When reports emerged this week that Ryan Poles was in negotiations to become the general manager of the Chicago Bears, one of the franchise’s most beloved former players spoke up. Longtime center Olin Kreutz, who retired a decade ago and still lives in the Chicago area, tweeted that Poles should make sure he gets more than $15 per hour.
Kreutz’s joke referenced his own claim that the Bears once insulted him by offering an hourly fee to serve as a player consultant, a contention that Bears chairman George McCaskey has said wasn’t true. Kreutz stood by his story — saying in a radio interview that “if a guy like George McCaskey doesn’t like me, that is a win for me” — and provided a glimpse into the dysfunction that has festered during McCaskey’s 11-season tenure as the team’s chairman.
Poles is the third general manager McCaskey has hired, and Matt Eberflus is the fourth coach. By all accounts, they are roundly respected around the NFL. But so were former general managers Ryan Pace and Phil Emery when they were hired, as were coaches Matt Nagy, John Fox and Marc Trestman. None of them brought long-term success to the Bears organization, however, and that through line serves as an uncomfortable reminder that the competency of an owner matters in ways that many fans and media members prefer not to consider.
The Bears’ board of directors, made up primarily of team founder George Halas’ descendants, elevated McCaskey to his current role after the 2010 season. For most of that time, he has followed a mandate that most of the public demands of sports owners: stay out of the way. Professional sports is flush with the notion that teams’ fortunes are inversely related to the involvement of the owner, who is presumed to be a non-expert and thus unqualified to exist in that world. McCaskey has appeared to agree with that theory, relying on his hired hands to establish a vision and make the moves they thought were necessary to fulfill it.
I spoke to McCaskey in 2013, as Emery was working through the difficult decision of whether to part ways with aging linebacker Brian Urlacher. Such a move would reach far beyond football and affect the relationship between the franchise and a future Pro Football Hall of Fame player, but McCaskey was determined to stay out of it.
“As a fan,” McCaskey said at the time, “of course you want him back. He’s been the face of the franchise. He’s been an outstanding player, a Hall of Fame career. But I’ve tried to assure Bears fans since I became chairman that I don’t involve myself in player personnel decisions unless there is a question of character. Of course, there is no question about Brian’s character. So you have to leave that to the pros, the guys that make the evaluations, and hope for the best.”
No owners should make specific football decisions on their own, but it appears McCaskey has realized that successful stewardship of an NFL franchise requires a bit more direct involvement than hoping for the best. After firing Pace and Nagy earlier this month, he announced that the next general manager would report directly to him instead of team president Ted Phillips. McCaskey attributed the change to Phillips’ role in pursuing a possible new stadium in suburban Arlington Heights, but regardless of the reason, his position at the top of the Bears’ football vertical should by definition bring more of a connection to the Bears’ football operation.
Even owners who are inclined to be deferential, and there are fewer than you might realize, can still play an important role in building a successful team. Perhaps it’s by providing a different voice or bringing up unasked questions in key decisions. Maybe it is as simple as insisting on a vision that allows the general manager, coach and quarterback to all be in alignment, rather than try to push forward with mismatches caused by staggered hiring and drafting cycles — a key problem for the Bears in the past decade.
It’s fair to ask if McCaskey’s involvement will bring better outcomes, make them worse or leave them unchanged. Being the grandson of Halas doesn’t grant any ethereal insights or skills on its own. Asked by a reporter why he should be trusted with this new arrangement, given the lack of a single playoff victory since his tenure began, McCaskey acknowledged the frustrations of fans and said that results on the field will be the only way to answer.
“We think in time it’ll be shown that we’ve chosen the right people,” he added.
So the hiring of Poles and Eberflus is best viewed in the context of an owner who has decided to step into the operation with a bit more verve than he once did. Owners can’t just be caretakers. At some level, they must be operators as well. We’re about to find out whether George McCaskey is up to it.