Column:

Young Bears starting to make GM Ryan Pace look good

Mike Mulligan
Chicago Tribune

The unfurling ceremony for the giant “Abandon All Hope” banner meant to be hung over Soldier Field, Halas Hall or simply the Bears locker room can be canceled.

Nobody will be needing it now that the Bears finally exceeded last year’s three-win total with a victory in Cincinnati. The Bengals haven’t won a playoff game in decades, but at least they have been getting there. And thanks to the neighboring Browns, the Bengals are no longer considered the worst franchise in football.

Bears fans can take solace in not being Ohio bad — at least until the Christmas Eve showdown with the Browns. The Bears aren’t good either, but one can count on a professional effort from them.

That’s not exactly the “culture of winning” everybody was hoping for in the halcyon days of the John Fox/Ryan Pace era. But at least the Bears have developed a culture of try-hard, even if that’s hardly the goal in professional sports.

Kid general manager Pace and grizzly vet Fox were seen as a May-December bromance paired with the task of returning the Bears to greatness. Fox, it has been reported by the NFL’s own media site, has “accepted his fate” in terms of impending unemployment. Pace presumably moves on without him.

“This is big-time drama, folks. Think “A Star Is Born”-meets-Disney sports epic — minus the big game at the end.

Ironically the victory over a physically and psychically broken Bengals team isn’t viewed as a sign of what Fox can do against an equally undermanned opponent, but a validation of Pace’s draft prowess.

It’s ironic because Pace didn’t seem to make the draft about this year. The failed free-agent signings were supposedly all about giving the coach a chance to win right now; the 2017 draft was for next year and beyond. Top pick Mitch Trubisky, the No. 2 selection Pace traded up to get, allegedly was supposed to sit this year behind the $18.5 million (guaranteed) man, Mike Glennon.

And when a team takes guys such as Adam Shaheen, Tarik Cohen and Jordan Morgan from smaller schools and lower levels, it is thinking of the future as much as the present. Safety Eddie Jackson, a fourth-round pick out of Alabama, was the only 2017 selection projected to be an immediate contributor, and that was in large part because of the Bears’ deficiencies at safety.

Nonetheless, the Bengals game was a winner for Pace’s prodigies. Trubisky had his best day as a professional; Jackson had an interception and a forced fumble and recovery; Shaheen had a touchdown catch among four receptions; and Cohen ran for 80 yards on 12 carries.

The fifth-round pick Morgan is on injured reserve, but one must admire how well the Class of ’17 performed.

And don’t forget Jordan Howard. The running back is probably Pace’s best draft pick, with Trubisky the most significant. Howard, a fifth-round selection in 2016, rushed for 147 yards on 23 carries with two touchdowns behind an offensive line that included 2016 second-round pick Cody Whitehair.

Sadly, pass rusher Leonard Floyd, whom Pace took at No. 9 in 2016 after trading up, is also on IR. And oddly, none of Pace’s draft picks from 2015 appeared in the game.

Kevin White is on IR, where he has spent most his Bears career. Eddie Goldman, an excellent player, was out with a hip injury and Adrian Amos is still nursing a hamstring. Hroniss Grasu, a third-round pick that year, was available but wound up standing with Glennon as the only two men on the active roster who weren’t called upon.

But why let that ruin a perfectly good story about young, drafted players finding their place? Especially since it is a storyline the Bears hope to repeat in Detroit this weekend in a rare Saturday game.

The Lions are desperate for a win to keep pace in the NFC North and perhaps save their coach’s job. It will be a more motivated team than last week’s opponent.

The Bears could have at least forced overtime in the first meeting with the Lions, but they were carrying Conner Barth on the roster, a mistake Pace quickly remedied after the game. Two kickers later, it will be Mike Nugent in the big moment if the Bears can force it again.

It will be interesting to see what the Bears can do against an inspired team. Did the younger players take advantage of the Bengals’ attrition or are they starting to get better? The game plan was a bit more open, perhaps a signal of rising confidence in Trubisky or maybe just because five defensive starters for the Bengals were missing.

The Bears still have a chance to surpass the best record they’ve had under Fox and try to sell late momentum to a fan base desperate for good news. Or maybe the youthful promise is something of a fluke.

Here’s hoping the kids are all right.

Mike Mulligan is a special contributor to the Chicago Tribune.

Devin Hester retires: 'Hopefully next time I see y'all it’ll be in Canton' »

With spotlight on his playing time, Bears rookie Adam Shaheen makes most of opportunity »

'I'll be better when this is done': Zach Miller reflects on long road back after knee injury »

Copyright © 2017, Chicago Tribune
40°