An inside look at the Chicago Bears and QB desperation in today’s NFL
In January, GM Ryan Pace made it clear the Bears needed a QB. Everyone's jobs were on the line. What happened next, from Watson to Wilson to Fields, says so much about today's NFL.
The season-ending press conference, in any NFL city, can resemble an interrogation. As it should. Most general managers rarely speak to the media so they’re rarely held accountable for mistakes that cost people jobs and fans thousands of dollars.
This hour is needed. This hour is revealing.
Players must answer for their mistakes every Sunday — the least GMs can do is face scrutiny once a year.
So, you better believe Chicago Bears fans wanted answers this past January. The franchise’s 100 years of existence have been mostly marred by egregious quarterback play. If you believe in curses, look no further. And what’s most painful is that this curse should’ve ended the night of April 27, 2017 when GM Ryan Pace had a shot at Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson and sold the farm for someone else. One mistake at the most important position in sports typically triggers a total reset.
Pace missed on a player who could go down as the greatest ever and was able to keep his job.
No doubt, he had some explaining to do when the Bears’ season ended with a Wild Card thud in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, he didn’t supply much of an explanation that day.
Fans were treated to word salads. Decisive, confident, cool word salads. And yet through it all, it was still abundantly clear that both Pace and head coach Matt Nagy understood the stakes this 2021 offseason. They’d need to operate in a state of desperation and find a quarterback by any means necessary.
“We definitely need more out of that position,” Pace said. “We know that. What does that entail? That’s what this whole offseason is about.
“Everything’s on the table.”
Then, the Bears quite literally tried everything.
We all expected wild QB movement this offseason. Some big names were moved. Others were not. One league MVP’s future remains unknown. And the Chicago Bears — upon declaring to the world that they needed a new quarterback — offer a fascinating view into it all. They tried to land the biggest names. They exhausted every option. They, eventually, traded up in the draft to take Ohio State’s Justin Fields 11th overall.
How the Bears got to this point tells us all where the NFL is today.
This may be the dawn of a new era where star quarterbacks try to manifest their own destinies, contracts be damned. The line between success and failure in the NFL is so unbelievably thin now more than ever because the quarterbacks who make this game go are bound to demand trades now more than ever.
Count on an NBA-like tectonic shift every offseason.
And this year, the Bears were smack dab in the middle of it all wanting… needing… someone. What did they have to sell? One of the country’s most vibrant markets. (Good!) A roster speckled with bad contracts. (Not good!) And a No. 1 wide receiver in Allen Robinson who made it clear to Go Long he is unhappy with the current state of affairs. Yes, Robinson signed his franchise tag and is expected to report to training camp. No, his unhappiness will not magically fade away.
But if Fields pans out, the Bears can build a perennial winner with Pace, with Nagy, with all involved sticking around long term. It was a long road to that draft selection with the Bears, in lockstep, taking every swing imaginable. And there’s no question that every other team in quarterback purgatory today will need to operate the same way.
First, know this: The Bears would’ve gone all in on one quarterback from that ’17 draft they passed on.
“The guy they really wanted was Deshaun Watson,” one league source told Go Long. “Before any of this stuff popped up, you better f------ believe they explored every possibility when that kid demanded a trade. You better believe they were the first team on the line saying, ‘What do you want?’ And that was the time Houston wasn’t taking any calls on him because he didn’t have a sexual assault thing hanging over him.”
It’s true, the Texans weren’t interested in dealing Watson early in the offseason, but one report indicated they would have dealt Watson the week of the draft under normal circumstances. The 22 allegations of sexual harassment and assault completely changed those plans.
So as that dream died, the Bears went all in on Russell Wilson, who was trying to get out of Seattle. The Bears were extremely confident they’d land Wilson, too, given they would’ve given the Seahawks essentially anything they wanted short of Khalil Mack.
And Wilson made it clear he wanted to play for either Chicago, Las Vegas or Dallas.
And Chicago knew it helped to have tight end Jimmy Graham on the roster — Graham was in Wilson’s wedding party.
And according to one source familiar with discussions between the two teams, Seahawks GM John Schneider was willing to trade the disgruntled Wilson because he had grown tired of Wilson in the building. It’s no secret the quarterback desires more say in personnel decisions — one of Schneider’s mentors, Ron Wolf, wasn’t shy in his chat with Go Long, either. Head coach Pete Carroll, however, could not pull the trigger. This September, Carroll will turn 70 years old. He didn’t want to shift into a rebuild mode — with no Plan B in place — if Seattle traded Wilson. And Carroll absolutely did not want Trading Russell Wilson to be part of his legacy.
So, nothing materialized.
Publicly, the Seahawks aren’t looking back. By late April, Schneider said he “never actively negotiated with anybody or with any team” and dismissed this all as a “media blitz.” Carroll recently called this all “old news.” In the end, Wilson is a star quarterback squarely in his prime, fresh off arguably the best season of his career. Last season, Wilson threw for 4,212 yards, 40 touchdowns with a 105.1 passer rating — he isn’t close to being finished. As one league source put: “The reality is they need him. As a general manager, it’s suicide to be the guy who’s responsible for letting a future Hall of Fame quarterback go.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine all sides sing “Kumbaya” together for years and years.
Multiple sources indicated that Wilson’s desire to leave was two-fold. On the field, he was fed up with getting sacked and the run-heavy, play-action offense in Seattle. But the No. 1 reason he wanted out was something bigger off the field: His desire to be an NFL owner one day. Wilson wants to “maximize the amount of billionaires in his rolodex,” one source says, and meet as many rich and successful people as he can. Much thought was put into those three desired trade destinations that made most of us scratch our heads.
Dallas is where you’ll find Jerry Jones, arguably the league’s No. 1 power broker.
Chicago is the nation’s third largest city. Vegas is Vegas.
And if Wilson was able to bring the Bears or Raiders back to glory? You bet that does wonders for the brand of Russell Wilson.
"Russell’s end game is Russell wants to be an owner for a team one day,” one source familiar with Wilson’s inner-circle said. “He wants to own a team. He set that as a goal years ago."
Of course, the quarterback only pushed Seattle so far. For now. He did not force their hand to the extreme Aaron Rodgers currently is in Green Bay because, this source says, Wilson did not want to tarnish that same brand. Internally, the Bears maintained hope that they’d have a shot at Wilson in 2022 when Carroll has either retired or is more willing to change his mind.
And they continued to exhaust every option.
Carson Wentz was a former MVP candidate looking for a new team so he was absolutely on the Bears’ radar. How serious did it get? It was pretty clear that Indianapolis was Wentz’s desired spot because of his familiarity with head coach Frank Reich, his OC in Philly. His contract was also difficult to move. Whereas Chicago would’ve been more than willing to take on Wilson’s deal considering his 2020, Wentz struggled last season. It would’ve been more of a gamble to eat that money. And after such a wild ride in one rabid market (Philadelphia), one source in Chicago believes Wentz preferred the smaller market in Indy.
Either way, most people around the NFL agree that Wentz will bounce back in a big way. It just won’t be in Chicago.
The Steelers were a sneaky variable. If they decided to cut ties with future Hall-of-Famer Ben Roethlisberger, the Bears would’ve been interested in adding the 39-year-old. Hell, this source believes the Bears were casting their net so, so wide that they likely inquired about Rodgers… even if they knew the Packers would’ve been more apt to rip up those shareholder certificates and relocate the team to Antarctica than trade the league MVP to an archrival.
“Those guys were going to do every single thing to try to better their roster. Especially at that position,” this source says. “That’s how they’re going to keep their jobs.”
The idea of Rodgers playing for another team certainly has everyone at Halas Hall buzzing.
For two generations, back to 1992, the Bears have been utterly owned by two players. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers own a combined 42-15 record vs. Chicago as the Packers’ starting quarterbacks. Possibly now, there’s a window for someone else in the division to emerge. One league source indicated that after games last season, Rodgers was informing some opponents that he was trying to put a team together elsewhere in 2021 and wanted to know if they’d be in.
Rodgers has been that dug in since GM Brian Gutekunst selected Love in the first round of the 2020 draft.
“He was over it the minute they drafted Jordan Love,” says one league source who predicts the league MVP will end up in Vegas because Jon Gruden “would give up one of his kids to have Aaron Rodgers.”
Late tonight, Rodgers chats with ESPN’s Kenny Mayne. There’s always a chance this is when he dismisses all reports as media spam. But the more likely scenario is that Rodgers says little beyond congratulating Phil Mickelson and referencing the golfer’s age to keep on grinding toward June 1 when the cap hit on a trade isn’t as severe for the Packers. And if the choice really is Gutekunst or Rodgers, this league source who’s pro-Rodgers cannot envision the front office actually siding with the quarterback.
“Because it’s, ‘Yeah, we love you. But if we allow that to happen, we’ve publicly — for the rest of our existence — shown that we have allowed the ‘inmate’ to run the asylum,” says this league source, referencing owner Bob McNair’s quote 3 ½ years ago. “And everybody in the world knows that we did it.’ I don’t see an owner doing that. So, I just think we’ve seen the last of Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. I really do. They’re just waiting for June 1.”
Which all adds to the pressure for Chicago to get this right at QB once and for all.
They needed to sell something new and fresh so, along the way, the Bears tried cleansing their hands of the Nick Foles mistake by trading Foles back to Philly. Foles didn’t want to go, one source says, so the Eagles refused to trade for a QB who wouldn’t report. And on March 16, the Bears signed Andy Dalton to a one-year, $10 million contract. One week later, the franchise proudly declared Dalton the starter with a photoshopped “QB1” tweet that infuriated roughly 99.9 percent of their fan base.
To all of us, this seemed like a sad consolation prize. Anything but new. Anything but fresh. Pace was essentially in the same position he was back in ‘17 when the Bears signed Mike Glennon and then pursued Mitchell Trubisky in the draft. Only, this time, he owned the 20th pick instead of the third overall pick which would make any trade up unbelievably difficult. No way could the Bears have thought then — upon inking Dalton — that they’d have a realistic shot at Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Maybe North Dakota State’s Trey Lance. Maybe Alabama’s Mac Jones. But not arguably the best player in college football.
As blah as that signing and that tweet seemed, though, others saw a sneaky method to the Bears’ madness.
Missing on Wilson and Watson and Wentz and Roethlisberger and God knows who else was a worst-case scenario on the surface. But in signing a player who has gone 74-66-2 as a starter, a player who has taken his team to the playoffs five times and wasn’t that bad in Dallas last season, the Bears could sell the impression that they found a starter for the 2021 season. That helps in trying to lure free agents and really, really helps on draft day when a team is trying trade up for a franchise quarterback.
New England did the same thing in re-signing Cam Newton, another move that was universally roasted.
Having a veteran in place was smart for both teams drafting outside of the top 10.
Once the Broncos and Eagles passed on Fields, it was go time. The Bears dealt the 20th pick, 164th pick, a first-rounder in 2022 and a fourth-rounder in 2022 to the New York Giants for No. 11.
Without Dalton’s presence, one league source puts, the Giants would’ve taken the Bears to the “woodshed.”
“Imagine doing that when all you have is Nick Foles — you’re in trouble,” he says. “They could say to teams, ‘We’ve already committed to Dalton as a starter so what you’re asking for is too rich. We can’t do it.’ Where before, if it’s Nick Foles, it’s ‘Bro, I’m going to take you for f------ everything you’ve got. We all know you’re not going into the year with that because you’ll get fired by Week 3.’ It’s just reality.”
And when you consume pro football, keep this at the forefront of your mind: This is a sport of survival. Team presidents. GMs. Coaches. Anyone in power will sell out whoever they can to keep their job. Eagles GM Howie Roseman has mostly been a disaster over his two decades with the franchise but has also ingratiated himself to ownership. As countless others are fired, he survives. He continues to make draft picks. He takes J.J. Arcega-Whiteside over DK Metcalf in 2019 and Jalen Reagor over Justin Jefferson in 2020 and has a shot at drafting another wide receiver in 2021 (Devonta Smith) because he has mastered the art of survival.
Here, Bears’ ownership accepted management’s claim that Trubisky was the problem in Chicago, looking past the Bears’ own sloppy handling of Trubisky in 2020. Ironically enough Trubisky’s performance down the stretch actually helped Pace keep his job.
Then, this April, Pace had the ultra-rare opportunity to handpick another franchise quarterback.
The Bears missed on all of those vets, sure, but this might’ve been the best way for Pace and Nagy to survive beyond this season. Another young QB buys them more time.
“You can sell the dream with Justin Fields,” one league source says. “All they have to show is some promise and maybe they all stick around. And if the kid’s not ready, you can go to Dalton. So, they worked out a really good scenario for themselves.”
Fields’ steely reaction to being drafted was perfect. He looked downright pissed inside his living room. Not that the Bears drafted him, no, Fields looked like a man about to set the league ablaze for thinking three quarterbacks were superior to him.
By any measure, he was exceptional at Ohio State.
He won. He put up numbers. He ran a 4.44 in the 40 at his pro day that could’ve easily been in the 4.3s. He seems to possess the necessary intangibles, too. After getting absolutely jacked up in the semifinal, Fields proceeded to torch Clemson for 385 yards on 22-of-28 passing with six touchdowns.
Yet since Buckeye quarterbacks traditionally flame out in the pros, teams were apparently hesitant to pull the trigger on what appears to be as flawless a quarterback prospect as you’ll find. Trevor Lawrence went No. 1 to Jacksonville. Zach Wilson went No. 2 to the New York Jets. Trey Lance went No. 3 to San Francisco. Fields fell… and fell.. and the Chicago Bears just may have found their long-lost quarterback.
You certainly can talk yourself into the Bears winning in 2021 and beyond.
They need to repair their broken relationship with Robinson, but he’s an elite talent who’s also young enough to grow with Fields.
They have a 1,000-yard back in David Montgomery, who’s only 23 years old, and a promising No. 2 receiver in Darnell Mooney.
The defense still has its cornerstones from that special unit in 2018. Khalil Mack may be a future Hall of Famer.
And that is the beauty of pro football.
One moment, all can seem lost. The Bears struggle to advance the ball past midfield with Nick Foles, lose six straight and everyone seems destined to be fired. The next, there’s hope. The Bears win three straight with Trubisky, sneak into the playoffs at 8-8, throw the towel in on Trubisky, then embark on a quarterback odyssey that eventually lands a potential star in Justin Fields.
Fans have good reason to believe better days are ahead.
Either way, we’ll certainly have a good sense for where things stand, oh, ‘round January of 2022 when Pace and Nagy meet with reporters again.