By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) You should be used to the Chicago Bears brass not giving you many morsels of actual information by now. General manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox make previous regimes look like mafia snitches compared to the omerta that dictates the relationship with media these days at Halas Hall.
Still, if you really squint at the comments that are made up there — or, in the most recent case, down there at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis this week — there’s a bit of marrow to suck from the bones they leave you.
Pace held court with the press Wednesday to address the state of the team pre-draft and pre-free agency. He was vague and spoke in platitudes as usual, but as usual it was more genial than a session with Fox, as you didn’t walk away from it feeling like someone had just invalidated your life decisions. Pace’s rare media jams are never going to be a thing of rapt football talk, and today’s NFL as top-secret operation in every facet is just something we have to be used to by now. He wasn’t giving reporters too much non-gelatinous stuff to work with Wednesday, and that’s his place in the poker game.
But there were still some tells on his part.
The biggest question lingering around the Bears has to do with the future of quarterback Jay Cutler. The team currently has no definitive starting quarterback on the roster besides Cutler, and he’s presumably not going to enter the summer on the team if the Bears can help it. Cutler also needs medical clearance from his torn labrum injury before the Bears can make a decision on him.
“A lot’s got to play out,” Pace said. “In general, the quarterback situation — and obviously that’s the hot topic, and it should be — there’s a lot of scenarios right now. There’s a lot of different things that can happen. It is fluid. It’s fluid throughout this week, as we approach free agency and even after free agency.”
Pace’s word du jour was “fluid,” which he would tell you is regarding lines of communication but in fact means more of a trying to pour Cutler out of Chicago.
“It’s our responsibility to have a plan in place, which we do, that’s flexible and adaptable as the landscape’s changing,” Pace said. “That’s where we’re at.”
Which is to say that Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, Cutler isn’t a Bear come draft night in late April. The best-case scenario is that some team gives up a seventh rounder — the best value for Cutler, sorry — but more likely is the Bears just cut him when legally allowed to after medical clearance. The best odds would then be on the Bears bringing back Brian Hoyer or someone like him to mentor what should be a quarterback of the future taken in the second or third round this year. It won’t be a first-rounder at that position, though.
When a general manager responds with “value” in regards to “reaching” for something at No. 3 overall, that something is a nothing and not happening. That’s a plus, too, because the last thing this franchise needs is drafting the wrong quarterback at the wrong spot in a rebuild.
Pace also had thoughts regarding the Bears choosing not to put the franchise tag on receiver Alshon Jeffery, thus making him a free agent.
“Sometimes when you can’t come to a common ground with a player and an agent, sometimes it’s necessary to kind of test the market to determine that player’s value,” Pace said. “That’s really where we’re at. He’s a good player, and we’ll see how it plays out. But I think there are certain instances where testing the market is a necessary part of the process.
“These contract negotiations can be complicated. We’re at a point right now where this is kind of where it is. Us tagging him two years in a row really wasn’t an option for us. We’ll see how it plays out right now.”
Translation: ta-ta, Alshon and the incessant Chicago fan misuse of “Jeffries.”
Sure, the phone lines will be open regarding re-signing he who is now the top free agent wideout on the market, but quite soon Jeffery’s agent will let the Bears know that another team (and it’ll be the damn Patriots, you watch — always the evil damn Patriots in something like this) has offered to make Jeffery the highest-paid receiver in the league. Then Pace will be able to tell us later that the team tried to reach an agreement, had hoped for a hometown discount, but Alshon has to do what’s best for Alshon, etc., etc., etc
Stands to reason the Bears are now in the market for a receiver then.
“Our free agent board is stacked,” Pace said.
Oh, that’s cool, besides letting the best available receiver walk. So how’s the free agency approach going to work?
“There is a delicate balance between being aggressive and being decisive, but being responsible,” Pace said. “I think you can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player that you signed at the wrong price. I think we’ve got to be conscious of that.
“Free agency is dangerous. You’re stepping through land mines, and you’ve got to be careful you don’t step on the wrong one.”
Translation: The Bears aren’t going to be in the splash business this spring. But, like not reaching for a quarterback in the draft, that’s OK. Because despite all the grayness from Pace on Wednesday, what most stood out as evidence of an actual organizational direction was the following:
Splashes don’t fix 3-13 teams. Building, bit by bit, for sustained success — a phrase that has become common among all the major Chicago teams except the tail-chasing Bulls — is the slow, sometimes frustrating process needed to fix years of ineptitude in roster construction prior to Pace’s time here. While parting with Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall and soon Jeffery and likely Cutler is a massive amount of offense to willfully flush in one’s time, you can see cracks in the facade that suggest Pace is doing something underneath all the BS he’s talking.
You should happily take all that verbal nothing for a tangible something on the field eventually.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.