Hub Arkush: Breakthrough in 2018 was fun, but next step for the Bears will be the hardest

January 18, 2019 GMT

Chris Ballard got his start in the NFL with the Chicago Bears in 2001 and was this close to being named the team’s general manager — twice.

He is now Bears GM Ryan Pace’s closest competition for the 2018 NFL Executive of the Year Award.

After getting the Indianapolis GM job two offseasons ago, Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts were the league’s second-biggest surprise in 2018, rebounding from a 1-5 start to match the Bears’ nine wins in their final 10 regular-season games.

When Ballard was asked Monday, after the nearly miraculous two-year turnaround he’s overseen, how his club can take the next step, he had this to say: “The step from good to great? That’s the hard step.”

Yes, it is — just ask Andy Reid, Mike Zimmer, Mike Tomlin, Ron Rivera and their bosses how that’s gone for them recently — so how do Pace and Matt Nagy go about orchestrating a successful encore with their Bears?

Pace thinks he’s got a solid road map.

“I said this before to you guys, it’s nice to be able to walk into a depth chart and not see green magnets over the whole board,” Pace said Monday. “We can kind of fine tune and tweak as we go forward. We’ve got a lot of young guys and we’ve got a lot of guys under contract. We’ve got a lot of guys hitting their peaks right now.

“But as we approach this offseason, we’re still going to be aggressive. We’re always going to be pushing it, and I think, you know, that’s a challenge to our scouting department to always be improving our roster and that will be the focus.”

Talent upgrades are always going to be a great place to start, but looking at the four conference title game participants this Sunday, Pace knows it will take more.

“I think when you look at it, you see balance,” he said. “You know, balance in both passing game and running game.

“You know, you see continuity. I think that has existed there. Those are the things that stand out.”

Pace is certainly right about the continuity of his roster with few free agents to worry about, and Chuck Pagano looks like an excellent replacement for Vic Fangio at defensive coordinator. But depending on how many defensive assistants join Fangio or leave of their own accord, multiple coaching changes on defense could cause a real lack of continuity.

And, of course, the Bears still have plenty to work on with their ground-game balance on offense. But Nagy likes where his club is.

“Our guys, one of the powerful things I took from our exit meetings was they came away, telling me, truly how convicted they were in their feelings of us this year and where we could have went — and none of it’s made up,” Nagy said. “That’s why I’m so excited, and it keeps you going, is because we started something.

“Now, like Ryan said, you’re either getting worse or you’re getting better and we’re going to hammer that home; that we did — that everything that we did this past year, throw it out the window. It means nothing.

“Now we’re 0-0 and that’s the challenge. That’s the new challenge. And so we got the foundation.”

Pace added: “I just think we’re always going to fight complacency and status quo. We’re pushing every single day to improve this team and improve this roster.

“I think we’re at a point now, again, when you look at our roster, it’s exciting for us as a personnel department to be aggressive, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming. We can fine tune and tweak and add the right pieces, and we’re at that stage right now, and that’s exciting going forward.”

From the day he got here, Nagy said his offense was going to be a two- or three-year build, and everything else he and Pace told us Monday rings true.

So, if the Bears stay healthy again, Mitch Trubisky continues to grow and if Nagy can mold his ground game to his aerial attack, football in Miami a year from this February might be a long way off, but it’s not out of reach.

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