In his opening press conference as the general manager of the Chicago Bears, Ryan Poles boldly proclaimed his goal to “sustain success over a long period of time.” This is a fairly standard thing to say for a new general manager, because it’s what everybody in the NFL is trying to accomplish. But today I want to evaluate Poles’ approach to his first offseason in charge of a team with that goal in mind.
How to Achieve Sustained Success
Fact 1: Offense is far more stable than defense year over year. To put it another way, defensive success is not sustainable – a fact Bears fans should be intimately familiar with after the last five years. Thus, the main factor to drive sustained team success is going to be sustained offensive success.
Fact 2: Good offensive play is driven by good QB play. This makes perfect sense, and I think we all knew it, but it’s good to have proof to back it up.
Conclusion: The best path to sustained success is a good QB. A brief look at recent NFL history supports that notion:
If you consider making the playoffs to mean success, there have been 18 instances in the last ten years where teams made the playoffs at least three times in a four-year span. Ten of those involved a solid or better QB on a rookie deal as the primary starter, while six more featured future HOF QBs on veteran contracts.
Only two of 18, then, involved solid-but-unspectacular QBs who weren’t on rookie deals. Those were Tennessee with Ryan Tannehill and Kansas City with Alex Smith. So, it is possible to sustain success without a really good QB or cheap solid QB, but it’s a much less likely path.
It’s also worth noting that both of those two found very little success in the playoffs. Only three of nine playoff seasons featured a playoff win, and only one reached a conference championship game. So, if your definition of sustained success involves more than bouncing out of the playoffs early on, those don’t really meet it.
If you want to get more selective and look at playoff success as an indicator of success, this list gets even more QB-dependent.
- 28 of 40 teams in the conference championship game featured a starting QB with at least one All Pro or MVP in their career, and that doesn’t include Andrew Luck (retired early before achieving either of those) or Joe Burrow (only two NFL seasons so far, seems headed in that direction).
- Only eight NFL QBs have started at least two conference championship games in the last decade, and six of them have made an All Pro or won MVP.
Again, this doesn’t mean getting a really good QB is the only path to sustained success (see SF with Alex Smith/Colin Kaepernick about a decade ago, or SF with Jimmy Garoppolo the last several years). It’s just the most likely path to sustained success.
How to Maximize Fields’ Chances of Being the Guy
So, if Ryan Poles’ goal is to build sustained success, he needs a good QB. Right now, he has Justin Fields, a player that can certainly develop into that. So let’s look at how Poles can maximize Fields’ chances of becoming that guy.
Fact 1: It is extremely rare for a QB to become really good if they are not already really good in year two. Out of all the top-level QBs to enter in the NFL in the 2000s, Josh Allen is the only one who did not perform at a high level by his second season. Thus, it is important to set Fields up for success in 2022, because it is unlikely he succeeds in the future if he does not succeed this year.
With that in mind, what actions can Poles take in order to set Fields up for success in 2022? Fortunately, we also have historical data to rely on here.
Fact 2: There is a strong relationship between how well a young QB plays and how good their pass catchers are. Ryan Poles himself has talked about the importance of getting better WR targets for Fields, but his moves at that position this offseason consisted of paying Byron Pringle, who is 28 and has a career high of 568 receiving yards, like a low-end starter and drafting Velus Jones Jr. in round three. That’s not much investment in a position that only returns one NFL player from the 2021 roster.
And that paltry investment looks even worse when you look at Velus Jones Jr.’s profile a little more closely. Two trends suggest that he has a low chance of becoming a high-quality starter in the NFL.
- Breakout age. There is a strong relationship between how early a WR first produces in college and how good he ends up being in the NFL. Jones broke out at 24, which is the oldest age I could find. Not many 23 year-old breakouts get drafted, and most of those who do don’t pan out. We don’t even have data on 24 year-olds, but the trend here isn’t good. This doesn’t guarantee Jones will be a bust, it just means it’s not terribly likely he pans out.
- Reach status. Jones was taken at #71 overall despite being ranked as the #151 player on The Athletic’s consensus big board. This makes him a massive reach according to the consensus of draft analysts, and as a group, players identified as a reach by this method end up significantly underproducing their draft status. Again, this doesn’t guarantee Jones Jr. will be a bust, but it does say he is less likely than a typical third round pick to become a quality player.
Overall, it is fair to say that Ryan Poles did not add much talent around Justin Fields this offseason. We have data that shows this means Justin Fields is less likely to succeed in 2022 than he would if surrounded with quality pass catchers, and therefore he is less likely to become a high-level NFL QB. Therefore, Ryan Poles is not taking the path that is most likely to help the Bears achieve sustained success, which is his stated goal as their general manager.
All Hope is Not Lost
I want to be clear that this approach doesn’t guarantee failure. A bad process can still lead to a good result. Seattle tried to solve their QB issue in 2012 by paying a mediocre veteran in free agency (Matt Flynn) and drafting a QB in the middle rounds (Russell Wilson). Historically speaking, both of those approaches have a high failure rate – most of the top QBs are drafted high in the first round – but it worked out spectacularly for Seattle.
On the flip side, a good process can lead to bad results. To see that, look no further than the Bears with Mitchell Trubisky. The Bears drafted a top ranked QB high in the first round and surrounded him with talent; between drafting Trubisky and the start of his second season, they had invested a second-round pick in Adam Shaheen, a second and fourth-round pick in Anthony Miller, a fourth-round pick in Tarik Cohen, and sizable free agent contracts in Allen Robinson, Trey Burton, and Taylor Gabriel. That’s a good process, but it didn’t pan out, because there are no guarantees in the NFL, and sometimes the quarterback just isn’t any good.
Still, the facts objectively say that Ryan Poles’ approach this offseason decreased the odds that Justin Fields becomes a high-level NFL QB, and therefore decreases the odds that Poles is able to achieve his stated goal of having sustained success. Thus the process is, objectively speaking, bad. All we can do now is hope this bad process still leads to a good result.