Sports

George McCaskey’s inability to recall when the Chicago Bears united with Bill Polian is peculiar. But Polian’s influence on the upcoming coach and GM searches is now paramount.

The revelation came subtly Monday from Chicago Bears Chairman George McCaskey.

Bill Polian had been tabbed to jump into the driver’s seat for the upcoming coach and general manager searches. And, boy, were the most important leaders at Halas Hall pumped.

“Bill Polian,” McCaskey noted, “is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame because of his success as a football executive, including his hiring of two head coaches, Marv Levy and Tony Dungy, who are themselves in the Hall of Fame. He is well-regarded in league circles and has a lot of contacts. We consider ourselves very fortunate to have Bill assisting us in our search.”

Yet McCaskey also seemed to be suffering from a bit of selective amnesia. He couldn’t remember exactly when Polian linked up with the team.

“At some point during the season,” McCaskey said. “I can’t recall when.”

A little while later, McCaskey was given another opportunity to jog his memory. Just “called him out of the blue,” he mentioned.

But when specifically?

“Like I said, I don’t recall the exact timing,” McCaskey said. “It was at some point during this past season.”

It was at some point during this past season, McCaskey folded in, when he and team President and CEO Ted Phillips were rattled enough by the Bears’ on-field failures to seek outside counsel on what to do with coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace.

Polian wasn’t the only independent adviser they reached out to. Just the only one they’re comfortable revealing given his leading role in the new search party.

Yet Polian isn’t only steering the hunt for a new GM and new coach. He was also influential in the franchise’s decision to pull the plug on the Pace-Nagy union. At some point this season, Polian’s overview of the Bears’ struggles became valued research that McCaskey and Phillips used in concluding how to attach ramifications to the team’s fifth double-digit-loss season in the last eight years.

“We asked Bill to help us in evaluating our GM and head coach and in helping us make a decision to retain or replace,” McCaskey said. “And if we moved to a replacement situation, (we asked him) to help us in our search to find the replacements.”

That seemingly small disclosure — that Polian was needed to help the Bears maneuver past the “retain or replace” fork in the road — was notable for several reasons.

For starters, it was the latest admission from McCaskey that his trust in his own football judgment remains minimal — startling for a leader heading into his 12th season as chairman and now with the heightened responsibility of having final say on the hiring of a general manager as well as full authority performing regular performance reviews of the GM.

In a more damning quote Monday, McCaskey offered this self-deprecating review of his credentials: “Well, I’m just a fan. I’m not a football evaluator.”

Perhaps more bothersome, though, to at least a handful of folks inside Halas Hall was the surprising divulgence that Polian had been in the shadows for a big chunk of this season, evaluating the team’s failures for the men who called him out of the blue for assistance.

Help wanted

For Nagy, who received almost no backing from above during an excruciating five-game skid from mid-October to late November, it’s possible he might not have been so glowing in his continual praise of the “open and honest” relationship he had with his superiors had he known another undercover football evaluator was judging everything.

One league source with connections to Halas Hall said Nagy was never aware of — or at least never mentioned to those close to him — Polian’s involvement. Not that it would have mattered much. With the direction the Bears season went, McCaskey and Phillips could have consulted a Hall of Fame former GM such as Polian or the manager at the local Jewel-Osco and been led to the same conclusion that Nagy should be fired.

The Bears brain trust seemed to have a much more difficult time deciding what to do with Pace after seven seasons, with several league pipelines of information indicating throughout December and into January that Pace might get a chance to stick around in some capacity.

Polian, though, provided input that helped persuade the Bears to turn to the “Replace” chapter in their Choose Your Own Adventure expedition.

Almost no one in the league has tabbed that move as wrong or unfair or even remotely premature. But within Halas Hall, there are some new questions about the trust factor. Some in the building were thrown off to learn of Polian’s oversight of the 2021 season while also exasperated that neither McCaskey nor Phillips had the football wisdom to make such important decisions with confidence and without outside consultation.

And how exactly, some wondered, could Polian produce a comprehensive evaluation of the Bears’ operation from a distance, without true knowledge of the front office power structure or an understanding of the inner-workings of Halas Hall? Just how complete could his assessment have been if he didn’t speak with those below McCaskey and Phillips — from execs to coaches to support staff?

Where things head from here is anyone’s guess. But Polian’s influence is now paramount.

In the details

Monday’s moves to cut ties with Nagy and Pace were widely praised by Bears fans when they were officially announced. Yet by sundown, after McCaskey — and to a lesser extent Phillips — stumbled through an hour-long state-of-the-team address, worries were renewed about the lack of vision and direction.

For some with close ties to the franchise, the feeling of embarrassment that accompanied the infamous January 2021 McCaskey-Phillips news conference was shoved aside by a new depression, almost a demoralizing acceptance that McCaskey’s football evaluation chops lack substance and a necessary level of detail.

Sure, the Bears may ultimately find themselves a successful GM-coach pairing this month. Or they might not. The most unfortunate part is that some around the league see this next shot they take as little more than a blindfolded three-quarters court heave.

When McCaskey was asked directly Monday how he analyzes whether a GM is performing his duties successfully, he noted that would be largely based on wins, losses and playoff success. Which is, of course, a solid starting point. But to stop there also leaves so much nuance neglected and so many important specifics ignored.

McCaskey offered a bit more Monday on what he looks at to evaluate general managers.

“The number of difference makers and the number of quality players you have on your team,” he said, “the core of the team and how the team is put together are all factors that are considered.”

He even cited content from Polian’s 2021 book “Super Bowl Blueprints” as info that will guide him during a consequential search for new leaders this month.

Polian, McCaskey emphasized, writes in his book “about decisions he made as a general manager that were considered wildly unpopular at the time. But eventually they bore fruit, and you have to be ready and willing to make what may very well be an unpopular decision if you’re convinced its best for the Bears.”

That was almost a warning to Bears fans to buckle up.

‘What makes him think he’s going to get it right?’

The Bears’ union with Polian has drawn mixed reviews since it was announced. Polian’s credentials during his 28 seasons as a league executive are undeniable. First, as general manager of the Buffalo Bills and later as a GM and team president with the Indianapolis Colts, Polian helped guide his teams to six Super Bowl appearances, including the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI triumph over the Bears.

But, detractors point out, Polian was also fired from the Colts 10 years ago after a lengthy stretch in which the team couldn’t get much right in the draft and owner Jim Irsay decided a change in management was necessary.

Polian’s pre-draft certainty as an analyst in 2018 that Lamar Jackson would be a better fit in the NFL as a receiver rather than as a quarterback has been widely panned with suggestions that it exposes his lack of sense for how the game has evolved.

A year before that, Polian boldly tabbed Chad Kelly the most talented quarterback in a 2017 draft class that produced Patrick Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and, yes, even Mitch Trubisky.

Like any accomplished football evaluator, Polian has misses alongside grand achievements.

The Bears have now given him heightened authority to aid their revival efforts by steering their search process.

After hires are made, though, Polian will go down the same path Ernie Accorsi took after serving in a similar consulting role for the Bears in 2015. He will part ways with the Bears and be given a heartfelt thank you as he distances himself from the organization and such significant decisions with no skin in the game and no consequences if they don’t work out.

McCaskey, though, remains convinced the process will be solid.

“Frustrated Bears (fans) may be thinking, ‘What makes him think he’s going to get it right this time?’” he said Monday. “Well, we’re confident that with the experience we’ve gained, and with the makeup of our search team, we will find a general manager and a head coach who will lead our Bears to the success that all our Bears fans deserve.”

This post first appeared on ocregister.com



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