The question may haunt the Chicago Bears for the next decade. Or the next quarter-century.
Or longer perhaps.
Several whys actually.
As in why will Sunday mark Deshaun Watson’s first game at Soldier Field? Why weren’t the Bears more interested in the talented Clemson quarterback heading into the 2017 draft?
Why, at the very least, didn’t the organization do its due diligence in fully vetting Watson during the late winter and early spring stages of its pivotal quarterback search?
On March 16, 2017, why did the Bears send a cavalcade of evaluators — general manager Ryan Pace, coach John Fox, director of player personnel Josh Lucas, offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and quarterbacks coach Dave Ragone — to Clemson’s pro day yet leave without visiting extensively with Watson or following up on their word to connect with him later?
Why didn’t the Bears have dinner with the Tigers star as they did soon after with fellow first-round quarterbacks Mitch Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes?
Why didn’t they hold a private workout with Watson as they also did with Trubisky and Mahomes?
Why didn’t they schedule a lengthy and intimate in-person visit with Watson, either at Halas Hall or elsewhere, to more deeply test his football acumen and recall on the whiteboard and to learn more about his character, leadership vision and drive?
Why did their only pre-draft interaction with Watson come at the scouting combine?
At this point, the lack of clear answers to those questions offers insight into that other vexing riddle that Chicago has grown tired of trying to solve: Why are the Bears back where they so often seem to be, stuck in a cycle of maddening mediocrity with a realization they soon will begin another search for a franchise quarterback — perhaps with a new general manager and coach steering the process.
On Sunday afternoon, Watson finally will play in Chicago. He’ll bring his Texans, as favorites, to an empty Soldier Field, attempting to add one more layer of misery to the Bears’ wretched season.
Watson may never say so publicly. But those who know him well promise his recall is as sharp as a bayonet.
To be clear, Watson won’t focus more on beating the Bears on Sunday because of resentment from almost four years ago. In all likelihood, the Bears and their fans will be thinking much more about him than he will be concerned with them.
“Deshaun has never been one of those vendetta-type people,” said Quincy Avery, Watson’s private quarterbacks coach and longtime confidant. “He’s unique in his ability to focus in on ‘How can I play my best this week?’ “
But Watson may feel a twinge of extra satisfaction if he can leave Chicago with a victory.
“I mean, he remembers,” Avery said. “A hundred percent. He remembers. And he’ll take note of it. It just won’t be the driving force for him.”
After signing a four-year, $160 million extension in September, Watson is a shoo-in to be named to the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season. Trubisky, meanwhile, is fighting to revive his career after an eight-week benching. His contract with the Bears expires in March.
Pace’s job security has become tenuous. The missteps that led the Bears here have stirred recurrent conversations around the league, with continued puzzlement on how the decision to draft Trubisky came to be and how Pace chose to make his all-in gamble without either soliciting thorough input from the coaching staff or having better direction from above.
Said one league source: “Only in an organization where there aren’t proper checks and balances could that happen. There is no plausible way in the world that a decision of that magnitude wouldn’t have been bounced off management and ownership. And in a healthy organization, there’s a zero% chance that a decision of that magnitude would have been made without at least the head coach knowing. Zero. Because that’s a monumental moment for your franchise.”
Perhaps March 16, 2017, qualifies as a watershed day in Bears franchise history. An energized contingent — Ryan Pace, John Fox, Josh Lucas, Dowell Loggains, Dave Ragone — jumped out of an SUV in the parking lot of Clemson’s football facilities that morning and bounced into Deshaun Watson’s pro day.
Yet that quintet ended its night in Chapel Hill, N.C. With Mitch Trubisky. In a private room of a stylish steakhouse near the North Carolina campus.
It seems clear in retrospect that, six weeks ahead of the NFL draft, Pace had made up his mind on whom he would select with the Bears’ top pick, even if he wasn’t sharing that secret beyond a tight inner circle.
Pace had become enamored with Trubisky the previous fall, drawn to his accuracy and pocket presence, his resilience and drive.
Pace and Lucas had done the bulk of their homework on the quarterback class during the 2016 college season. They had consulted in depth with their scouting staff. They had performed in-person evaluations at games to corroborate what they saw on video.
Pace wanted to assess every quarterback prospect’s mental capacity and ability to stay steady under stressful circumstances. He compiled a foundation of knowledge and background to bring into the winter and spring.
But when and why had he scratched Watson from his list, to the point the Bears made few attempts to expand their evaluation file on him during the stretch run of the pre-draft process?
In 2019, the Tribune spoke with more than two dozen people connected to the Bears, the league or the draft evaluation process to piece together all that led up to the selection of Trubisky over Watson and Patrick Mahomes. Additional interviews in recent weeks have illuminated further details about the process and the Bears’ assessment of Watson specifically.
Watson wasn’t widely viewed across the NFL as a can’t-miss quarterback prospect. Evaluators had significant questions about his accuracy, his 32 career interceptions in college, his slender build and durability, his ability to operate efficiently from under center and his ability to handle a full plate of pre-snap responsibilities in the NFL.
Still, in many ways, March 16, 2017, might register as one of the more meaningful days in the Bears’ quarterback hunt, offering a glimpse into how such a critical decision may have gone off course.
More than 100 NFL talent evaluators crowded around Clemson’s indoor practice field that morning. Coaches. General managers. Scouts. ESPN’s “SportsCenter” and NFL Network were broadcasting live from on site.
Watson was the main attraction, a recently crowned national champion, a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist, a two-time winner of college football’s Davey O’Brien Award. And on that morning, he was striving to answer several on-field questions about his skill set in a scripted 50-play workout. The Bears were well-represented to take it all in.
Watson explained the technical improvements he was in the process of making. Shortening his stride to increase velocity on his passes. Keeping his chest from getting out in front of him during his throwing motion. Putting more air under his deep ball.
Bit by bit, he was polishing his game.
Coaches, teammates and others who knew Watson well, meanwhile, were happy to add endorsements for emphasis. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, of course, doubled down on a grand comparison he had made two months earlier, likening Watson to none other than Michael Jordan.
“He’s a winner,” Swinney said. “The production speaks for itself. But it’s also the things you don’t see. It’s what is inside of him. It’s what’s between his ears. It’s the type of young man he is. He’s the complete package. … He’s an unbelievable young man who’s very, very gifted.”
Swinney repeated those sentiments a little while later in a private discussion with Bears coach John Fox.
To outsiders, the Jordan reference may have come across as hyperbole, just some of that pre-draft cotton candy that college coaches freely hand out to boost their players. But as one league source stressed, Swinney’s repeated sentiments were also a well-informed commendation from a credible source. Perhaps NFL teams — including the Bears — should have taken that testimonial more seriously.
“Dabo didn’t compare Deshaun to Michael Jordan just for the hell of it,” the source said. “He was basically saying, ‘Hey, dumb (expletives), this is the real deal.’ “
Throughout the pre-draft process, Watson visited extensively with the Texans, Chiefs, Browns, Jaguars, 49ers, Cardinals, Bills and Jets. At his pro day, he hoped all 32 teams in attendance had taken notes on everything, enough to boost his draft stock.
“It’s really out of my control,” he told ESPN after the workout. “I just do what I do. And then hopefully a team will fall in love with me.”
There was plenty to fall in love with. And like everyone else in the college football world, Tajh Boyd had been mesmerized with the ways in which Deshaun Watson elevated the Clemson program to unprecedented heights, taking the Tigers to consecutive national title games and most notably propelling them to a 35-31 championship upset of mighty Alabama. With clutch and coldblooded touchdown drives on the final two possessions of his college career.
Boyd, Watson’s predecessor at Clemson and a sixth-round pick of the New York Jets in 2014, understood the massive leap Watson faced in transitioning to the NFL. Yet as much as Boyd admired Watson’s grand college achievements, he also found himself fascinated by how Watson gracefully navigated through frustration and struggle.
Watson had experiences no one else in the 2017 quarterback class could match. For an organization like the Bears, who were aiming to bring a young quarterback into a massive market under an intense spotlight with huge expectations, Watson’s evolution through similarly demanding circumstances in college seemed valuable, particularly in comparison with the 13 career starts Mitch Trubisky made for an 8-5 North Carolina team that finished second in the ACC’s Coastal Division.
An hour after Clemson’s pro day ended, Boyd stressed the pride he felt in seeing how Watson matured throughout a junior season that tested him mentally. To that end, Boyd had noticed how burdened Watson seemed during the early stages of the 2016 season.
National championship dreams. Heisman hype. The bar was set sky high.
With such heavy expectations, plus Watson accepting the demands of being the face of college football, he seemingly lost some of his usual spunk.
“That (Clemson) team was still very much in a growing stage early in the season,” Boyd said after the Tigers pro day. “Deshaun was leading. He was grinding. He was making sure all the pieces were in place. But it didn’t necessarily meet everyone else’s expectations around here.”
Boyd noticed Watson’s uptight body language on the field and a less charismatic demeanor in interviews. At least temporarily, Watson allowed the weight of pressure and expectation to smother his spirit.
He appeared worn down. He seemed to be pressing.
“I really do think the joy was gone,” Boyd said.
But not long after a jarring 43-42 last-second loss to Pittsburgh in November in which Watson threw three interceptions, he reset. He injected his preparation, and by extension the entire program, with a blast of enthusiasm and determination.
The wins stacked up: 35-13 at Wake Forest, a 56-7 thrashing of rival South Carolina, a win over Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game. Then a 31-0 Fiesta Bowl pasting of Ohio State in a national semifinal.
Boyd loved that emotional breakthrough, the underappreciated journey Watson had embraced.
“Obviously,” Boyd said, “we knew he could throw the football, knew he could run the football, knew he could win games. But how he did that became more important. The life lessons in that were much more important. Because that’s what is going to help him succeed earlier in the NFL than most guys. That experience is something he now doesn’t have to take on at the next level.”
Later on the morning of Clemson’s pro day, in a foyer adjacent to the practice field, Deshaun Watson emerged from a series of private conversations with unidentified NFL teams and was asked what the extent of his pre-draft contact with the Bears had been to that point.
“We met at the combine,” he said. “And today. That was pretty much it. We’ll probably have something lined up down the road. … We introduced ourselves to each other and said we’d be in touch.”
They never were.
Over the last few years, as details of the Bears’ jumbled quarterback evaluation process in 2017 have trickled across the NFL, the disbelief and sympathetic lament have grown. It’s established that none of the Bears coaches had an inkling of Ryan Pace’s plan to select Mitch Trubisky or even the front office’s passionate desire to pick a quarterback until draft day.
That alone provides staggering evidence of a disconnect.
Said one league source who knows former Bears coach John Fox well: “You could have stapled his lip to a carpet when he had that happen to him.”
It’s not just that the Bears made the wrong decision in drafting Trubisky over Watson and Patrick Mahomes. It’s that their process leading to that decision felt fundamentally flawed. Incomplete, to be frank. And overly secretive.
Disjointed at best. Dysfunctional at worst.
It’s clear now that the Bears’ attendance at Clemson’s pro day was just a cunning play fake, an act of deception to feign heightened interest in Watson. Five days later at Trubisky’s North Carolina pro day, the Bears’ lone representatives were director of college scouting Mark Sadowski, national scout Ryan Kessenich and area scout Chris Prescott.
By that point, Pace, Fox, Josh Lucas, Dowell Loggains and Dave Ragone had completed a covert visit and private workout with Trubisky.
Despite the Bears’ overt presence at Clemson’s pro day, Watson was left behind.
Said one NFL executive: “The Bears were clearly trying to keep other teams off their scent. I get that. But typically, if you’re searching for your franchise quarterback, you need to get at least a private workout in with anybody who is a possible candidate. You need to see that workout. You need to meet with the guy one on one. You need to know everything about him.
“Especially if you’re picking as high as the Bears were, you just have to do that. That’s such an investment for the organization. … If you don’t do that properly, it can set you back for years. Obviously.”
In the moment, the Bears coaches thought little of the in-and-out stop at Clemson, figuring maybe Watson would visit Halas Hall in the month and a half that remained before the draft. In addition, less than a week earlier, the Bears had guaranteed Mike Glennon $18.5 million in free agency and publicly anointed him as their starting quarterback for 2017.
Swings and misses happen frequently in the NFL draft, especially with quarterbacks. Over the last 20 years, the list of top-10 quarterbacks who fizzled — Joey Harrington, Vince Young, JaMarcus Russell, Blaine Gabbert, Blake Bortles — is far lengthier than the roll call of standouts who started for a decade with the franchise that drafted them.
Still, thoroughness increases the integrity of the process. And to many around the league, it’s remarkable Pace kept the entire coaching staff, particularly Fox, in the dark about his intention to draft a quarterback.
According to multiple league sources familiar with the Bears’ thinking, Fox and Ragone had tabbed Watson as the top quarterback in the class. Yet in-depth meetings between the front office and coaching staff never occurred. One current NFL executive called that approach “suicide.”
“You figure it out together,” he said. “You have to involve the coaches. You have to be on the same page.
“If you give a coach a guy he really didn’t want, he may try to coach him the same. But when things are going south, is he going to keep the faith? It’s just human nature. Especially at that position. … And if you go after a guy your coaches either don’t like or who they maybe didn’t rate as highly as another guy, your developmental plan can never be as strong. It’s just human nature.”
It’s not uncommon or even always unhealthy to have tense disagreements between the front office and coaches over player evaluations. But open and honest dialogue is often a prerequisite for an effective draft process.
Why, in late 2016 and into the spring of 2017, had Pace been so set on prioritizing secrecy?
Should those at Halas Hall above the GM — namely Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips — have known more about that plan and at least offered feedback on the strategies to execute it before the draft?
After the fact, what accountability have McCaskey and Phillips attached to the mistake to draft Trubisky over Watson and Mahomes?
Those who reflexively want to close the book on that decision with a “Get over it” mindset too willingly ignore flaws in the evaluation process. Such stances of forgiveness or disregard also turn a blind eye to the increasing likelihood that the Bears soon might make a similar journey, seeking a new starting quarterback, perhaps in next spring’s draft and possibly under a new general manager and coach.
Somehow in 2017, the Bears proceeded toward a momentous decision that could affect the direction of the franchise for a decade or longer without healthy internal communication or guardrails.
“It’s nothing short of an institutional breakdown,” one league source said. “You can’t have that level of disconnect and that lack of communication. As a GM, if you’re trying to pull something like that off, you better have Hall of Fame credentials or some kind of significant collateral. Ryan Pace had absolutely no collateral.”
There’s always a Tweet, right?
The latest machete to Bears fans’ souls came at 2:09 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, courtesy of 2018 NFL MVP and Super Bowl LIV champion Patrick Mahomes. It was a cap tip toward Deshaun Watson as he was completing a 318-yard, four-touchdown performance in a laugher win over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.
Wrote Mahomes: “That man @deshaunwatson is special.” He punctuated the Tweet with two emoji of an arrow piercing a bull’s-eye.
One of the star quarterbacks the Bears bypassed in 2017 was applauding another for his dominance.
Three days later, Mahomes won his own shootout with Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, throwing for 359 of his 462 yards in the first half with three touchdown passes on the day in a 27-24 statement victory for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Mitch Trubisky, meanwhile, capped Thanksgiving weekend in the NFL with two interceptions and a lost fumble as the Bears fell behind the Green Bay Packers by 31 points on the way to a fifth consecutive loss.
During that game, the NBC broadcast flashed a graphic showcasing the evolution of the NFL record for career passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 attempts. Watson had supplanted Aaron Rodgers as the league’s all-time leader on Thanksgiving. Mahomes leapfrogged Watson three days later.
Another round of what might have been swept across Chicago.
Much like the Bears, the 4-8 Texans are navigating extremely choppy waters during a disappointing 2020 season. Like Trubisky, Watson is trying to digest the consequences of a pivotal late-game fumble Sunday. His, the result of a low shotgun snap, came with 1:28 remaining and the Texans 2 yards from a go-ahead touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts.
Still, Watson’s season has been nothing short of brilliant. Before a first-quarter interception Sunday, he had thrown 215 times, including 17 touchdown passes, since he last had been picked off. So much for those pre-draft fears around the NFL about his ball security.
Through Week 12, Watson is behind only Mahomes in passing yards and is on pace to throw for 4,700 yards and 32 touchdowns. (For what it’s worth, the Bears never have had a quarterback reach 4,000 yards or 30 TD passes in a season.)
Watson’s 110.0 passer rating this season ranks behind only Aaron Rodgers and Mahomes.
In Week 11, Watson shredded Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots for 342 passing yards, 36 rushing yards and three total touchdowns in a 27-20 victory.
Said his longtime quarterbacks coach Quincy Avery: “I don’t know that you can play a better brand of football than that. Against one of the greatest minds in all of football. Belichick literally went all-in trying to figure out how to stop Deshaun. It wasn’t about anybody else. … And he was completely unable to do that.”
That wasn’t a one-off either. Watson torched Belichick in 2019 as well, throwing three TD passes and catching another. Texans 28, Patriots 22.
Watson’s magic this season has come after the Texans traded his favorite receiver, DeAndre Hopkins, to the Arizona Cardinals in March. The Texans fired coach/general manager Bill O’Brien in October. They’ve had issues with their running game plus injuries on the offensive line. Most recently, they lost Watson’s top receiver, Will Fuller, to a six-game suspension for a violation of league policy on performance-enhancing substances.
Andre Ware, the Texans radio color analyst and a former quarterback whom the Lions selected at No. 7 in 1990, has marveled at Watson’s composure through everything, his ability to steady an entire team.
“Somehow he never flinches,” Ware said. “No matter what’s going on around him — and this year it’s been a lot — he has been the consistent piece in the organization.
“I know how hard it is to play that position. You always want things to flow smoothly. And you want to be in somewhat of a routine from week to week to week. You want to get used to seeing the same guys in the huddle. That hasn’t happened this season for him. … And still, he’s been spectacular.”
Ware identified Watson’s Thanksgiving Day dominance in Detroit as his signature performance this season. But even Sunday, in a game the Texans lost, Ware found himself marveling at Watson’s playmaking artistry.
On the Texans’ first touchdown drive, for example, Watson turned a near sack into a 7-yard scramble. On the next play, he converted on third-and-10 with a deep strike to Keke Coutee. On that play, Watson shook out of the grasp of blitzing Colts linebacker Darius Leonard and found enough daylight to the right of the pocket to scurry, set himself and fire long for 64-yard gain.
Said Ware: “You can pull up any game from this year and you’ll find something (similar) where Deshaun is dead to rights. Any other quarterback in the league is sacked. And he turns it into something. It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. And I get to witness it week after week after week.”
Before Andre Ware was calling Deshaun Watson’s games in Houston, he told anyone who would listen that Watson was the best quarterback in the 2017 draft.
The talent. The athleticism. The feel for the game.
The cutthroat competitiveness. The creativity.
Most of all, Ware admired Watson’s ability to consistently meet the moment.
“When the game is on the line, in the biggest moments on the biggest stages,” Ware said, “he performs better than everybody else.”
It has been well-documented but must be continually reemphasized that the Bears were not on an island in the spring of 2017 in pegging Mitch Trubisky as the top quarterback in that draft class. ESPN’s top analysts, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay, had Trubisky as the No. 1 QB on their boards. Former Washington GM Charley Casserley agreed. So did Gil Brandt, a Hall of Fame personnel administrator who spent 29 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys.
Mike Mayock and Daniel Jeremiah each rated Watson as their top quarterback. But neither was framing it as a no-brainer, bulletproof decision.
Almost no one forecast Patrick Mahomes’ early explosion and transcendent brilliance. (And to the Bears’ credit, Mahomes was the other quarterback in their top cloud of 2017 prospects, an elite group that also included Jamal Adams, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette and Solomon Thomas.)
Still, the consensus in many league circles was that Watson had the highest floor of the quarterbacks. “That was the safe pick,” one league executive said.
Through that lens, the Bears’ expensive trade up from No. 3 to No. 2 to pick Trubisky remains mind-boggling to many, with Ryan Pace giving the 49ers a 2017 third-round pick, a 2017 fourth-rounder and a 2018 third-rounder.
It’s not that Pace had identified Trubisky as the player he so badly wanted. Every GM has experienced that level of yearning about a prospect at some point. And the aggressiveness Pace showed in making certain he got his guy is generally applauded throughout the league more than it is mocked.
But that landmark draft-night trade to move up only one spot also served as an emphatic declaration that the Bears weren’t willing to settle for Watson or Mahomes. It was an unspoken pronouncement that Trubisky had, in Pace’s mind, separated himself that much from the other quarterbacks in the class.
Furthermore, one league executive pointed out, after the Bears went to extreme lengths to conceal their interest in Trubisky during the draft process, Pace still felt anxious enough to send away a handful of draft picks to get his guy.
During the week of the 2017 draft, Deshaun Watson was asked live on NFL Network what he would tell teams leaning toward drafting Mitch Trubisky over him.
“You’re gonna have to live with the consequences that come with it,” Watson said then. “That’s how I see it. I try to stay in my lane. … I respect Mitch and what he’s done and all the hype he’s getting. But at the same time, my results speak for themselves. I feel like I’ve accomplished everything that I could.
“I guess if that’s who they’re going to roll with, so be it.”
On the night of April 27, 2017, the Bears let the world know they would be rolling with Trubisky.
Ryan Pace emphasized that after evaluating all of the top quarterback prospects, Trubisky’s accuracy stood out. So did his ability to process defenses and see the entire field. Trubisky’s third-down effectiveness and completion percentage with pressure in his face also were selling points.
After the Bears had taken trade calls at No. 3 from quarterback-needy teams, Pace felt the trade up was necessary.
“If we want to be great, you just can’t sit on your hands,” he said. “There are times when you’ve got to be aggressive. And when you have conviction on a guy, you can’t sit on your hands. I don’t just want to be average around here; I want to be great. And these are the moves you have to make.”
As one league source pointed out, the secrecy of the Bears’ process became an issue only because their evaluations of the quarterback class during the fall hadn’t panned out.
“Look, if they had the same secrecy to their process but ended up picking (Patrick) Mahomes or Watson, the whole league would look at this differently,” the source said. “It would be the bold and aggressive move to get the guy you wanted. Now you’re a legend. They’re building a statue for you. In Chicago. In the greatest sports town in America. You’re an icon.”
When Watson holds his weekly video conference Wednesday in Houston, he’ll likely be asked whether there’s any added meaning to Sunday’s clash with the Bears. And while he may well breeze past the topic, those who know his wiring are confident that, subconsciously anyway, he’ll have a few added ounces of motivation.
Said Andre Ware: “I think all guys want to be able to say, ‘I told you so.’ Even if it’s way in the back of their mind and even if they’re in a better overall situation, it’s still something that’s there. I think Deshaun believes he could turn any organization around. And rightfully so. He has earned the right to think that way. And he may carry that in this week.”
Quincy Avery, meanwhile, is quick to emphasize what truly makes Watson tick.
“Deshaun has a really rare competitive temperament,” Avery said. “And he’s consumed at all times with how to play a better brand of football. He’s always asking himself how he can become one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. That’s always what he will be most dialed into.”
Watson’s only public barbs toward the Bears came on a Friday night in May as part of an interjection into a social media beef between sports talk radio host Doug Gottlieb and sportswriter and author John Feinstein.
Earlier that week, the Bears had declined the fifth-year option on Trubisky’s rookie contract, and Feinstein asked former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Doug Williams where Mahomes and Watson would have been drafted had they been white. In a tweet, Feinstein quoted Williams as saying, “Ahead of Trubisky.”
Gottlieb stamped that sentiment as “beyond idiotic” in a response tweet.
“The idea the league evaluates a QB on race in 2020 is just dumb, disconnected and bitterness from 40 year old transgressions — Trubisky isn’t as good as Watson/Mahomes, the Bears evaluated em all, and missed. That’s it.”
Watson chimed in later that week with his own Twitter retort: “The bears NEVER ONCE talked to me.”
Technically, that wasn’t true. He met with the Bears at the scouting combine in Indianapolis and later said on “The Rich Eisen Show” that he spoke with the Bears via phone.
But that in-person combine meeting was a limited visit. NFL rules cap those interviews at 15 minutes, hardly offering enough time for the attention a potential star of Watson’s caliber merited. If the Bears thoroughly evaluated Watson, it didn’t feel comprehensive on his end.
As his tweet in May indicated, he still wonders about that.
In what Ryan Pace has acknowledged was a personal obsession to find a franchise quarterback in the fall of 2016, he and Josh Lucas saw every top quarterback prospect play live at least once. It remains unclear which of Deshaun Watson’s games the Bears’ top talent evaluators attended or who from their staff was present at that season’s national championship game.
Somewhere along the line, though, the Bears’ zeal for Mitch Trubisky spiked significantly. Their interest in Watson dissipated.
The team’s presence at Clemson’s pro day, it turns out, was mostly for show.
When the Bears evaluators and coaches left Clemson’s campus, they did so with heightened urgency. They had an afternoon flight to catch to Raleigh-Durham International Airport. They had a dinner reservation that night at Bin 54 in Chapel Hill.
Trubisky made the reservation under the name “James McMahon,” and the Tar Heels quarterback pulled into the steakhouse parking lot that evening in his grandma’s weathered 1997 Toyota Camry.
The evening was a hit, creating a fateful connection between Trubisky and the Bears. An impressive private workout the next day only strengthened Pace’s conviction.
On the third leg of that trip, the Bears also had dinner with Patrick Mahomes and oversaw a private workout with him in Lubbock, Texas.
Watson never heard from the Bears again.
The attraction to Trubisky had become too strong.
Said one league source: “It happens in life. Sometimes when you really fall in love with something, you convince yourself that it’s worth doing whatever it takes to get it.”
Watson lasted until the 12th pick, with the Texans dealing the Cleveland Browns a 2018 first-round pick to move up from No. 25. Texans general manager Rick Smith had been energized by the calm and confidence he’d seen from Watson up close in the national title game that January. Smith and coach Bill O’Brien agreed Watson’s proven strengths as a playmaker and leader eclipsed any of his flaws. The Texans had further been drawn to Watson’s contagious energy and presence when he came on a pre-draft visit to their facility.
Who knows what might have happened had the Bears given Watson the same opportunity to make a lasting impression?
Why did they never do so?
And what happens now as the franchise again attempts to address the most important position in football?
Who will get the opportunity to pick the next quarterback? And what will the methodology look like?
How might things be different the next time?
Said one league source: “Going forward, someone in that organization has to step forward and say emphatically, ‘We can’t let that happen again.’ Because it reflects on all of them. Someone has to take responsibility for what went haywire.
“And just firing a couple people isn’t enough. It goes deeper than that. It goes back to: ‘How did that happen? And how will we make sure that never happens again?’ If that level of acknowledgment isn’t there, you’re just starting the cycle all over again.”