By Dan Durkin—
(CBS) As a Bears fan, you’ve heard it all before. A newly hired general manager spreads reinvigorating goodwill through mission statements promising to deliver championships with a team built through the draft.
Yet, that Lombardi trophy in Lake Forest is 29 and single.
The first few major moves former general manager Phil Emery made at Halas Hall provided hope and optimism to faithful fans. Within minutes of the 2012 new league year, he traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall. In 2013, he signed left tackle Jermon Bushrod and tight end Martellus Bennett — two immediate starters to patch holes at need positions.
However, the vision Emery presented was that of a stable pipeline of young talent procured via the draft. Not to pick at scabs, but this is a direct quote from Emery when he was hired back in January 2012.
“Our goals and orientation are through building this team and continuing to add good players through the draft,” Emery said. “We want to raise our own.”
Wanting to do something and actually doing it are two very different concepts.
Emery went on to throw a Hail Mary on his first draft drop back, reaching for Shea McClellin. It was a harbinger of what was to come when he was on the clock.
Comparing the state of the Bears’ roster when Emery arrived to where it was when he left, his words amounted to nothing but sound bytes and column-space filler. They were promises unkept.
Consider that when Emery took over Jerry Angelo’s roster, of the 22 starters who opened the 2012 season against Indianapolis, 11 were Angelo picks, seven were acquired via free agency, two via trade, one was a Mark Hatley (the VP of player personnel/de facto GM before Angelo) pick and one was drafted by Emery.
Contrast that with the 2014 season opener against Buffalo, in which 11 starters were acquired via free agency, five were Emery picks, four were Angelo picks and two were from trades.
For context, the Packers drafted 17 of their 2014 opening day starters, and two of the remaining five were undrafted free agents who haven’t played for any other team in the league.
Under Emery, the Bears didn’t raise their own, and they didn’t add enough good players through the draft, which forced the team to become even more dependent on free agency. In turn, the team regressed from 10-6 to 8-8 to 5-11, which ultimately cost Emery his job.
Enter Ryan Pace.
Just this past January, he offered a vision nearly identical to that of Emery.
“I believe to have sustained success you must build through the draft and have a belief in player development,” Pace said.
Ironically, Pace’s first major move was to trade Marshall away, then fill some immediate holes in free agency to help open up the draft for the team and not enter it blinded by need.
Looking at the situation in New Orleans, where Pace cut his teeth for 14 seasons, there are several cautionary tales he can draw upon to help guide him in Chicago.
The Saints have been in a salary cap mess for two straight seasons, stemming from their practice of routinely back-loading free agent contracts with the hopes of short-term gains. They created a top-heavy, aging roster that toppled once time caught up with their high-paid assets. It was a direct parallel to what the Bears endured under Emery and Angelo.
Teams who play “kick the can” with contract negotiations eventually have to pick it up.
Pace is armed with the highest draft pick the Bears have had since 2005, the seventh overall selection. They’re in a prime position to land an impact player from a draft class that has 10 elite prospects.
Clearly, it is going to take Pace several years to undo what’s been done by his predecessors, but he must actually deliver. Otherwise, it’s everything we’ve heard before.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.