When Ryan Pace took power as General Manager of the Chicago Bears, one of his first actions was to unceremoniously dispatch Brandon Marshall to the New York Jets. Marshall by that point had become something of a franchise pariah, irritating anonymous teammates and making a spectacle of himself in the midst of a disappointing season. When the news broke that Marshall would wear hunter green for the Jets, the reaction from fans and reporters was, as expected, very divided.
Fans wanted to know how Pace would answer that loss of production – after all, Marshall’s years in Chicago were very noteworthy: 218 catches, 2803 yards, 23 touchdowns; some of the best numbers in team history – but Pace and the newly-hired Fox wanted people to look at it differently.
“I just want to make sure that we understand the Chicago Bears and football are our No. 1 priority going forward.” – Pace 2015
The sentiment was repeated in 2016, as malcontent tight end Martellus Bennett was sent to the Patriots after a three year stretch in Chicago where he caught 208 passes for 2114 yards and 14 touchdowns. Bennett, known for his colorful interactions on social media and quotability with the press, was apparently impressed with the state of the franchise, as he noted the following October:
“We just had a bunch of bitches on the roster – that’s why we didn’t win games – and coaches liked the bitches.” – Bennett, 2016
Pace’s other bottleneck was the expiring contract of Matt Forte, who was turning 30 and in line for a significant raise. Forte, who in Bears history is second only to Walter Payton in both yards and receptions, was by all accounts a great teammate and valuable asset who simply was hitting the wrong age at the wrong time for the franchise. The team chose to let him walk away, and he signed a 3 year $12M contract to join Brandon Marshall in a Jets uniform.
Reports have already come out as of this writing that Jay Cutler will be traded, released, or possibly retire. While the Cutler debate will rage on for years and years to come, he will, by a large margin, statistically go down as the best quarterback to ever wear a Bears uniform, having thrown for over 23,000 yards and 154 touchdowns.
The answers to these departures is still unclear.
Pace responded to Marshall’s trade by drafting Kevin White with the 7th overall pick in 2015. White has played 4 games in two seasons thanks to devastating injuries to his left leg, and it’s unknown whether or not he’ll ever be able to suit up for a full season.
Martellus Bennett was viewed as expendable thanks to the emergence of Zach Miller, who was re-signed to a modest contract that offseason. Miller returned to his wounded ways in 2016, adding a foot injury to a long list of injuries that had until 2015 made him a liability for several other franchises. It’s difficult to rely on Miller as an everyday starter, but Pace felt confidence enough in Miller not to put much depth behind him. The ultimate benefactor in this was Daniel Brown, who emerged as an interesting prospect in the sunset of last year’s miserable season.
Jordan Howard broke through last season as the unquestioned starter, so give Pace credit for finding a quality young talent to build your offense around next season.
With the absence of Cutler looming, the answer is remarkably less clear than it turned out to be with Forte/Howard. Fans and critics of Pace are waiting with bated breath for the young GM to come forward with how the direction of the franchise should be viewed in a positive light as more and more talented veterans continue to escape the roster like dying leaves from an ancient oak.
In coming weeks, free agency, trades, and the draft will give Pace perhaps his final chance to show that he’s not merely a custodian to a decaying football monolith, but the shaper of a future worth getting excited about. As of now, many aren’t so willing to keep wearing these rosy shades.