Being GM of the Chicago Bears isn’t easy. Being a GM, in general, isn’t easy but this franchise comes with a certain degree of expectations. It is one of the oldest in football history. One of the founding organizations that helped turn the NFL into America’s game. Its fans demand excellence. This isn’t a job for men who can’t handle the pressure. Ryan Pace knew that.

Five years he’s been running the show now. This offseason has certainly been different than others. Less frantic in its approach and more surgical towards the roster. For the first time, Pace is experiencing what it’s like to be the GM of a winning team. Something that presents different challenges from what he’s used to.

Managing big contracts. Planning for future ones. Maintaining a strong core of talent. Navigating free agency in search of bargains rather than difference-makers. It’s not easy, but it’s where the Bears GM has always wanted to be.

It is also someplace a lot of people never thought he’d reach.

A career crossroads for Ryan Pace

Pace’s path to Chicago began back at the end of high school. He’d been recruited as a defensive end to a number of smaller colleges in Texas. However, his father lived in Chicago and preferred to be closer to his son. So Pace sent out tapes to every school in the state of Illinois. Eventually, he received a bite when Eastern Illinois offered him a scholarship.

This put him into contact with Bob Spoo, the legendary head coach Panther who would hold the job from 1987 to 2011. The man helped a lot of young men find success later in life, not just in football. Under his watch, five players would be drafted to the NFL while another, a young QB named Tony Romo, signed in Dallas and became a superstar.

Pace? He never had the talent to play at that level but his college career was still marked by some bright moments. This included a highlight moment early in 1998 when he sacked future Pro Bowl quarterback Daunte Culpepper on the second play of the game.

Something future Bears would soon enjoy at the pro level. As for Pace though, he knew he had to figure out his future since playing in the NFL wasn’t likely. After consulting Eastern Illinois sports information director Dave Kidwell, he knew what he wanted to do.

“In 2001 I sent resumes to every single professional sports organization,” Pace said. “I only got responses from a couple. The Saints were having a job fair that you had to pay to interview for different jobs.”

Pace eventually got an internship on the business side of the organization. It wasn’t exactly what he was looking for, but it was a start.

Phil Emery provides a comfort zone

The Bears came to a difficult decision in January of 2012 when they decided to part ways with GM Jerry Angelo. The man had been in charge for a decade and gotten the franchise to its first Super Bowl in 21 years. However, roster mismanagement over the past few years culminating in the disastrous 2011 offseason finally saw his power broken.

This would be the first big decision for George McCaskey, who had just taken over as team chairman the previous year from his brother Michael. He was inexperienced and knew he wanted somebody with deep NFL roots, preferably in Chicago, to carry the organization forward.

McCaskey tried to do his due diligence, interviewing multiple candidates including future Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Jason Licht, Chargers personnel director Jimmy Raye, and Giants scouting director Marc Ross. However, it didn’t take long for him to hone in on Chiefs director of scouting Phil Emery.

Not a surprise since the man had been an area scout for the Bears from 1998 to 2004. That familiarity no doubt was a comfort to McCaskey. Besides, Emery had lots of success in previous stops in Atlanta and Kansas City. Among the players he helped draft included DeAngelo Hall, Roddy White, Matt Ryan, Eric Berry, Rodney Hudson, and Justin Houston.

It seemed like the Bears were in good hands.

Starting at the bottom of the ladder

While he didn’t mind the business side of the NFL thanks to his degree in marketing, Pace wanted to work more on the football side. So during his internship, he volunteered to assist in the scouting department. This led him to eventually get a job as a scouting assistant, tasked with evaluating upcoming opponents each week.

His hard work and long hours drew the attention of the team brass and finally in 2004, he was hired as a pro personnel scout. He started to shine in this role, helping the team acquire underrated free agents to help their cause. However, it was the luring in of a particularly big fish in 2006 that provided his big break.

An undersized quarterback named Drew Brees.

The Saints successfully signed him that year and the future Hall of Famer would carry them all the way to the NFC championship game where they finally fell to the Bears at Soldier Field. It was the first notable brush Pace would have with his future employer. For his efforts, he was promoted the next year to director of professional scouting.

From that position, he would help set the franchise on the path to a championship.

Emery gets too cute

Things started off hot for Emery when he got to work his first year. At the start of free agency, he traded two 3rd round picks to the Miami Dolphins for the rights to wide receiver Brandon Marshall. It was a bold, aggressive move right out of the gates. The first true attempt by the Bears to upgrade their offense around Jay Cutler at that position in three years.

People were happy. Finally, it looked like the Bears had a guy who knew what he was doing after Angelo had lost his touch. All Emery had to do was deliver a good draft that April and this team would be set up for a playoff run.

A month later, he selected Shea McClellin with the 19th overall pick.

That would prove to be the first red flag that Emery, in spite of his encouraging talk, didn’t have a firm grasp of football reality. McClellin was an undersized player from Boise State most viewed as a linebacker rather than a defensive end. Emery ignored those warnings even with a more realistic option in Chandler Jones of Syracuse still on the board.

McClellin would prove to be one of the bigger draft busts in recent Bears history, but it didn’t seem to hamper the team too much that year as they still went 10-6.

That didn’t suit the new GM though. The failure to make the playoffs following a late-season slide (3-5 in November and December) was enough to convince him that a change at head coach was needed. Somebody who could help turn Cutler back into the Pro Bowler he was a few years ago. Something Lovie Smith had failed to do.

After an extensive search in January of 2013, he’d narrowed his list to two names. One was reigning NFL Coach of the Year Bruce Arians, a man who’d contributed to the development of guys like Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. The other was Marc Trestman, a two-time Grey Cup champion in the CFL who last coached south of the border in 2004.

Emery became enamored with Trestman’s views on leadership and approach to coaching. So he bucked the NFL trends to make the 57-year old the next head coach of the Bears.

A rising star

New Orleans began their ascent to contention that year in 2006. Most of the foundation was laid by their excellent work in the draft, but it doesn’t come to fruition without some outstanding acquisitions in free agency thanks to Pace and his crew of pro scouts.

Among the names added include tight end Jeremy Shockey, fullback Heath Evans, center Jonathan Goodwin, linebackers Scott Fujita and Scott Shanle, wide receiver Lance Moore, unheralded kicker Garrett Hartley, and Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper.

In 2009, it all came together. The Saints went 13-3 behind the best offense in the NFL. The defense was the big difference though as Pace’s acquisitions played a pivotal role in the unit collecting 39 turnovers and scoring eight defensive touchdowns. Hartley kicked the winning field goal in the NFC championship. Shockey caught a pivotal TD in the Super Bowl.

Everything went right and by late February the city of New Orleans had its first professional sports championship in history.

Pace’s work continued to bear fruit after that. Darren Sproles and Ben Grubbs would become two great additions to their roster in 2011 and 2012. This led to him earning another promotion to director of pro personnel. Under his authority, the team kept finding hidden gems.

Cornerback Keenan Lewis had a great year for them in 2013. Tight end Ben Watson became a reliable target for Brees and a team captain. Pace had become one of the most respected pro personnel minds in the business and a rising star on the general manager-in-waiting circuit.

The castle burns to the ground

By the end of 2014, the Emery era had become a disaster. Coach Trestman started off his first year strong but saw it end in heartbreak at the hands of Green Bay. The next year it was becoming clear his lack of a strong voice in the locker room was allowing the strong personalities to run wild. Men like Marshall, tight end Martellus Bennett, and defensive tackle Jay Ratliff.

The list of incidents was extensive:

  • Bennett dumping rookie Kyle Fuller on the ground during practice
  • Marshall screaming at everybody in the locker room
  • Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer trashing Cutler to the media

As things got out of control behind the scenes, the losses started to pile up. The low point came in the two weeks between October 26th and November 9th. That was when they were beaten by the New England Patriots 51-23 and the Green Bay Packers 55-14. Easily the most points ever surrendered by the Bears defense in a two-game span.

It wasn’t just a pair of crushing defeats. It was a humiliation.

One that Emery never recovered from. Trestman’s slipping grip on the team combined with a string of mediocre drafts headlined by the McClellin pick proved too much for McCaskey to let slip by. Chicago finished 5-11. Their worst record since 2004. Emery and Trestman were both fired the day after the regular season ended.

Now McCaskey and team president Ted Phillips would have to find somebody not only able but willing to pick up the pieces.

An old hand points the way

While he felt more comfortable in his position as chairman by the start of 2015, McCaskey wanted to make sure he got as much help as possible in his search for the next Bears GM. So he decided to turn to a familiar face. Somebody he’d known for years. His name was Ernie Accorsi.

The man had been a GM in the league from 1983 to 2006. During that time he’d produced some good football teams with the Browns and Giants. He understood what it took to excel at that job and what to look for. He also had a deep love for football history. Accorsi had actually been roommates with Bears legend Brian Piccolo at Wake Forest.

He knew one of the biggest reasons Emery failed in Chicago was his inability to fill out the roster with good mid and late round draft picks. Of the 12 selections he made in the 4th round or later between 2012 and 2014, only two became starters for the team beyond two years. Eight of them are already out of the league.

This is what Accorsi focused on when his search began.

“I always look at who’s making the player personnel decisions on a team, and do they have players they’re getting in the middle rounds they’re winning with? You have to do that today. You only have seven picks, and the draft is still your lifeblood.”

Accorsi was aware of Pace at that time, but he had some concerns. Namely whether the 38-year old was actually interested in becoming a GM. After all, he’d had an opportunity to do that in 2013 with the Carolina Panthers but declined to interview for it. He also passed on a chance to meet with the Jets who were also looking for a new GM.

So when Accorsi called his agent, he was upfront with that concern.

“Pace kept surfacing from everybody, not just me. So when this came up, I called his agent, who I knew. I said, ‘He’s going to have to make a decision. Does he want to be a general manager or not? He can’t keep turning opportunities down.’ He said, ‘No, he’s ready. He didn’t think he was ready two years ago. He’s ready.’ So we interviewed him, and he did really well right away.”

Right away Accorsi could tell that the Bears job meant something to Pace. Part of that was him going to college at Eastern Illinois but another part was that, despite being so young, he was an avid lover of football history.

Pace’s “throwback heart” claims an upset

When the search began, almost every local and national outlet believed the Bears pretty much had their next guy. He was Chris Ballard, director of player personnel in Kansas City and a former scout for the Bears from 2001 to 2012.

It seemed like such an obvious choice. Ballard had helped the revival of the Chiefs since 2013 and had deep ties to Chicago’s most recent run of success. He wasn’t just a favorite. He was the ’85 Bears in Super Bowl XX favorite. There were other candidates but he was the only one people took seriously.

Everything was going according plan. On January 7th, both he and Pace arrived at Halas Hall for their interviews. A decision was expected soon. Sure enough, the Bears made it just 24 hours later.

Ryan Pace was the new general manager.

A lot of people were stunned by the news. More than a few in the media were angry. Ballard had several friends in the press and so the Bears took a beating in some areas of the media for taking a relative unknown like Pace over a “rising star” like him. So why then?

Belief is that Ballard wanted to make big changes to the entire organization and one of them proved to be something McCaskey wasn’t willing to accommodate. Releasing Cutler.

McCaskey had never tried to hide the fact he was a big believer in the quarterback. Besides, the team had just signed him to a massive new 7-year, $126.7 million deal the year before. Nobody was going to trade for that contract and releasing him would’ve forced the franchise to eat a ridiculous amount of guaranteed money for nothing.

If it’s true that Ballard was firm in that stance, then it’s easy to see why the Bears were open to taking a chance on Pace.

Even so, it’s not like the man was just handed the job because he wasn’t Ballard. Accorsi claims that Pace’s intelligence and sense of history went a long way in clinching him the job.

“I kind of describe him: he has that modern cutting edge expertise these young guys have today — how to use the computer and all these technological advantages. Not that they pick players for you, but they can find a player and a play at the drop of a hat. I couldn’t do the job today. I had no clue how to do all that stuff. But I felt he had a modern cutting edge talent and ability, and he had a throwback’s heart.

He had a sense of history of the game. The Bears meant something to him, which meant a lot to Ted and George, and obviously it meant a lot to me.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Pace was born and raised in Texas, a place where football is in the blood. He was coached by a legend in college and had close proximity to the Bears for several years, including through his wife who is an Illinois-native. The man knew exactly who he was pitching himself to.

A mountainous task ahead

People tend to undersell the situation Pace had navigated himself into. This was not a team with a bunch of bad roster areas but a nice young core to build around as can often be the case for a new GM. The Bears were the oldest team in the NFL by that point.

They had no fewer than 18 players who were 30 or older by the end of the previous season. Another six were set to turn 30 in the coming year. The team had no future. Never mind the deeply rooted locker room fractures still present from the collapse months prior.

If Pace was going to turn things around, he’d have to dig all the way down to the foundation and rebuild from scratch. That meant some hard decisions were coming, and it started right away with Marshall being traded to the New York Jets.

He wouldn’t be alone though. Another 17 players would end up departing as either free agents or cuts including longtime Bears stalwarts Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs. As much as Pace loved history, his focus had to be on the future. The past may have been glorious, but it was the past. It was time for a new generation to come along and make their own history.

Everything assumed about Pace has proven accurate

Time has proven the Bears made the right decision. It wasn’t a short or easy process, but Pace did what he promised. He took the franchise from rock bottom back to the top. Chicago went 12-4 last season and won their first division title in eight years. He even did something that no GM has done for over three decades.

He delivered a Pro Bowl quarterback to the franchise in Mitch Trubisky.

His reign to this point has been characterized as one of calculated aggression. Pace doesn’t throw money around like Emery or trade back in the draft to acquire more picks like Angelo. Every decision has a single purpose. That’s to get the best players he possibly can for his football team. The prediction Accorsi made has also proven true.

Pace is a wizard in the middle rounds of the draft. Among his many finds include All-Pro safety Eddie Jackson, Pro Bowl returner and offensive weapon Tarik Cohen, former Pro Bowl running back Jordan Howard, and starting safety Adrian Amos. All acquired in the 4th or 5th rounds.

Last but not least, his background as a pro scout has set the stage for a possible Super Bowl run. Akiem Hicks? Danny Trevathan? Allen Robinson? Prince Amukamara? Khalil Mack? All those veterans were acquired by Pace via free agency or trade. All were instrumental to their breakout season last year.

It seems his keen eye as a former pro scout has not faded.

The league celebrated this success by naming him Executive of the Year. The first ever Bears GM to claim that honor. Nobody can say for sure where things will go from here. One thing is clear.

Pace is still only 42-years old. If he continues as he’s already done, the franchise could be set up for many years of future success. An amazing story that only continues to add new chapters.