adopted over the last 12 months. Neither has taken questions from reporters in 357 days, leaving the outside world to decipher the organization’s overall vision as if it were one of those old Magic Eye posters. Stare too long and the headache-causing dizziness becomes inevitable.
There’s increasing chatter within several league circles that Pace will be safe at Halas Hall beyond Sunday, positioned to remain with the team in 2022, either in his current role or in a different front office post. But it has been difficult to determine how much of that chatter is informed and how much is based on conjecture.
If McCaskey decides to retain Pace as GM, he’ll have to find a way to articulate his rationale clearly while readying for another significant wave of public backlash.
A year ago, McCaskey sold the collaborative efforts of Pace and Nagy as a hopeful catalyst for what the organization believed could be a bounce-back season in 2021. As the 6-10 Bears now head to Minneapolis for a meaningless finale against the Vikings, it’s difficult to see how the organization could interpret this season’s results as undeniably damning evidence against Nagy without also subjecting Pace to similar culpability.
A year ago, when McCaskey was asked for benchmarks he would use in 2021 to evaluate Pace and Nagy, he remained general with his response. “Ted used the word improvement. I used the word progress,” McCaskey said. “I think they are similar. I think all four of us will know whether there’s been sufficient improvement or sufficient progress to continue past 2021.”
In seven seasons as the Bears general manager, Pace’s teams have lost 56% of their games and never won a playoff contest. The Bears also have struggled to establish stability at quarterback, even with aggressive first-round trades to move up for Mitch Trubisky in 2017 and Justin Fields in 2021 along with the free-agent signings of Mike Glennon (2017) and Andy Dalton (2021) and a high-profile trade for Nick Foles (2020).
The roster, as presently constructed, is widely viewed around the league as below average, commensurate with the Bears’ place in the standings.
One prominent league source skewered the idea of the organization attempting to either promote Pace to oversee a new GM or keep him in his current role with a new supervisor hired above him. Said the source: “That would be like divorcing your wife but allowing her to stay in the guest room when your new girlfriend moves in. It’s just really hard to see how that could possibly work.”
As of now, though, that option still seems to be on the table and may be the direction the organization is leaning.
3. A shift for Ted Phillips?
As the Tribune noted in December, Phillips has been candid with confidantes in recent months, acknowledging a willingness to potentially revise his responsibilities and open to having less oversight of the football operation. If the Bears choose to steer in such a direction, the most notable impact would come through a reduction of Phillips’ involvement in the hiring of general managers and head coaches while also relieving him of his duties as the chief performance evaluator of the team’s GM.
Phillips has been influential in the hiring of the last three Bears general managers — Jerry Angelo in 2001, Phil Emery in 2012 and Pace in 2015. Last winter, he was heavily involved in the decision to retain both Nagy and Pace for the 2021 season. At that time, Phillips and McCaskey acknowledged their collective decision wouldn’t be popular among the team’s passionate and intensely loyal fan base. But that didn’t lessen their confidence in staying the course.
Phillips’ most infamous quote from the team’s end-of-season news conference in January 2021 continues to be a source of great ridicule, both in Chicago and within other pockets of the NFL.
Said Phillips: “Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No. Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.”
Immediately before that, however, Phillips offered a glimpse into how the team would be assessing the performances of Pace and Nagy moving forward
“We’re going to know whether we’re heading in the right direction or not,” he said. “That’s how we feel about it.”
So how much accountability should Phillips shoulder for the Bears’ on-field product? That’s for McCaskey, ownership and the franchise’s board of directors to assess. Since Phillips jumped into his current role in 1999, the Bears have had almost twice as many double-digit loss seasons (10) as they’ve had playoff appearances (six). They have more last-place finishes (eight) under his watch than they have division championships (five). And they have gone 11 consecutive seasons without winning a playoff game, a drought topped by only the Cincinnati Bengals, Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, Las Vegas Raiders and Washington Football Team.
If Phillips were to transition into a modified team president role, the Bears could create a front-office post — in the mold of a president of football operations-type position. (For what it’s worth, that has been an option McCaskey has previously resisted.) If that major change were made this time, it would create logistical work internally to establish a clear delineation of roles within the power structure on the football side.
4. The Justin Fields factor
Pace traded four draft picks, including first-rounders in 2021 and 2022, to move up to draft quarterback Justin Fields at No. 11 in April. The hope, of course, is that Fields will fix the Bears’ decadeslong problems at quarterback. The ruling on that, however, is still out with only one game remaining in a rookie season during which Fields has completed 159 of 270 passes for 1,870 yards with seven touchdowns and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 73.2.
In 12 games, including 10 starts, he has been sacked 36 times and has fumbled 12 times (losing five) while running for 420 yards and two touchdowns.
As the Bears consider finding a new coach in 2022, they’ll need to zero in on a leader who can help boost Fields’ development on and off the field. That should include a candidate’s own quarterback-coaching skills and offensive vision with Fields at the helm or — if it’s not an offensive coach — a clear plan for who will work hands-on with Fields in crafting the offense.
In 2017, Nagy’s background as a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach was one of the major factors in hiring him to help develop Trubisky. That didn’t go as planned. But the Bears must try again to bring in the right people to surround Fields.
While Fields is a rookie growing into himself as an NFL player, the Bears would be wise to at least consult with him on some of the things he most values in a coach and system.
5. Attractive destination
Whatever jobs come open at Halas Hall in the coming days, the history and prestige of the franchise is still magnetic to many around the NFL. At present, only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Raiders are in the market for new head coaches. And the consensus in league circles is that the Jaguars certainly won’t have first choice from the available pool of candidates, even though their search began early.
The Bears’ head-coaching vacancy is likely to be as attractive if not more so than any of the other possible openings that might spring up this month. The story isn’t much different at the GM level.
Yes, there will be significant heavy lifting needed to replenish and upgrade the roster to position the Bears to be in championship contention. The team also will face significant salary-cap issues this offseason and are without their first- and fourth-round picks for this spring’s draft.
Still, a line of interested applicants figures to grow for whatever job openings the organization lists in the next week or so. And that puts the onus on the leaders of the organization, starting at the top with McCaskey and the board of directors, to establish direction and affirm their priorities.
A series of significant decisions are ahead. The waiting game has almost reached its end.
Source: Berkshire mont