The search for the next Chicago Bears general manager is underway, but the team may not have to go far. Former Seattle Seahawks GM Tim Ruskell worked alongside Jerry Angelo the past two years and could be an option for Bears president Ted Phillips.
But given his close ties to the previous administration, should he be considered? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Ruskell should be a viable candidate for Bears GM
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. It sounds as if Ruskell is the Bears' absolute last resort. Which he should be. How can you sell the fan base on the idea of closing the talent gap within the division if you simply promote Angelo's right hand man? If Ruskell ends up with the job, why did they fire Angelo in the first place? Say what you want about Angelo, he won four division titles and made the Super Bowl during his tenure in Chicago. It wasn't all bad. Angelo was a much more accomplished NFL general manager than Ruskell, who had success early in Seattle after he walked into an excellent situation with a Super Bowl-winning coach (Mike Holmgren), but after a rough 2008, was forced out 11 games into the 2009 season. Ruskell landed in Chicago the following spring and has been a mystery to those of us covering the team. He's been made available to speak to the media only twice. What does he do? How involved has he been the past two years? We simply don't know. All we know for sure is that Ruskell is an Angelo guy. Which is why it makes no sense for the Bears to hire him for this job.
Michael C. Wright: Ruskell’s batting average in talent acquisition and retention isn’t good enough for me. Sure, Ruskell started his tenure as Seattle’s president and general manager with the best run of postseason success in franchise history, which included four playoff victories from 2005 to 2007. Upon Ruskell’s ousting, however, the Seahawks had stumbled to an 8-19 from 2008 to his departure. In addition, the Seahawks yielded only one Pro Bowler (LB Lofa Tatupu, who is no longer with the team) in five drafts presided over by Ruskell.
Ruskell didn’t perform better outside of the draft, either. In his second season, the Seahawks let all-Pro guard Steve Hutchinson walk for no compensation, then re-signed aging running back Shaun Alexander to a huge contract, only to cut him two years later. In an attempt to remedy the Alexander fiasco, Ruskell brought in T.J. Duckett and Edgerrin James. Uh, no; that’s not going to get it. Considering Chicago’s need at the receiver position, we can take a look at Ruskell’s track record there, too. In 2006 Ruskell gave up a first-round selection in the 2007 draft to sign Deion Branch. After surrendering the first-round pick, Ruskell signed Branch to a six-year, $39 million extension. Branch, in turn, gave the Seahawks five forgettable seasons in which he never started all 16 games. He never caught more than 53 passes in a season for the Seahawks or gained more than 725 yards. So if Phillips values job security, he’ll pass on Ruskell.
Melissa Isaacson Fiction. To make a major move and fire Angelo, only to replace him by Angelo’s recent hire, good friend and someone with less-than-stellar reviews in his last job would not be the change Bears brass have promised. And how can the Bears feel that Ruskell would give them his complete loyalty? Weird that he is even being considered.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. New blood means new blood. At the goodbye Angelo press conference, Bears’ Head Accountant Phillips said what fans have been saying for years: The Bears need to better utilize the draft to build the team, and Ruskell’s record is spotty. Not terrible -- he hit on some picks in Seattle -- but it’s far from sterling. At this point, the Bears need to start fresh with some fresh eyes, not settle for Angelo’s hand-picked deputy.
Fact or Fiction: Lovie Smith hurts the Bears' chances of landing a prime GM candidate.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. I think Reggie McKenzie settled that debate out in Oakland. General managers want to hire head coaches, not inherit them. Angelo felt the same way about Dick Jauron when he took over the Bears in 2001, but was forced to extend Jauron's contract after a surprise division title that first year. The McCaskey family's mantra that Smith be retained in 2012 makes the job much less appealing to potential candidates around the NFL. That's just reality. Now, the Bears could still end up getting the right guy despite the head-coaching road block, but if Lovie was out of the way, GM candidates across the league would be fighting to get to Halas Hall for an interview. It's still a good job, but it could be so much better.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Part of me definitely sees Phillips’ point of Smith being an actual selling point to the general manager post. The ownership-imposed caveat on any potential GM of retaining Smith as the head coach might turn off some candidates. Just as easily it can be seen as a positive. Smith receives hefty criticism for a variety of issues, but his ability to hold together a team in difficult circumstances is unquestionable. The players respect Smith immensely and will always play hard for him, as seen during the disappointing end to this past season. Besides that, ownership’s one restriction is that Smith remains the head coach in 2012. Phillips and chairman George McCaskey never said the coach has to remain beyond next season. So surely prospective GM candidates would have leeway to jettison Smith if, for whatever reason, the two can’t co-exist or the 2012 campaign is unsuccessful.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. If not, then he should. Why would a GM with a mind of his own -- the type the Bears should be looking for -- want to come in with the strong impression left by management that not only will Smith take part in the hiring process but also wield the kind of power that leads to conflicts? Yes, the new GM will apparently be told he can also fire Smith after next season if he wants, but that essentially turns the head coach into a lame duck and that’s not the ideal situation to walk into either. Not allowing a new GM to hire his own head coach is not a good way to start a new regime.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Smith is signed for two more years, and he’s only guaranteed to be around in 2012. For all Smith’s flaws, he’s still the right coach for the team in place. It’s his defense, and the players respond well to Smith’s leadership. I see no reason why he’s an albatross. The only sticking point is, how much sway does he have over the McCaskey family and Phillips? If a GM senses that Smith is out to win a power struggle first, then he might have some concern.
Fact or Fiction: Wide receiver is the Bears' biggest need in the offseason.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Just look around the league. The 2011 NFL playoff teams all have legitimate playmakers at the wide receiver position. The Bears must look to upgrade that spot either via the draft, free agency, or both. It's a very good crop of free agent receivers expected to be on the market, including Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe, Wes Welker and Marques Colston. If the Bears stay at No. 19 in the draft, they could select Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, Baylor's Kendall Wright or South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery. Although everybody hopes Johnny Knox will recover from a major back injury in time for training camp, the Bears need to protect themselves at the position and find at least two new quality wideouts. If the new GM has the green light to spend money, the Bears should be able to accomplish that goal.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Recently-hired offensive coordinator Mike Tice has repeatedly talked about the need to exploit matchups, whether it’s through the running game or the passing game. Well, when the roster doesn’t contain any potential matchup problems for opponents at receiver, that eliminates one facet -- a major one at that -- in Chicago’s potential attack. So receiver is absolutely the biggest need at this point because, realistically, running back Matt Forte is the only consistently dangerous threat teams must always account for. By acquiring a legitimate receiving threat, the Bears actually add multiple weapons to the arsenal in the form of their other receivers such as Earl Bennett and Devin Hester. That’s accomplished in a number of ways schematically. If the Bears acquire a legitimate receiver (he doesn’t necessarily have to be a true No. 1), based on Tice’s track record, look for the team to start using Hester -- because of his deep speed -- in the slot more to take opposing safeties out of the tackle box, which opens up the run for Forte and takes pressure off the outside receivers.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. How about two or three wide receivers? Though the Bears certainly have other needs, wide receiver has to move up on the list of priorities for several reasons. One, it is unlikely they would find the top-flight receiver they need in the lower rounds of the draft (even though Angelo kept trying) if that’s the route the new GM decides to take. But more importantly, the team needs to give Jay Cutler every chance to reach his full potential while he’s still in his prime. And with the NFL clearly becoming a passing league, the Bears have to at least make an effort to stay competitive.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. There are myriad positions that need addressing on both sides of the ball, but it is past due to give Cutler an elite weapon. The offense is dependent on Cutler, as we found out in the aftermath of his injury, and while he can make average receivers better, it would be nice to give him a taller receiver that can stretch the field vertically. Offensive line, safety, defensive line and linebacker are other positions that require scrutiny.
Fact or Fiction: Forte should skip the Pro Bowl.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Go ahead, Matt, knock yourself out. Who wouldn't want a free trip to Hawaii for a week? I've been to the Pro Bowl (2002), and trust me, it's a blast unless you head across the Pacific in search of competitive football. The game itself is a joke. The risk of Forte getting hurt or re-injuring the ankle is extremely small. If the Bears had made the financial commitment to Forte and signed him to an extension, then I would advise against Forte participating in the Pro Bowl. But Forte is still without a new deal. He doesn't owe the Bears anything. He can do what he wants.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. I understand his importance to the team. But I also think it’s important to give Forte the opportunity to bask in this opportunity/honor/experience. There was a time during contract negotiations the front office used the fact Forte hadn’t made a Pro Bowl as a bargaining tool for a lesser deal. Surely that’s in the back of Forte’s mind as he prepares to play in this Pro Bowl. Besides that, who knows whether he’ll ever make another Pro Bowl? Obviously, there’s an injury risk associated with playing in this game. But for the most part, Forte has already assumed that injury risk over four years and 62 games while playing on a bargain-basement contract. One more game -- in which players don’t typically go full throttle -- isn't going to hurt anything.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. You have to admire Forte for wanting to work hard, rehab his injured knee and play in the Pro Bowl. And you have to appreciate the fact that he’s excited to play in his first one. But you wonder what else he’s thinking. Surely, if he were to re-injure the knee, it would do nothing to help his bargaining power. But the decision to play seems to suggest that his desire to prove something to the Bears and the rest of the league is his main motive and that just doesn’t seem worth the risk.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Yes, the Pro Bowl is stupid. Yes, Forte is coming off a knee injury and looking for new paper. But as long as he doesn’t play flag football on the beach like Robert Edwards, I think his knee will hold up fine in Hawaii. If the doctors give him the OK, he can play. It’s a right he’s earned, even if it means absolutely nothing. It’s also a nice how-do-you-do to the Bears front office, who absurdly used his lack of Pro Bowl credentials in their contract negotiations.