Trade Khalil Mack? Let Allen Robinson leave in free agency? Brace for a last-place finish in 2021? Yes to all. It’s the only path back to relevance for the Bears.
Many important choices await George McCaskey and the Bears next month, including what to do with a general manager who has delivered a sub-.500 record over six seasons, a coach who hasn’t been the offensive mastermind they hired him to be and a flawed, overpriced roster.
But all of those upcoming decisions trace back to one essential question: Do the Bears truly aspire to greatness? And if so, how much pain are they willing to endure to get there?
While it surely wouldn’t go over well in Chicago, the organization could try to patch this flat tire of a team rather than replace it. The Bears could keep Ryan Pace and Matt Nagy, let them look for quick, cheap fixes to their many personnel problems and see if they can squeeze a playoff run out of mostly the same team in 2021.
That’s what the Bears tried this year, of course, after going 8-8. The result is that they still don’t have an offensive line, still don’t have a quarterback and still aren’t good. They go into their home game against the Lions on Sunday at 5-6, and the playoffs are unlikely.
But making or missing the playoffs is arbitrary. Getting there doesn’t inherently signify that a team is good. And that should never be the benchmark for an organization. Aim higher.
Why bother competing if the modest accomplishment of winning 10 games and being a footnote to someone else’s championship run is good enough? It’s not good enough for the city, which has seen the Bears produce five contenders in the 28 seasons since they fired Mike Ditka.
Building an elite team will require nearly a total demolition. That might mean being flat-out dreadful next season rather than hanging around .500 and hoping to slip into a wild-card spot. But if the reconstruction is done correctly — McCaskey’s top task this offseason is to find the right architect — it’ll be worth it, even if it takes two seasons to see the results.
The Bears must wash away the mediocrity that wafts around them like that stench cloud that accompanied Pig-Pen in the Peanuts comics. The longer they put off this difficult work, the longer their wait to become relevant again. This is the time to blow it up.
Start at the top
The rebuild, especially on offense, cannot be left in Pace’s hands. He has to go.
The Bears’ top priority is identifying the right general manager to oversee construction of a championship contender, not a Super Bowl defense and a toilet bowl offense. Whatever the ramifications of that hire, whether it means Nagy stays or goes, so be it.
Nagy is at his lowest this week, so it’s bad timing to make this argument, but he has the potential to be a great head coach. He has great leadership qualities and an unshakeable personality. And his imaginative offense might be fantastic with the right players.
But for the Bears to do this right, they can’t saddle the new general manager with a coach he didn’t choose. That almost always results in a wasted season. It would sting to see Nagy go on to great success elsewhere, but the Bears will have to live with that possibility.
The ideal power structure is a team president, general manager and head coach all working in sync. Those hires need to be made from the top down, so it starts with shifting Ted Phillips into a new role or gently guiding him toward retirement, then replacing him with a football-minded president to fill the other two jobs.
There are so many candidates for all three of those jobs that it’s not worth listing them all, and the point isn’t to hire a hot name like Eric Bieniemy or Robert Saleh. What matters most is compatibility and a unified vision of what the Bears want to become, from the front office down to the practice squad.
Assemble the right trio at the top. Then let them take a wrecking ball to this roster.
Long-term thinking at quarterback
Pace’s biggest failure, the one that will always haunt him and the Bears, was drafting Mitch Trubisky No. 2 overall instead of Deshaun Watson or Patrick Mahomes.
The latter two have triple-digit career passer ratings and a combined 201 touchdown passes. Trubisky, with 57 touchdowns, sits with an 85.5 rating and will head to free agency after the Bears declined his fifth-year option.
But Trubisky isn’t Pace’s only quarterback mistake. He paid Mike Glennon $18.5 million for four starts. He traded a fourth-round pick for Nick Foles and committed to three years, $24 million — a lovely gift for his successor. And, against his own wise words, he has not drafted a single quarterback other than Trubisky.
Nagy tends to spin the conversation about quarterback ineptitude to the broader failure of the offense, and while he’s correct that quarterback isn’t the Bears’ only problem, it is their biggest one. They will never be elite until they solve that, and the way to do so is through the draft.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they’re on track to pick 16th next year, which isn’t high enough to take a top prospect. If they opt for a teardown anyway, they might be better off waiting until 2022 to draft their next franchise quarterback.
The quick fix is to trade for the Jets’ Sam Darnold, who is assumed to be available because they’ll want to use the No. 1 overall pick on Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, then draft an offensive tackle with their first-round pick.
If Pace and Nagy somehow keep their jobs, they’ll probably try that.
It’s a bad idea. Darnold, the No. 3 pick in 2018, hasn’t proven to be conclusively good. That might be because he landed with arguably the most dysfunctional team in the league, but the point is that he’d be a gamble for the Bears or anybody else. The Dolphins had to trade a second- and fifth-round pick for Josh Rosen, so it’ll take more than that to get Darnold.
The Bears can’t keep mortgaging their future. Part of why they’re in their current dismal situation is because they haven’t had a first-round pick the last two years, and during that time they’ve had a total of three picks in the top 120.
And that plan would still hinge largely on them having an elite defense, which is difficult to forecast. While this defense is still very good, it’s not the overwhelming force that it was when it covered for a pedestrian offense in 2018. Defensive touchdowns and scores that came on short fields bumped the Bears from 22.4 to 26.3 points per game that season.
So the smart move is to use the 2021 first-round pick on an offensive tackle and look for an intriguing, developmental quarterback later, then draft the next great hope in 2022. Better to take time and get it right than to act impatiently and regret it.
Everything must go
Dealing with the rest of the roster will be painful. It’ll hurt, for example, to let wide receiver Allen Robinson walk in free agency or trade superstar Khalil Mack for less than what the Bears gave up to get him. That path is rife with emotional landmines.
But if emotions are put aside, it’s a straightforward task: Anyone who won’t be a good value three years from now needs to go. That’s an oversimplification, but it’s essentially the principle that should guide the Bears.
Here’s who they should absolutely keep or extend: linebacker Roquan Smith, safety Eddie Jackson, interior offensive lineman Cody Whitehair and talented rookies Jaylon Johnson, Cole Kmet and Darnell Mooney.
Everyone else is available, including Mack.
Rebuilding requires draft picks and salary-cap space. The Bears don’t have much of either right now, and the new general manager will need both.
Pace’s desperation left them with five picks in the upcoming draft (they’re missing their original fourth- and seventh-rounders) and, according to OverTheCap, a mere $655,428 in space going into next season as the cap drops to $176 million because of pandemic-related revenue losses.
There are some obvious moves they’d be making to clear space anyway, like cutting offensive tackle Bobby Massie and tight end Jimmy Graham, but it’ll take more than that.
They’ll almost certainly have to say goodbye to Robinson rather than use the franchise tag (it’d be 9.1% of their total salary cap) or commit to a long-term deal near his likely asking price of $20 million per season. It’s a shame because he’s one of the best receivers in the NFL and he’s only 27, but that contract doesn’t work during a rebuild.
Obviously those moves would send a lot of talent out the door and it’ll be hard watching those players leave, but it’s unavoidable.
That’s emblematic of what this entire process will feel like. It’ll be something to endure, not enjoy. But has anyone enjoyed the last two seasons? If the Bears aren’t able to grit their teeth through a proper rebuild, they’ll be stuck with something worse: A team that continues to drift through mediocrity until it finally crashes anyway.