Bears' George McCaskey needs to be more than 'just a fan'

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  • Chicago Bears
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  • Matt Nagy
    Matt Nagy
    American football coach

Hoge: Bears need McCaskey to be more than 'just a fan' originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

George McCaskey laid it out for everyone to understand.

“I'm just a fan. I'm not a football evaluator,” he said.

And with that, a very predictable reality check hit Bears fans hard Monday. Whatever optimism existed after the team fired head coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace quickly evaporated the moment McCaskey announced he still trusts team president Ted Phillips “implicitly.”

“I have great respect for his judgment, his analytical skills, his instincts when it comes to the people that we’re interviewing, and in the end, he’ll be negotiating the contract of the general manager and the head coach,” McCaskey said.

That’s why Phillips will be involved in yet another GM and head coaching search, despite the fact the new GM will no longer report to the team president. The “modified organizational structure” — as McCaskey put it — was Phillips’ idea, of course, an odd admission because it revealed who is still calling the shots at Halas Hall despite the subtle change. 

So now the GM will report directly to McCaskey, who is always proud to flaunt his fandom while openly downplaying his own football acumen. Thus, there will continue to be a lack of checks and balances above the new GM, who “will continue to oversee the entire football operation, including the head coach.”

McCaskey has never seen the need for an actual football guy to oversee the GM, despite the well-documented, flawed evaluation of Mitchell Trubisky in 2017. Clearly, there was no need for someone to suggest to former GM Ryan Pace that he might want to circle back with Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes one more time. 

Instead, there will continue to be no one above the GM to bounce important football decisions off of. McCaskey even admitted that he was “uncomfortable” when Nagy asked him for his thoughts about making rookie quarterback Justin Fields the starter during the season.

The fact that McCaskey can admit that while simultaneously not understanding the need for someone with football knowledge above the general manager is stunning.

Truth is, it didn’t take long to get a feel for how Monday’s hour-long press conference was going to unfold. After offering a well-intentioned message of sympathy for the family of late ESPN reporter Jeff Dickerson — and specifically his 11-year-old son Parker — McCaskey awkwardly and unnecessarily pivoted to a lecture about fans booing Nagy’s oldest son at a high school playoff game in November. Both messages came from a genuine place, but the link between them — “Parker Dickerson is about the same age as Matt Nagy’s sons” — was cringeworthy. The situations aren’t remotely similar. And Parker is in fifth grade. Nagy’s son, Brayden — the one who endured the “Fire Nagy” chants — is a junior in high school. 

Perhaps if McCaskey had spoken publicly before Thanksgiving to make it clear Nagy hadn’t been fired yet, then he could have addressed the issue with Nagy’s son when it was timely, instead of awkwardly forcing it into an opening statement nearly two months later. The fact that it was part of a pre-written statement made it even worse. 

All Bears fans were hoping to hear from McCaskey Monday was an admission that the status quo isn’t cutting it. Instead, they heard that George and Ted will lead another GM/head coach search with another outside advisor — this time 79-year-old Bill Polian instead of Ernie Accorsi — and that the organizational hierarchy of the organization still isn’t the problem.

“It’s the GM who has ultimate football authority and oversight over the entire football operation,” McCaskey said. “Different structures work for different teams in different sports. We think this is the structure that will work best for us.”

Now is a good time to mention that McCaskey will be leading his third general manager search and fourth head coach search since taking over as team chairman in 2011. Perhaps there’s a reason why those different structures work for different teams. 

He spoke about the NFL being a “results oriented business” and said the new GM will be evaluated “largely on wins and losses, making the playoffs, success in the playoffs, advancing in the playoffs and winning the Super Bowl. That’s how success is measured in this business.”

And that’s why Pace and Nagy lost their jobs Monday morning. But what about Phillips? The Bears have three playoff victories since he became president and CEO in 1999. They have zero since McCaskey took over as chairman in 2011. So who’s holding them accountable?

“My performance is reviewed by ownership and the board of directors and ownership has informed me it wishes me to continue in this role,” McCaskey said.

Ah, yes. Ownership — led by his mother — and the board, which consists of five McCaskeys, Phillips — who George won’t ever fire — and Andy McKenna, 92, and Pat Ryan, 84. There’s literally no diversity on the board and, apparently, little accountability. 

When people say “it starts at the top,” that’s the top.

And if repeating the same messages and somehow topping last year’s disastrous press conference — the last time McCaskey even spoke publicly — wasn’t insulting enough to the fan base and season-ticket holders, the chairman went all-in on directly insulting former center Olin Kreutz.

Last week, Kreutz, who is an analyst for NBC Sports Chicago, revealed the Bears offered him a part-time gig to work with the offensive line in 2018 that only paid $15/hour. When asked if he knew about that offer and how he felt about it, McCaskey said:

“I’ve learned over the years to take just about anything that Olin says with a grain of salt. And I look forward to hearing that story again. I hope he includes it in his Hall of Fame induction speech.”

When asked if he was claiming the story wasn’t true, McCaskey double-downed:

“That’s the way it is sometimes with Olin. You don’t get the whole story. Olin knows what the story is.”

Without directly calling Kreutz a liar, McCaskey attacked the credibility of one of the most respected players in the franchise’s history. Kreutz then went out of his way to defend his story, not only confirming it with former offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but also Pace, who he called Monday after McCaskey’s comments. 

Hiestand even went on record in a Chicago Tribune story: “I just want there to be accuracy to this. George said that publicly and it’s Olin’s reputation and that’s just not right.”

It’s hard to imagine McCaskey creating a bigger mess than he did Monday. What’s especially unfortunate is that his missteps overshadowed a few legitimately positive developments with the latest GM/head coach search.

For one, you can do a hell of a lot worse than Polian as an advisor. And, as McCaskey proved over and over again Monday, he definitely needs an advisor. Polian is a Hall-of-Famer after hiring coaches like Marv Levy and Tony Dungy during his career. 

Newcomers to the search committee — vice president of player engagement LaMar “Soup” Campbell and senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion Tanesha Wade — provide hope too. While Polian has the connections across the league, Campbell and Wade will provide a much-needed younger perspective to the search, while ensuring that diversity will be a highly valued part of the process. In his role, Campbell is deeply connected with Bears players and, as a former player himself, will know which candidates best fit the needs of the current roster -- most importantly, Justin Fields. 

It’s possible — despite Monday’s unfortunate press conference — that the Bears will still manage to get these hirings right. But are McCaskey and Phillips ready to listen and accept the truth about their franchise’s shortcomings? The continued lack of respect shown to former players — many of whom expressed their unhappiness with McCaskey’s shots at Kreutz Monday — suggests Bears management doesn’t want to hear the truth. And that’s what happened in 2015 when GM-candidate Chris Ballard wanted to make changes in the organization and McCaskey/Phillips instead hired Pace. Ballard is now with the Indianapolis Colts and one of the most respected general managers in football.

But remember, McCaskey is just a fan. He wants you to know that. What he doesn’t seem to understand is that all owners are fans. They all buy the teams they own because they are really rich fans who can afford them. But most of them act like owners too. They know how to run their business while also being a fan.

Right now, the Bears don’t need a fan running the show. They need an owner. Unfortunately, McCaskey said very little Monday to suggest he can be that guy.