By the end of November, just about everything surrounding the Chicago Bears football team was undeniably ablaze. That extended window the Bears thought they had to compete for a Super Bowl crown? Incinerated.
The belief in the leadership of coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace? That had become a massive pile of ash.
The crucial rookie-year development of franchise quarterback Justin Fields was quickly melting too.
When Thanksgiving week arrived in 2021, the Bears were a month removed from their previous victory and stuck in a five-game skid that was threatening the prior season’s depressing six-game slide.
A deafening “Fire Nagy” chorus had spread well beyond Soldier Field, offering a reliable forecast of the coach’s eventual fate.
Pace’s future at the top of the front office was disintegrating just as quickly. And some of the internal clumsiness and dysfunction at Halas Hall left many in NFL circles scratching their heads with bewilderment. The Bears had lost their way. Again.
Across Chicago, though, there was an understanding that the origin-and-cause investigation probably wouldn’t take long. Ten months earlier, the fire already was in plain sight.
The 2020 Bears, in what seemed to be set up as a prove-it-or-else season, awkwardly kicked over the lantern in the barn.
They lost seven of their final 10 regular-season games, faceplanted in a lopsided playoff loss to the Saints in New Orleans and publicly confirmed that Mitch Trubisky, drafted No. 2 overall in 2017, was not the long-term answer at the sport’s most important position.
That was the team’s sequel to a colossally disappointing 8-8 run in 2019.
The crackle of the blaze and the uncomfortable heat emanating became obvious. Yet rather than search for a fire extinguisher or even grab a bucket of water, the leaders at the top of the organization — namely Chairman George McCaskey and President and CEO Ted Phillips — decided to run it back with startling certitude.
One more go, they collectively reasoned. Nagy and Pace had earned the trust to take one more big swing.
“This is a people business,” Phillips said on Jan. 13, 2021. “And when we step back and we’ve taken a look at what are the qualities of a successful (NFL) general manager and head coach, we feel Ryan and Matt check a lot of those boxes.”
Then he went one step further, exalting the united culture of a team that had spent the previous two seasons losing more often than they won at a time when the Bears believed they would be making a run at a Lombardi Trophy.
“Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No,” Phillips admitted. “Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.”
Every true Bears fan remembers that bold proclamation and the spreading fire that went uncontained. That recollection now is accompanied by an understanding that it’s from within the resulting rubble that new general manager Ryan Poles and coach Matt Eberflus are digging out. The Bears are headed into a patience-testing rebuilding season with an eye first on simply resetting a foundation.
Is that really a circumstance to just steer around with an “Oh, well” indifference?
Through that lens, it’s impossible to absolve Phillips of accountability for the failures of those he helped hire, supervise and keep around as the Bears team president and CEO over 24 seasons, a run that will culminate in February.
Phillips, 65, announced Friday that he will retire after the season, ushering in another landmark moment of change for the Bears and perhaps offering new hope that the next team president/set of leaders can develop a sharper understanding of what it takes to win consistently at a high level.
Regardless, a page soon will be turned.
Have we gotten the quarterback situation completely right? No. Have we won enough games? No. Everything else is there.
That quote will forever be tied to Phillips — and justifiably so — submitted as evidence of how the Bears’ top leaders struggle to set proper targets and goals and too frequently shrug past landmark letdowns.
In announcing his retirement to The Athletic, Phillips at least acknowledged that the Bears’ inability to win regularly over the last two-plus decades has been “my biggest disappointment.”
In the most cutthroat sports league on the planet, the Bears have failed to truly grasp how laser-focused, persistent and meticulous the entire operation has to be to even open a door for potential sustained success.
With Phillips the president’s post since 1999, the Bears have had more seasons end with last-place finishes (eight) than with a playoff appearance (six).
The team has only three postseason victories during that span and a truly mediocre 177-192 regular-season record.
At no point have the Bears enjoyed a sustained run of success. They have posted consecutive winning seasons only once — in 2005 and 2006, with that latter season producing a Super Bowl appearance. But that brief high has been followed by 15 seasons (and counting) of extended mediocrity plus a half-dozen GM-coach combinations, including the current Poles-Eberflus union.
Phillips was instrumental in the hiring of the last four general managers — Jerry Angelo, Phil Emery, Pace and Poles. And those GMs were responsible for hiring the last five coaches — Lovie Smith, Marc Trestman, John Fox, Nagy and Eberflus.
Still, while Phillips has admitted disappointment in that on-field record, he seems to lack understanding on how he might have better contributed, believing instead that his ability to simply be a sounding board and resource for Bears general managers was a sufficient show of championship-level leadership.
“We have relied on our GMs to put the right structures in place and have the right evaluation processes in place,” Phillips told The Athletic. “The Achilles’ heel of the Bears for many decades has been to have the right quarterback in place who is not only talented but can lead and raise the talent level around him. In my opinion, having the head coach or general manager report differently would not have changed any of that.”
Just five years ago, however, with a top-five pick and an admitted obsession to find the Bears’ fate-changing quarterback, Pace — with Phillips as his direct supervisor — traded away a collection of draft picks to move up one slot and select Trubisky at No. 2 ahead of Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson.
The Bears’ dysfunctional pre-draft quarterback search process later came to light, revealing, among other things, an astounding disconnect between Pace and then-coach John Fox and his offensive staff.
Perhaps Phillips could have identified that sooner and triggered a troubleshooting process. Perhaps he could have been a more engaged leader, helping provide guardrails on that high-stakes drive up a treacherous mountain.
That massive swing and miss ultimately resulted in a landmark error that has set the franchise back at least a half-decade.
It’s unclear whether Pace suffered any internal repercussions for his mistakes. It’s also hard to know how much deep reflection Phillips has given to that historic fumble.
At the end of the 2019 season, for what it’s worth, after Trubisky’s Year 3 struggles helped torpedo the Bears’ Super Bowl hopes — and while Mahomes was in the process of adding a Lombardi Trophy to his 2018 NFL MVP award — Phillips shrugged past that sliding-doors moment when asked if he truly felt the pain of Bears fans.
“We’re all fans,” he said. “We try not to get into that comparison game. We believe in Mitch. Patrick Mahomes is an anomaly. I mean, nobody expected that kind of performance, right? So as fans, we want the best for Mitch. And we have to get back on that championship path.”
Phillips still considers the tireless work he put into the renovated Soldier Field perhaps his greatest accomplishment in his current role. (That triggers a discussion for a different day.) And it will be fascinating in the coming years to see how the Bears handle their opportunity to build a stadium in Arlington Heights, a project that might never have become a possibility without Phillips’ interest and direction.
On the business side, the Bears franchise has been far more successful than it has been on the field. So Phillips has that on his resume. And he has received continued endorsements from the McCaskey family.
“Anything that he was ever asked to take care of, he came through and did it very well,” Virginia McCaskey said Friday in the team’s statement. “We’ve been very blessed to have him.”
Added George McCaskey: “He is held in high regard by his peers around the league, and deservedly so. We are lucky to have had him here as long as we did.”
Still, the Bears, at last check, remain an NFL football team, annually announcing their plans to win championships and compete for Super Bowls but almost never succeeding. Thus the leaders in the top posts of the power structure certainly deserve scrutiny for their performance.
For years, McCaskey remained firm in his belief that the Bears’ chain of command worked properly, with the GM reporting to the team president and the president reporting to the chairman. But even Phillips began to seriously wonder if it was worth trying something different. Last year, with the private acknowledgment that the team wasn’t succeeding consistently enough, he began considering his exit from football operations and told confidants that the organization could benefit from having a leader with greater football acumen.
By the Bears’ end-of-season news conference in January, McCaskey accommodated Phillips’ request.
“He has persuaded me that with the pending acquisition of the Arlington Park property, and its evaluation as the possible future Bears stadium occupying much of his time and attention, the general manager should report to me,” McCaskey said.
Still, rather than create a post for a president of football operations, helping to remove some of the organization’s football blind spots and reduce the level of admitted football ignorance at the top, McCaskey instead chose to have his new GM report directly to him in a supervisor’s role he had little experience or comfort in.
“I don’t think there’s anything magical about a so-called football czar,” McCaskey said. “At some point, the football person, whether it’s the general manager or an executive vice president or a president of football operations, has to report to ownership.”
Phillips will soon step aside, leaving the Bears to redefine their leadership vision however they see fit.
When the team announced Phillips’ retirement plans Friday, the immediate response from fans was awkwardly but not surprisingly celebratory.
For many, it felt like a needed and overdue change.
At the very least, the development seemed to open an opportunity for the Bears to continue the organizational overhaul that has been occurring since January.