Education:
Bears' massive rebuilding project will take time
Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace chat before warm-ups before a preseason game against the Dolphins at Soldier Field.Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace chat before warm-ups before a preseason game against the Dolphins at Soldier Field.Bears general manager Ryan Pace talks with guests on the sidelines during practice on the Bears Family Fest at Soldier Field.Bears general manager Ryan Pace talks with guests on the sidelines during practice on the Bears Family Fest at Soldier Field.Ryan Pace peered down from afar and noticed something entirely disconcerting. From a press box at Soldier Field, Pace scanned the home sideline and quickly diagnosed a Bears team that had come totally unraveled.He detected it in their body language, sensed it in the way coaches and players were interacting.Pick the adjective. Listless. Disconnected. Uninspired.Pace filed it away and knew he never wanted to oversee a team that came across as so obviously defeated.That was December of last season, Week 15, with Pace in Chicago as the director of player personnel for the Saints. And while a struggling Saints team spent that chilly Monday night pummeling the Bears 31-15, Pace had no way of knowing that 23 days later he'd be inside Halas Hall, across from Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips interviewing for the franchise's general manager job.McCaskey requested an honest assessment of the Bears roster, a diagnosis of their biggest problems. And when Pace, in his humble yet assertive tone, recounted the dysfunction he had identified, it struck a chord with McCaskey.On defense, Pace told McCaskey, the Bears had become too passive. Emotionally, they seemed totally frayed.The checklist of problems continued, causing McCaskey to swallow hard. As it turned out, 5-11 looked as bad from the outside as it felt on the inside."It was sobering," McCaskey said.Still, Pace's observation skills and positive outlook gave McCaskey a sense that he was the right kind of leader to take on the massive clean-up effort.So on Jan. 9, Pace was introduced as the franchise's new general manager, the foreman of a demanding rebuilding project. A week after that, the young GM chose John Fox as his head coach. Now, nearly eight months later, the Bears head into the regular season with renewed energy, even as they battle to overcome injuries and obvious talent deficiencies.Make no mistake, the 2015 Bears will reach their season opener Sunday with the smallest of outside expectations and a mountain of concerns. They're 6 1/2-point underdogs at home against the Packers and predicted by just about everybody to post another sub-.500 season.A project this massive will require time and an abundance of patience to complete. Yet McCaskey remains convinced that the right vision is in place.Pace, McCaskey believes, has embodied a deliberate and thoughtful approach to reviving the organization. And Fox?"John's like a force of nature," McCaskey said. "There's just something about him that's genuine and energizing. And it's palpable."Spare changeBears head coach John Fox has a laugh with referee Ed Hochuli near the end of a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears head coach John Fox has a laugh with referee Ed Hochuli near the end of a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears head coach John Fox stands on the sideline during a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears head coach John Fox stands on the sideline during a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Just how dramatic is the ongoing overhaul at Halas Hall after last season's implosion? On Dec. 29, starting with the firings of both coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery, McCaskey opened the door for a total gutting of the organization's infrastructure.Pace and Fox were given the green light to tear things apart and wasted little time doing so.The Bears' 53-man roster has only 26 players who were on the roster in Week 1 last year. Only 14 of the 20 draft picks Emery made from 2012-14 remain. And Pace embraced his newfound authority by collaborating with Fox to make almost three dozen new hires.In addition to a brand new coaching staff, the Bears have a new director of player personnel, a new salary-cap overseer, new directors of college and pro scouting, a new athletic trainer, a new strength and conditioning coach and a new sports science coordinator."Pretty widespread," Pace acknowledges.Despite making only four playoff appearances over the last 20 seasons, the Bears had allowed too much stagnancy to fester at 1920 Football Drive."Ryan has challenged the status quo," McCaskey said. "He has a lot of ideas and he's open to new ideas. Plus he subscribes to a theory that just because you've done something one way for a long time isn't a justification for continuing to do it."Still, for now, the vision of the team the Bears want to construct remains an artist's rendering, the final product a long way off.With such a wide talent gap to close, the Bears will have to spend this season striving to shorten games — hoping to chew clock, keep the score close, then deliver a dash of clutch play late to steal a few games they have no business winning.Energy planAs the mouthpiece out in front of the reconstruction project, Fox has his talking points well rehearsed, the redundancy of his messaging entirely by design.Fox will continually state that this is a combative game played by combative people and, therefore, developing mental and physical toughness will be paramount. He'll reiterate that success in this league is about acquiring the best human talent possible, then motivating those people to be at their best.On windows and walls around Halas Hall, additional messages of encouragement loom.Lead, follow or get out of the way.Ability is important. But dependability is critical.Dare to be great.At times, it can feel like a cookie-cutter motivational seminar."I'm just me," Fox says. "I'm not smart enough to be anybody else."Still, it's undeniable that Fox's personable nature, his energy and candor have struck a chord with the players. The veterans who lived through last season's 5-11 unraveling can't even begin to explain how refreshing this change has been.It's not that players never wanted to believe in Trestman's deep-thinking approach. Many still praise his intelligence and kindness.But in retrospect, they see now, Trestman's philosophies created an environment that became too uptight and regimented, simultaneously fostering a style of play that was far too soft.Offensive lineman Kyle Long reflects and sees that too many of last season's practices and meetings felt like group therapy."I feel like this is more of a football team," Long says.On the field, Bears players feel energized by new schemes that are designed to put them on the attack.Says linebacker Christian Jones: "Especially on defense, we're more aggressive. We're getting a lot more calls to come after the quarterback. Last year, we lined up in zone or man and just played. Sometimes you have to be way more aggressive."Outside linebacker Jared Allen is now entering his 12th NFL season with his sixth head coach. Fox, Allen says, has established credibility with his success in Carolina and Denver and built trust with his honesty."The environment you're working in has everything to do with how high you can go," Allen says. "Because you're going to limit yourself if you're in a negative work environment. With any job, if you love it, you're going to go above and beyond."When it's a drag, guys don't want to be there. Guys start counting the hours until they can get out of there."The music that blares during practices is Fox's way of testing and strengthening his players' concentration. But it's also a way of creating a verve.Bears quarterback Jay Cutler flashes a smile after a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears quarterback Jay Cutler flashes a smile after a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field.Bears quarterback Jay Cutler warms up before a preseason game against the Browns at Soldier Field."We have something here I haven't been a part of in a long, long time," Long asserts. "It's that confidence, that swagger. I know everybody wants to talk about toughness and physicality. But a lot of that is about swagger. When you walk on the field, you have that feeling like, 'We're about to get these guys. We're going to pound these guys.' "The long road backStill, no matter how much enthusiasm is bouncing around, the Bears face a sobering reality check with a roster that remains low on team speed and quality depth. Only a crack of light can be seen from the NFC North basement.Fox has a history to lean on, having guided quick turnarounds with the Panthers and Broncos. Yet Pace, still 17 months shy of his 40th birthday, remains green in a leadership role that includes extensive and unfamiliar demands on his time. He will also experience his growing pains under the intense spotlight of a major media market.Pace's first offseason in Chicago included the controversial signing — and later a high-profile release — of legally troubled defensive end Ray McDonald. Then his first draft pick as GM, receiver Kevin White, developed a stress fracture in his left shin that required surgery and will likely end his season.That wasn't exactly the first impression Pace was hoping to make.Still, Fox knows there's one surefire remedy to quell outside angst."If you win, they'll come," he says. "If you don't, they won't."So this new Bears regime will direct its focus accordingly, with McCaskey eager to see the results.In the final days of 2014, after a demoralizing season that took a heavy emotional toll on the entire family, McCaskey described his mother, Virginia, the franchise matriarch, as tired of the mediocrity the Bears had become accustomed to. "Pissed off" were George's exact words.Now, however, Virginia's emotions have shifted to eagerness to see what a new group of leaders can do to produce new results.George McCaskey is happy to report that his mom, who celebrated her 92nd birthday in January, is no longer so infuriated with the organization's direction."I would say she's hungry," McCaskey says. "She's looking forward to the season. But she'll be the first to point out that since all these changes began, we haven't won a single game."dwiederer@tribpub.comTwitter @danwiederer

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