CHICAGO -- In a modest apartment not far from Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium, Ryan Poles pondered his future. It was 2009, and he was a Chiefs scout, grinding for an organization that was bottoming out.
Three years later, Kansas City finished 4-12, the worst record in the league, triggering a rebuild. The blueprint of how the Chiefs transformed from bottom-feeder to two-time Super Bowl champs could serve Poles well in his current position as Chicago Bears general manager.
As he enters his second season in Chicago, Poles finds himself at the beginning of that arc. The Bears finished 3-14 last season, worst in the NFL. It set up one of the biggest offseasons in franchise history, from having -- and trading -- the No. 1 overall pick to developing a possible franchise quarterback and surrounding him with the right players.
"Anyone who's in one of these major decision-making seats, at some point you're going to have to make a franchise-altering or career-altering decision," Cleveland Browns GM Andrew Berry said. "It can be easy in these roles, especially because they're so public facing, to operate from a posture of being afraid to make a mistake, being afraid to make a bold move or even from the perspective of pure job preservation.
"And when I see what Ryan did, I see someone who is doing what he thinks is in the best interest of the organization."
Not only did Poles, 37, trade the Bears' top pick, he also dealt some big names -- Khalil Mack, Roquan Smith and Robert Quinn -- for draft capital. At the same time, Poles acknowledged it won't be a quick process and said there will be "weak spots" on the Bears' 2023 roster.
Patience was at the core of the Chiefs' rebuild, but Poles also saw how quickly things can accelerate if the team hits on key moves. Less than a month after finishing 2-14 in 2012, the Chiefs hired coach Andy Reid and haven't had a losing record since. Reid's first priority was to improve the culture in the locker room, and that included trading away talented players, including All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters, who clashed with some in the organization. In 2017, Reid and the Chiefs made their most consequential move, drafting quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
"There were some dark days there where you had to work through that," said Mike Borgonzi, a former roommate of Poles who's now the Chiefs' assistant general manager. "And it was really just having to change the habits of everyone in the organization, from the scouts to the coaches to the players, and having a sense of doing it together.
"We lived it. We experienced it. Not a lot of people can have the first pick of the draft and then win a championship seven, eight years later."
POLES' ASCENSION WAS not without rejection and doubt.
As a player, his claim to fame was being an offensive lineman for Boston College and blocking for quarterback Matt Ryan. While Ryan went on to enjoy a 14-year NFL career, an injury as a senior shifted Poles' path from a projected midround pick to signing as an undrafted free agent with the Bears in 2008.
Poles didn't make the 53-man roster and was cut.
He nearly took a marketing job before a former BC teammate asked him to go on a trip to Alaska to close up his family's fishing camp. For two weeks, Poles considered his future. There was no cell service -- just whales, bald eagles, the ocean and peace of mind to plan his next step. "That probably was the best thing he could have ever done," his mother, Mary Ellen Poles, said. "He had a lot of time to think.
"And he came back and said, 'I still want to be a part of the game.' That was pivotal. That was a cathartic moment for him where he was like, 'This is what I really want to do.' And he went after it."
Ryan Poles' timing was fortuitous. When he returned, a position opened at BC, where Borgonzi was the assistant recruiting coordinator and liaison for pro scouts. Poles was hired as a graduate assistant to help with recruiting.
"When I did that, I was kind of 50-50, was it going to be coaching or was it going to be personnel? Once we got into recruiting and watching tape and getting organized, sending letters, hosting visits, you realize it's actually kind of a cool thing to build a roster," Poles said. "That's where it kind of started.
"And then I had scouts coming in all the time asking about the players, and I was like, 'I think that's really what I want to do.'"
The next step was networking.
"Me and Ryan went out to the combine. We just flew out there," Borgonzi said. "We met with a bunch of personnel people out in Indianapolis. And then we ended up getting some interviews."
Scott Pioli, who evaluated college talent for the Patriots, knew Poles and Borgonzi from scouting nearby BC. The Chiefs hired Pioli as GM in 2009.
"We developed a relationship with Scott, and he called us up in May for interviews," Borgonzi said. "We went out there, and we thought it was a very good place to work. Scott just got hired out there, and it was a fresh start.
"We were going to learn a lot of things from Scott, and we certainly did. So our first year out here [in K.C.] was in 2009, and I actually lived with Ryan and Katie (Poles' wife), who was his fiancee at the time. Money was a little tight back then, so we had a split apartment."
One of the things Poles and Borgonzi learned was the fleeting nature of front-office jobs in the NFL. Pioli lasted four years, the same amount as his successor, John Dorsey. Brett Veach is going on his sixth season as the Chiefs GM.
"Towards the end of Scott's deal, it went so wrong. It was just a mess," Poles said. "So you're almost like, questioning it again. Like, 'Is this what I want to get into?'"
THE CHIEFS' IMPLOSION didn't dissuade Poles. He credits Pioli with being transparent about what went wrong, emphasizing the importance of building the right culture in the locker room.
"The unique thing when Ryan and I were here at Kansas City together is we worked under three different general managers," Borgonzi said. "So I think we learned a lot of different philosophies, a lot of different processes. I don't know if that happens everywhere, where we were involved in everything, the college scouting, the pro scouting. We were in on contract negotiations. We dealt with agents a lot.
"So for people to think, 'Oh, it's a young guy getting the job [as Bears GM],' he had a lot of experience for those 13 years that he was out here."
Poles' responsibilities included overseeing all aspects of college scouting. During his tenure, the Chiefs drafted franchise cornerstones in Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce. Poles also assisted with pro personnel, free agency and draft coordination.
Poles became the director of college scouting in 2017, and around that time, he took a trip to his hometown of Canandaigua, New York, to visit family.
"They were sitting around a campfire and they asked him, 'What are your goals? Where do you see yourself in five years?'" Mary Ellen Poles said. "And he said, 'I'm going to be a general manager of a team.'"
Mary Ellen said her son read "voraciously," books on leadership and how people built successful organizations. He reached out to colleagues and mentors for insight, including Berry and current Baltimore Ravens president Sashi Brown.
Years before he had a staff of his own, Poles was figuring out who would be a part of his team, notably Ian Cunningham. The two had never worked in the same building but had gotten to know each other on the scouting trail. During the pandemic, Poles called Cunningham about joining forces should either of them get hired as a general manager. Cunningham is now the Bears' assistant GM.
"It was almost like he was starting to build what he wanted," Mary Ellen said.
Poles' attention to detail was apparent in 2020 when the pandemic forced the NFL to conduct the draft virtually. Poles was tasked with making sure the communication process ran smoothly, so he had dress rehearsals with Mary Ellen and his sister, Kelli, who role-played through the process of getting a drafted player on the phone and handing that call off to the GM, head coach and so on.
Poles became the Chiefs' executive director of player personnel in 2021, and he believed he was ready to take the next step. But again, it required patience.
"I remember when he went through his first round of interviews [with Carolina]. He's like, 'I got really positive feedback,'" Berry said. "He was always the person who was reaching out to people who had walked the path before him to learn from in a very genuine way."
Kevin Warren was the Big Ten commissioner in 2022 when Poles went through his second wave of interviews, including with the Minnesota Vikings, with whom Warren spent 15 years.
"I actually called Ryan unsolicited, because he was interviewing for the Bears job and the Vikings job at the same time," Warren said. "I wanted to make sure that whatever information I had about Minnesota that I could share with him.
"I called the NFL office and got Ryan's number and called Ryan, introduced myself and said, 'Look, I was at the Vikings, and it's a great environment. I just wanted to give you some insight.'"
Warren has become more than an adviser to Poles. The Bears named Warren as team president on Jan. 12.
"When I hung up that phone call, I said to myself, 'That guy is special,'" Warren said. "And wherever he is, he's gonna be highly successful, and he's gonna do a great job and he's gonna win multiple Super Bowl trophies."
THREE MONTHS AFTER he was hired as the Bears GM on Jan. 25, Poles was sleeping at Halas Hall during his first draft.
"That was not healthy doing that last year," Poles said. "I don't ever want to go through that again.
"But it was necessary to get the job done, so a little bit different approach."
Poles began revamping the roster almost immediately, trading Mack for a 2022 second-round pick and a 2023 sixth-round selection. He was an active trader during his first draft, making four moves that netted five players, including fifth-round offensive tackle Braxton Jones, who earned offensive All-Rookie honors.
Poles is following the Chiefs' blueprint.
"It definitely rubs off on you," he said. "Build through the draft.
"You see guys mature. Travis Kelce stands out to me as one ... just a guy that you watch him in college, and he comes in, I think he got hurt early, and you see him mature and grow and connect with a quarterback, and all of a sudden he's the best tight end to ever play. That's so rewarding as a scout to see that kind of journey."
Poles is hoping he found his Reid equivalent in Matt Eberflus, who was hired as head coach two days after Poles joined the Bears. The two had met a couple of years earlier when they played golf, appeared on a podcast together and stayed in touch.
"That's maybe the secret sauce to the success people can sustain in this business, whether it be like [GM] John Schneider in Seattle with Pete Carroll, and myself and Andy," Veach said. "And I think Ryan, because he had a prior relationship with Matt, I think helps the thing get rolling right away. Just that level of trust.
"It's one of those deals where it's a hard business because it's never going to be perfect, and you're never going to hit on every draft pick, and every free agency period is never going to go perfectly. But I think when you start and you're rooted in that level of just trust and respect, I think that helps you sustain and work through adversities that you're inevitably going to have."
There was plenty of adversity to work through last season. The passing game was historically bad early, the offensive line struggled and the pass rush was the worst in the league.
But the development of quarterback Justin Fields gave Poles enough confidence to trade the No. 1 overall pick to Carolina, instead of using it on one of the elite QB prospects. The Bears received four draft picks and DJ Moore, who instantly became the team's most established wide receiver and a potential key to Fields' development.
The Bears might finally have found a franchise quarterback. Fields set rushing records for a QB last season, and he provided some glimpses of his passing potential, despite a lack of establishing receiving playmakers.
Like in Kansas City, Poles knows the process can take time, which can be difficult in a market starved for success. The Bears haven't won a playoff game since the 2010 season, around the time when Poles and Borgonzi were roommates in Kansas City, pondering their futures.
"We were just young guys in our 20s trying to figure out our way," Borgonzi said. "We were trying to figure out how to add some value to the organization, and really that was just work hard, be humble and listen."
By the end of his Kansas City tenure, Poles admitted it wasn't easy being humble. It's how he ultimately wants to feel in Chicago.
"I remember almost being borderline cocky walking in the stadium like, 'All right, we're gonna win this game; there's an 80% chance we're gonna win this game,'" Poles said. "That's a really fun place to be when you get to that spot.
"I don't know if we'll get to it at that level, but I wanna have a good product where everyone's happy and we can compete for championships."