"Bold" has rarely been an adjective used to describe the Chicago Bears, but as the sun set on a bloody Tuesday at Halas Hall, it became hard not to characterize the franchise's day as daring, if not altogether valiant. General manager Jerry Angelo, responsible for building four division-winning teams and one conference champion in Chicago, was suddenly dismissed by team president Ted Phillips after 11 seasons. Hours later, the team split ties with offensive coordinator Mike Martz and quarterback coach Shane Day.
Angelo and Martz were certainly unpopular among media and fans and each had their glaring flaws, but retaining both would have been considered the safe move. Yet after the Bears missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons all while the arch-rival Green Bay Packers threaten to turn into a modern day dynasty, Chicago's braintrust decided mediocrity was no longer good enough. If Angelo's abrupt dismissal represents anything, it's the Bears' unwillingness to settle. At its core, this is why so many sports fans in this city have rarely felt as much satisfaction as they did on Tuesday afternoon.
Martz is packed with enough idiosyncrasy to turn himself into something just short of a running joke, or maybe an Internet meme, but it's the swift canning of Angelo that will deservedly grab all the headlines. Few general managers this undignified can last 11 seasons in professional sports, and Angelo was certainly a bit of a mixed bag during his tenure. He made a gutsy trade for quarterback Jay Cutler and gave a record-setting amount of money to free agent defensive end Julius Peppers in consecutive offseasons, but failed to surround the former with enough weapons to succeed. He hit on a number of mid-round picks early in his career that helped shape a decade of Bears football -- Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Devin Hester, ect. -- but lost his draft day touch completely in recent years. In a late afternoon press conference, Phillips said the Bears weren't looking for a culture change, just a few better draft picks. Angelo is unemployed for two main reasons:
- Over the previous six drafts, the Bears have selected only three players who have made the Pro Bowl.
- Only two of Angelo's first round draft picks are still with the team, and both rookie tackle Gabe Carimi and underwhelming guard Chris Williams ended the season on IR.
This is how an NFL team misses the playoffs four times in five seasons, especially when you add in a sizable amount of bad luck. The Bears had just that in 2011. After starting the season 7-3, boasting their most competent offense since the Reagan administration, Cutler broke his right thumb and proceeded to miss the rest of the year. Horrendous quarterback play by Caleb Hanie sank the season in Cutler's absence as the Bears devolved from a real life threat to Green Bay's crown to a team that couldn't beat some of the league's bottom-feeders. Consider how different so many fortunes would have been had wide receiver Jonnny Knox not slipped on the Solider Field turf in Week 11 against the San Diego Chargers, the break that led directly to Cutler's shattered thumb and the Bears' shattered season.
It's not unreasonable to think the Bears would be 12-4 right now with Cutler (and also star running Matt Forte) in tow. The team should be getting ready for a first round playoff matchup, and Angelo should be worrying about tweaking a talented-but-flawed roster that's too old and too top-heavy. Instead, injuries submarined the season and Angelo's Bears career, and now Chicago is ready to start fresh.
Well, not totally. It was emphasized in the afternoon presser that the new general manager will still have to keep coach Lovie Smith, at least for one season. While Angelo and Smith are forever tied at the hip for this era of Bears football -- after all, Lovie was the only head coaching hire of Angelo's career -- perhaps a fresh restart doesn't make sense. When the Bears were cooking early in the season, the continued stellar play of an aging defense was perhaps just as responsible for the team's success as the Cutler-led offense. Brian Urlacher, Briggs and Tillman are long-time stalwarts whose careers will in part be defined by Smith's Cover-2, and blowing it up with all the principle parts set to return could be seen as shortsighted. Still, it's hard to endorse hiring a new GM when he can't even pick his coach. It's perhaps a bandage over a bullet wound for the Bears, but any measure to stop the bleeding is a welcome sign from the fanbase.
The firing of Angelo on Tuesday proved many things -- the power of the people, the indispensability of a star quarterback, and the frailty of even a lofty front office position. It also proved the Bears are through messing around: it's about results, and Angelo was deemed incapable of providing them. It isn't impossible to build a case for Angelo, but his exile is unquestionably a welcomed sight. The GM's half-baked quotes and multitude of botched draft picks signified a certain level of incompetence the Bears believe they are better than. Kudos for that. After all, no one is catching these Packers with their sights set on mediocrity.
Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.