CHICAGO — George McCaskey volunteered the information himself, citing an email he received from an incensed season-ticket holder deep into the regular season. McCaskey said the message came after “one particularly dispiriting loss,” which only slightly narrowed the options for anyone trying to figure out an exact timeline.
Anyway, within that angry message sent to the chairman of the Chicago Bears was a request that became popular across the city throughout November and December and now into January.
”Fire somebody. We deserve better.”
McCaskey read those words — and, he indicated, floods of emails with similar vibes — and reflected on a tailspin that saw the Bears go 56 days between victories and ultimately lose eight of their final 11 games.
“I get it,” McCaskey said Wednesday morning. “You deserve your Bears being winners.”
But then came the pivot, quick and decisive like Jack Sikma in his prime.
“The decisions we’re announcing today might not be the easiest or most popular,” McCaskey continued. “But we believe they’re the best decisions for the Bears.”
Those decisions, which were instantly confirmed as unpopular? General manager Ryan Pace will be back for his seventh season in 2021. Coach Matt Nagy will give things another spin in Season 4. Together that duo is again being given full trust from their bosses to chase the simple achievement that has eluded the organization for a full decade now: a playoff win.
(Or for those into the baby-steps approach, perhaps they can start first with producing a second winning season?)
At Halas Hall, Pace and Nagy are being given at least one more crack at elevating the organization, mostly because McCaskey believes in how hard they work and how well they collaborate. Team president Ted Phillips agrees wholeheartedly.
“Ryan and Matt are men of character,” McCaskey said. “They are both, like Ted, outstanding leaders. I’ve been most impressed with how well they collaborate.”
“When you can collaborate and trust each other and you have the ability to challenge each other and come out united, you stand a better chance to make more right decisions than wrong ones,” Phillips added. “Those are the strong leadership skills both Ryan and Matt possess.”
The Bears’ culture, McCaskey and Phillips repeated Wednesday, still feels so very impressive to them.
When the team lost four, then five, then six games in a row this season?
“The fact that our players never gave up is a tribute to the players,” McCaskey said. “It is also indicative of the type of players Ryan acquires and speaks to the players’ regard for Matt as their head coach.”
Ribbons for everyone. And free thumbtacks, too, to pin those up on the corkboard in the corner of the bedroom.
Only the Bears could find a way to turn a six-game losing streak into a positive.
Including the playoffs, the Bears have gone 42-56 under Pace’s watch since 2015. The last three seasons have included a 28-22 run with Nagy as coach. But an impressive and truly enjoyable 12-4 season in 2018 was followed by consecutive 8-8 campaigns that have confirmed to the rest of the football world just how far away from championship contention the Bears truly are.
Somehow, McCaskey and Phillips don’t see it that way. They dished out self-incriminating sound bites for sports talk radio on Wednesday as if they were distributing Halloween candy. The day’s lack-of-true-awareness award went to Phillips’ big-picture assessment of his team.
“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” he said. “Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.”
There was an immediate earthquake warning in Cook and Lake Counties due to the force with which so many jaws hit the floor.
It all pointed back to a familiar question that may be at the root of this franchise’s inability to sustain success: Do the Bears have an infrastructure in place that allows them to perform a sophisticated and truly meaningful football evaluation of the men leading the football team?
On Monday and Tuesday, both Pace and Nagy sat in lengthy meetings with McCaskey and Phillips to discuss the failures of 2020 and their repair proposals for 2021.
Neither McCaskey nor Phillips highlighted any specifics they heard about finding a star quarterback or reviving the defense or establishing an offense that can score more than 21 points on a regular basis. Their focus, it seemed, remained on personalities and teamwork and a can-do spirit.
McCaskey praised Pace and Nagy for being thorough and communicating well and being candid in their evaluations of themselves. “It just gave us confidence that retaining the continuity and sticking with these guys is the best route for the Bears,” he said.
Perhaps, though, McCaskey should have invited some of those exasperated season-ticket holders into those sessions to assure the hardest and most direct questions were asked. Or maybe a handful of former Bears players could have sat in and offered suggestions.
The way it went, a chairman and a team president who badly want to believe in the men they hired came to the conclusion that they still firmly believe in the men they hired.
“Have mistakes been made? Yes,” McCaskey said. “But I think both Ryan and Matt are learning and growing in their roles.”
Ready that for the billboards around Chicago.
McCaskey has often acknowledged that he sees his Bears through the binoculars of a lifelong fan. And one of the defining characteristics of a true sports fan is the desire to believe in a team, in its players and coaches, even when there’s an absence of evidence to confirm such unwavering belief is warranted. Perhaps that’s a big part of this.
McCaskey was also pressed Wednesday on his Week 1 assertion that he wanted to determine whether the 2020 Bears would be more like the division-championship team of two years ago or the struggling .500 squad of 2019. The obvious conclusion?
“The records from 2019 and 2020 are identical,” he acknowledged. “So the sad fact is we are closer to the 2019 team than the 2018 team. Now what we have to do in our postseason evaluation is identify what areas of strength we have and what areas of weakness we have and work on the weaknesses to make the Bears better.”
McCaskey was later asked directly what he saw within the 2020 season that gave him an indication that the Bears were making meaningful progress toward winning a championship. His first reaction was to point out the emergence of receiver Darnell Mooney, a fifth-round pick who emerged as a reliable starter with a promising future, finishing 46th in the NFL this season in receptions and 65th in receiving yards.
McCaskey quickly followed that up by again praising the team’s ability to extinguish the grease fire that spread during that six-game skid.
“Usually,” McCaskey said, “when you go through a losing streak like that, people start pointing fingers and people start passing blame. That just didn’t happen with our team.”
All across Chicago, an annoyed fanbase launched vituperation into the air.
Compounding all the ongoing on-field failures is the reality that the Bears now face yet another reboot at quarterback. And they’re leaving that in the hands of Pace, who signed Mike Glennon, drafted Mitch Trubisky and traded for Nick Foles.
Said McCaskey: “The thing that we’re very much looking forward to, and feel very positive about, is, again a collaboration between Ryan and Matt. I think that’ll be immensely helpful going into the upcoming draft.”
When McCaskey and Phillips were finished stressing how perfectly fine everything currently is at Halas Hall, they turned the Zoom call over to Pace and Nagy to help handle the damage control.
Pace did what he does best. He tried.
“Is 8-8 good enough? No,” he said. “Is losing in the first round of the playoffs good enough? No. But what I appreciate is that we fought. We stuck together.”
Clearly, that carries great weight on the grounds of 1920 Football Drive in Lake Forest, results be damned.
Said Phillips: “When you sit back and look at what makes a successful organization besides wins and losses, it’s the people that you have. It’s whether or not they can put their egos down. It’s whether or not they can look at situations, self-reflect, admit to their mistakes and try to learn from not just their mistakes, but the successes that they’ve had.”
Across a cutthroat league where so many other organizations are asking their most important people to produce wins, the Bears will continue collaborating and sticking together and refusing to point fingers as they seek self-improvement for everyone.
From the front seat of a party bus that has a flat tire and a cracked windshield and a tailpipe dragging along the concrete, the Bears message to their fans was simple Wednesday.
Climb aboard, everyone. Just trust us.
©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.