Ryan Pace, Matt Nagy, and company gave everyone a taste of what the Chicago Bears’ future could look like vision during last year’s NFC North-winning campaign.
But 2018’s scintillating on-field product was only the first step in a much larger strategy meant to make the Bears championship contenders for years to come.
This off-season has been an exercise in just how tricky, and sometimes cold, that process can get as the Bears made waves during this pre-draft more for who they let walk out the door than for who they signed.
Then, they traded fan-favorite running back Jordan Howard for a conditional sixth-round pick. In the meantime, they signed former Seattle Seahawk Mike Davis to compete for what could become a running-back-by-committee situation with Tarik Cohen, a sprinkling of Cordarrelle Patterson and a rookie from the draft.
#Bears RB Jordan Howard's salary had jumped to $2 million this season because of a performance escalator.
Trade for a conditional mid-rounder in 2020 speaks to lack of a trade market for him. Bears were determined to get something and didn't want to wait for the draft.
— Adam Jahns (@adamjahns) March 29, 2019
That’s a far cry from last year’s off-season bonanza that saw the Bears completely revamp their receiving corps to support Mitchell Trubisky, re-sign key contributors like Charles Leno and Kyle Fuller and eventually trade for superstar pass-rusher Khalil Mack.
Shouldn’t the Bears be keeping good, known players in town instead of bargain-hunting and taking chances on draft picks? And why sign guys like Clinton-Dix, Skrine, and Davis, who may not be as good as the players they’re replacing?
There is any number of valid, and even shrewd, reasons to let this trio of underdog achievers leave Chicago.
But arguably the most important thing to keep in mind is something Chicago Bears fans, unfortunately, don’t know much about these days: good teams do this all the time.
Living in Boston and learning more about the method to New England Patriots mastermind Bill Belichick’s madness makes that fact abundantly clear.
Belichick has cut and traded dozens of Jordan Howards, Adrian Amoses and Bryce Callahans during his unprecedented NFL head coaching/administrative career. Ask a Patriots fan how they feel about a fan-favorite getting cut or traded these days, and you hear something to the effect of “man, that’s unfortunate…I really liked him” along with a shrug.
They know this game. They didn’t always get it, of course, but time has ultimately proven Belichick wise if a bit ruthless and unforgiving. And when the results started stacking up, so did the support for Belichick’s tightly run operation.
No one, except Tom Brady, has been exempt from Belichick casting them off the moment he deemed their value a dollar less than their asking price. Meanwhile, they keep their system intact, turn Day 3 picks into winning players year after year and keep competing for Lombardi trophies.
Now, neither Ryan Pace or Matt Nagy is Belichick. Absolutely no one else in the world is. But they do seem to understand the lesson that you sometimes have to let good players go.
Amos is a good, not great, strong safety playing next to one of the best young ballhawks in the league in Eddie Jackson. Paying Clinton-Dix $3.5 million for one season instead of giving Amos $12 million guaranteed for him should not be a controversial move, no matter what you think of the former’s tackling abilities.
Callahan, as good as he is when he stays healthy, can’t stay on the field. The Bears didn’t want to guarantee him $10 million to be great some of the time (but more likely than not end the season on I.R.), so they paid Buster Skrine to hopefully be average for an entire year on a great defense that can possibly boost his performance with its collective talent.
Is Skrine better than Callahan? No way. But in this defense, he just needs to be okay, and that’s what the Bears are banking on.
Nagy on new #Bears nickel back Buster Skrine: “He’s one of those guys where he’s always around the football. He’s feisty. He’ll stick his nose in there on a nickel slot blitz. He’ll go in there and take your legs out. He plays the game hard, and he’s not a big guy."
— Larry Mayer (@LarryMayer) March 26, 2019
And Howard? The Bears wanted to trade him last year. They probably just couldn’t get the offer they wanted. He doesn’t fit in this offense and, though he put up over 900 yards rushing, looked slower and more tentative than usual last year. He also continued to offer next to nothing as a receiver and simply doesn’t seem to have that in his game.
Why not get whatever value you can from him and replace him?
Davis is no Le’Veon Bell or perhaps even Tevin Coleman, but he was better on a per-carry basis than Howard last year, has less mileage on him and runs with a bit more explosiveness than Howard. And don’t forget: they’ll almost certainly draft a rookie running back.
It’s absolutely fair to be a bit skeptical of the plan, of course.
Pace only just put together a playoff roster last year after three seasons of frustration and ineptitude that included some bizarre free agent signings and failed draft picks.
Furthermore, the Bears don’t have a first-round pick the next two seasons, meaning Pace is under more pressure to hit on his mid-to-late-round picks than ever before.
But 2019 is different from every other year of Pace’s tenure in that the Bears have real, elite-team-worthy star power, especially on the defensive side of the football.
Fans might be disappointed in this year’s free agent haul, but the fact is that they already did their heavy lifting. And missing out on first-round picks two years in a row is tough, but you have Khalil Mack.
Plus, on offense, Trubisky showed very clear progress from the beginning of last year to his playoff performance against the Philadelphia Eagles. Nagy is not a perfect play-caller, but his positive impact on the young Bears franchise quarterback is undeniable. Another year in that system should only hone Trubisky’s talents further and hopefully, put him in position to lead the Bears to a Super Bowl with this roster.
That system, by the way, didn’t really need Jordan Howard.
One last thing I'll say.#Bears have lost Adrian Amos, Jordan Howard & Bryce Callahan. All 3 are good players.
Two of them were 5th round picks & one was a UDFA.
Pace had made a living hitting on mid/late-rounders & UDFAs. Will have plenty to fill holes again.
— Aaron Leming (@AaronLemingNFL) March 29, 2019
Bottom line: if you’re not a star, don’t play a position of need (like Howard and Amos), can’t stay healthy (like Callahan) and don’t offer irreplaceable skills (all of the above), then you’re potentially expendable to this effort.
The Bears have too many key players to pay in the future to worry about guys who probably aren’t going to move the needle much when they’re gone. In the meantime, a steady stream of low-cost free agents and mid-round picks, rather than big-name signings, will cycle in and out to replace the departed while Pace tries to keep the core players in town.
That’s the business side of running a championship organization. It can be harsh, but that’s the price good teams often have to pay to stay on top.
Chicago Bears fans wanted to see their team back in the winner’s column. Learning how to let go of much-liked but non-essential players is part of how to stay there.
Follow Khari on Twitter @kdthompson5