With his hiring in 2001, Jerry Angelo became the first official general manager of the Chicago Bears since Jerry Vainisi in 1986. Immediately preceding Angelo was VP Mark Hatley, who ran his last draft for the team in 2001, before bolting to Green Bay.
At that point, things had reached a low point for the organization. It had been six years since the team had made the playoffs and they were coming off five straight losing seasons. In Angelo's first year as GM, the Bears went 13-3, winning their first NFC North title since 1990. They earned the second seed in the NFC, which came with a first round bye, before being knocked out by the Philadelphia Eagles in the second round.
It was said that Angelo had wanted to fire the coach he inherited, Dick Jauron, upon his arrival, yet did not want to disrupt the team so close to the start of the season. After a surprisingly successful 2001, Angelo let Jauron stick around through two losing seasons before letting him go. He subsequently hired first-time head coach Lovie Smith.
Say what you will about Smith's deficiencies as a game manager, but he's proven to be one of the best in the business from Monday to Saturday. His 71 regular season wins, as well as his 56 percent win percentage, is third best all time in Bears history, behind only Mike Ditka and George Halas. In fact, since 1968, Smith and Ditka are the only two Bears head coaches with a regular season win percentage greater than 50 percent.
He may not be perfect but he's one of the best coaches in the history of the organization. So to that hire, one has to give Angelo his due respect. He and Smith had a very good working relationship. Together, they have earned three NFC North titles and an NFC Championship. They helped lead Chicago to only its second Super Bowl in team history and the first in more than 20 years.
When looked at as a whole, Angelo's resume in Chicago is fairly impressive. Yet when broken down, you see a number of personnel decisions that have severely hindered the organization, culminating in this year's epic collapse – which many blame on a roster lacking in adequate depth.
The draft specifically has been one area Angelo has struggled. Of the 10 drafts he conducted while GM for the Bears, not a single first round draft pick was on the Bears active roster at the end of this season. The only two still on the team are former first rounders Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams, both of whom finished the year on injured reserve. In the NFL today, consistently good teams build their rosters through the draft. As such, first-round picks are as valuable a commodity as there is for a general manager. Missing as frequently as Angelo has is one of the major reasons Chicago was left so shorthanded once the injuries started to pile up this year.
Yet much of the depth issues can be blamed on the Jay Cutler trade, which cost Chicago two first-round picks and a second-round selection. It's doubtful that at this point anyone really thinks that was a bad trade. You have to give up something to get a franchise quarterback. Depth is something you're willing to sacrifice when the opportunity arises to roster the best signal caller the organization has had since Sid Luckman. The Bears weathered that lack of depth in 2010 by staying remarkably healthy. This year, it came back to haunt them.
Looking deeper though, you see a draft history littered with picks that, at best were questionable, and at worst were downright awful: T Marc Columbo (1st, 2002); CB Roosevelt Williams (3rd, 2002); DE Michael Haynes (1st, 2003); Mark Bradley (2nd, 2005); DE Dan Bazuin (2nd, 2007); RB Garrett Wolfe (3rd, 2007); LB Michael Okwo (3rd, 2007); DT Marcus Harrison (3rd, 2008); DT Jarron Gilbert (3rd, 2009).
And that list doesn't even include Cedric Benson and Rex Grossman.
That's a lot of high draft picks wasted and one of the main reasons Chicago has made it to the playoffs just once in the past five seasons. After this year's team failed to reach the postseason, after starting 7-3, it was obvious new chairman George McCaskey, who took over his post just before the start of the season, had seen enough.
This move has his fingerprints all over it. McCaskey met with Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough and chairman Rocky Wirtz last month for dinner. Remember, the Blackhawks have pulled off one of the most-remarkable turnarounds in the history of professional sports. For the Blackhawks, the first step was cleaning house and removing nearly every piece of the old regime.
Apparently, McCaskey was listening.
He can now hand pick his guy and start his own era in Chicago. There are a number of worthy candidates out there. It's a job a lot of executives in the sport would like to have, considering the market and history of the club. McCaskey will have a lot of eager applicants from which to choose. Making sure not to miss is crucial here. Any more steps backward and this team will enter full-blown rebuilding mode, which is far from ideal considering the talent on the current roster.
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
The team hired Tim Ruskell as director of player personnel last offseason, yet the word out of Halas Hall is that he won't be replacing Angelo. The club is apparently looking outside the organization. One good place to start would be to the neighbors up north. Green Bay has one of the best-run and most-admired systems in all of football. Raiding their cupboard isn't such a bad idea.
Reggie McKenzie serves as Green Bay's director of football operations. He's been a candidate for a number of recent openings and is well respected around the league. John Dorsey, Packers college scouting director, would also be a great guy for the job. His recent drafts are what have built that organization, which never spends big in free agency, into the powerhouse they've become.
There's also talk of Bill Polian, who was relieved of his duties yesterday as GM and president of the Indianapolis Colts. He has built up three franchises in his career – the Bills from 1986-1993, leading the team to three straight Super Bowls; the Panthers from 1994-1997, sending the club to the NFC Championship in just its second year of existence; and the Colts, who won a Super Bowl under his direction in 2006.
Other names to consider: Marc Ross of the Giants, Eric DeCosta of the Ravens, Will Lewis of the Seahawks, Les Snead of the Falcons, and Morocco Brown of the Redskins, who served as the Bears' assistant director of pro personnel from 2001-2007.
Those three candidates are a great place to start. McCaskey has already taken the big-market step of axing a long-tenured general manager. The onus is now on him to help this organization turn the page and reach elite status. It all starts with this first hire.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of Bear Report magazine and BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.