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The Chicago Bears mess is reminiscent of the Cubs under the Wrigleys

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The Chicago NFL franchise’s leadership is playing out like the end of the Wrigley regime

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Wrigley Field, November 26, 1961
Bettmann / Contributor

This being a baseball site and me (and you, most likely) primarily being a fan of the Chicago Cubs, I don’t usually write things about the Chicago Bears NFL franchise.

But after listening to some of Bears Chairman George McCaskey’s news conference Monday after the firing of the team’s GM Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy, I was reminded of the floundering around the Cubs did in the later years of the Wrigley ownership. The only thing really much different was that P.K. Wrigley didn’t do news conferences.

This 670 The Score article by Dan Bernstein sums up the Bears problem:

Those of us silly enough to think that the firings of coach Matt Nagy and general manager Ryan Pace heralded a new and smarter direction were only encouraged by seeing the team’s official release devoid of other names on the virtual dais, hoping for a newly self-aware restructuring to bring the football side of the Bears’ business up to industry standard.

But there was Ted Phillips, and there he is, still team president and still a key part of the search for this wave of replacements.

Here’s Bill Polian in the role of Ernie Accorsi, the latest retired football guy to provide some borrowed glimmer of actual credibility in yet another desperate scramble for help.

And here we are, wondering why we expected it to change.

That was the Cubs of the 1970s. Hiring old hands to manage: Leo Duroocher came from outside the organization, the first such Cubs manager since the 1930s. But after Leo was fired, only Preston Gomez as manager came from outside the ranks, and he didn’t last a full season. Most of the other managers in that era, all Durocher pals or disciples, were pretty feckless — Whitey Lockman, Jim Marshall and Joe Amalfitano. Only Herman Franks had some limited success, and I emphasize “limited.”

The superannuated Charlie Grimm was said to be an informal adviser to P.K. Wrigley until the latter died in 1977, and Grimm was born in 1898 and came to his baseball maturity in the 1920s. That was reflected in everything the Cubs did, from the College of Coaches to constantly trading for over-the-hill veterans who had seen better days with other teams. If the Bears think they’re going to get any modern advice on coaching or executive hires from Polian, who last held an NFL executive position more than a decade ago, they are fooling themselves.

I was thinking about all this while listening to McCaskey speak, and then he did this:

Asked about former Bears center Olin Kreutz’s recent revelation that his desire to assist with coaching offensive linemen resulted in a purposely unacceptable offer of $15 per hour, McCaskey essentially called him a liar, saying, “I’ve learned over the years to take just about anything Olin says with a grain of salt.” That a righteously angry Kreutz responded shortly thereafter on 670 The Score was already beside the larger point, that the Bears chairman was dumb enough to pick a petty fight with a well-liked and highly visible former player — one of their all-time greats — and on the very day he’s ostensibly trying to make a case for trust in his judgment.

At least no Cubs management or ownership person back in the day ever did that, insulted a beloved former player during a news conference. The Cubs at least treated those folks right.

If you have been critical of Cubs ownership over the last 40 years under Tribune Company and then the Ricketts family, trust me when I tell you that it could be a whole lot worse — and in fact, the last 40 years of Cubs history have included 11 postseason appearances and a World Series title, the latter part of a Cubs Golden Age better than any the franchise had seen in more than 100 years. The last 40 years under the Wrigley ownership produced one NL pennant (1945).

Just as P.K. Wrigley ran the Cubs in the 1970s like it was still the late 1940s, the McCaskeys appear to think that George Halas’ hiring of Mike Ditka and the one Super Bowl they won under Ditka’s coaching absolves them of all blame since 1985.

It doesn’t, and nothing will change until the team is sold, and reading between the lines in this Daily Herald article from last May, it feels like that very well could happen when the 99-year-old matriarch Virginia McCaskey passes away. (Note: I certainly don’t ever wish anything ill on Virginia McCaskey, but at 99, her remaining time on Earth is likely limited.) This 2018 Sports Illustrated article, I think, nails it:

Jeff Davis, a Chicago journalist and author of Papa Bear: The Life and Legacy of George Halas, reached this conclusion: “The McCaskeys are not bad people. It’s unfair to say that. They are good people. But they’re not very hip, and they were not ever supposed to run the Bears.’’

So if you want to know what it felt like to be a Cubs fan around, say, 1980 — just look at the state of the Chicago Bears right now. It feels very much the same. It’s summed up best by this from Jon Greenberg at The Athletic:

And lastly, when asked for his thoughts on Fields, McCaskey prefaced his remarks with this unfortunate line: “Well, I’m just a fan. I’m not a football evaluator.”

In those two sentences, McCaskey encapsulated the problem with this team. It starts at the top.

Let’s re-read that quote from Davis above:

“The McCaskeys are not bad people. It’s unfair to say that. They are good people. But they’re not very hip, and they were not ever supposed to run the Bears.’’

That could have described the Wrigley family in the late 1970s. Just as things back then were never going to change with the Cubs until they were sold, we have reached that point with the Chicago Bears (and many would argue we reached that point 20 years ago). Nothing will change until the Bears are sold.

The Wrigleys were forced to sell for estate tax reasons. While that might or might not be the case for the McCaskeys, the time has come for them to sell.