By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Emotion clenched Bears chairman George McCaskey on Wednesday as a herd of reporters surrounded him. His head sank to the floor, and he grew choked up.
One hour earlier, Bears coach John Fox and general manager Ryan Pace entered a crowded Halas Hall media room and read off carefully crafted scripts for five minutes. They then put away their papers and faced the heat for going 3-13 in 2016 and 9-23 after two seasons. Pace acknowledged all they could offer were words.
McCaskey is coming from a different place. The Bears aren’t his employer like Fox and Pace. This organization is his life. That’s why he became struck with emotion when asked about his mother, team matriarch Virginia McCaskey.
For McCaskey, this is deeply personal.
“She’ll be 94 tomorrow,” McCaskey said Wednesday. “She has outlived her dad, her mom, her only sibling, her husband and a son. She’s had her share of heartache. But she is a remarkably resilient person. I tell people that she’s tougher than her dad was. And those who know her don’t disagree.”
The Bears just finished their worst season ever in a 16-game schedule, one capped by hitting rock bottom in a 38-10 loss to the Vikings in the season finale Sunday. The team then retreated back to Lake Forest, with players clearing out of Halas Hall and those in charge spending two days getting on the same page.
Wednesday brought the Bears’ delayed season-ending press conference, with Fox and Pace attempting to present hope moving forward. They both declared that injuries weren’t an excuse while simultaneously using the term “injuries” 19 times as a crutch in a press conference that stretched about 45 minutes.
Looking to foster some semblance of inspiration for 2017, Fox and Pace instead read statements off script to open their media session.
“We’re all disappointed,” Pace said. “We have higher standards — me personally, our coaches, our players, the entire building has higher standards. We’re currently analyzing the season and what we must do to improve is already underway.”
Added Fox: “Obviously, 3-13 is not acceptable. The buck stops here.”
From there, Fox and Pace were grilled on every aspect of their floundering organization — the organizational hierarchy, Fox’s coaching staff, Jay Cutler’s waning future as quarterback and a failure to address the secondary, among many topics.
Even Pace conceded that skepticism is understandable after a three-win season.
“We are never going to be in this position again,” Pace said.
The Bears made it known that Fox and Pace are facing a make-or-break 2017 season. While McCaskey wouldn’t address a question on the possibility of another losing season — “I don’t deal in hypotheticals, the world as it is is vexing enough,” he said — it certainly is evident that the regime must produce better next season.
What would be enough for Fox to see through his four-year contract? That much is for McCaskey to decide.
Pace boasted of the Bears’ draft placement — not only with the No. 3 pick, but high picks in each round — and how they’re in the top five in available cap room for free agency. He made the proclamation certain that upgrades across the roster are coming, both in free agency and the draft.
“The goal is to look for long-term solutions that lead to long-term success,” Pace said. “It’s not a quick fix building a team the right way to get us on the right track long term. That means drafting well and developing those players. Our goal is to keep adding young talented players to this team our fan base can grow with and eventual win Super Bowl championships.”
Starting with meetings next week, the Bears will be looking to move on from Cutler and find their next franchise quarterback. A crucial decision on Alshon Jeffery is looming, with the top receiver perhaps returning on a long-term deal. Upgrades are needed across the board, namely in a secondary that desperately needs talent. When the Bears arrive at training camp in July, they’ll have a much different look thanks to their assets this offseason.
Though there was clearly some rehearsing, Fox and Pace managed to create a united front Wednesday. Their relationship is genuine, but losing tends to complicate matters.
Inside Halas Hall, it’s Fox who oversees the development of his team and Pace who’s tasked with supplying the talent. Their roles are known with each other, and complication is avoided.
McCaskey put his faith in Fox and Pace to bring the Bears a winner. The draft picks are there, the cap room is available and the excuses won’t be accepted in Year 3. They must produce a contender in 2017.
After all, McCaskey’s commitment to winning is about family.
“This is hard for her,” George said of mother Virginia. “Every loss is painful. But she supports what we’re doing. She’s on board. Like every Bears fan, she wants more wins. And we intend to get them for her.”