The optimism pervading Halas Hall these days can be traced to Ernie Accorsi, the consultant who directed the Bears' general manager search and oversaw new GM Ryan Pace's path to coach John Fox.
During the 19-day process, Accorsi guided the transition away from a dysfunctional 5-11 season using four decades of NFL experience. As former GM of the Colts, Browns and Giants, his relationships and knowledge differentiated this round of hiring from the GM and coaching searches Bears Chairman George McCaskey and President Ted Phillips conducted three and two years ago, respectively.
"He was invaluable," Phillips said. "He helped keep us focused. He helped keep that sense of urgency in the forefront of our minds. Going forward, if we have questions or Ryan has a question, he's just a phone call away."
Accorsi, 73, discussed his role and the results of the searches in a phone interview Friday.
Let's start with the end result. How do you see Ryan and John fitting together?
"Our whole belief was follow the process to lead you to the decision. Then, all of a sudden, everything changed when Fox became available. There had been some rumors, but I didn't think (he and Broncos would part).
"I was the only one (of us) who knew Fox (and) when we scheduled the interview, it was only three days after (his playoff loss). He came in and I wanted to let them do all the grunt work because I knew him and they had to establish whether they wanted to work with him or not. His record was obvious on paper.
"I thought the rapport between the four of them was instant. What was critical was Ryan. There's a big age difference (37 and 59) and I just let it play out. I participated in the interview and asked questions, and I didn't give him any breaks. I was pretty tough on him and, of course, I had that kind of relationship with him.
"(After) he left Wednesday — we always had an immediate conference after a candidate left — they were all positive. I looked at Ryan and said, 'What do you think?' He said, 'I really like him.' He said, 'You know what? I want to go out there and sit down with him, meet his wife and have a more in-depth conversation one-on-one.' I said, 'Great idea.' We talked it through. Fox was in the car on the way to O'Hare, and that's when Ryan said, 'You know what? I'm going to go out tomorrow.'
"So he went out and they had dinner Thursday night. They spent a lot of time together Thursday night. I had emailed him; I said, 'What'd you think? Do you have a conviction?' He emailed me back and said, 'I have a conviction.'
"I think it's a great combination. I really do. I don't think you have to have one of those two jobs with an older person. I always say this: (Don) Shula was 33. (Pete) Rozelle was 33. Chuck Noll was 35. John Madden was 32. Young people can do all these jobs. It has nothing to do with age. But he had to be hired because he was the best person. And if he was the best person, then that experience gives you a plus. No matter what Ryan goes through, John has seen it. That's a bonus.
"I've had those kind of people my whole career, and I've really relied on them. They've been through it, and when you go through something for the first time, they're going through it for the 10th time. I think it's going to be a great team. Then, the two coordinators, I was thrilled when I saw that we got those two guys. That's really the beginnings of a great staff, right there."
How did Ryan come to be on your radar? Did you know him before?
"No. It's interesting. I did a consultation, the same type of thing with the Panthers (in 2012). It lasted only three weeks and I only met with them twice and it was just the GM's job. I always look at who's making the player personnel decisions on a team, and do they have players they're getting in the middle rounds they're winning with? You have to do that today. You only have seven picks, and the draft is still your lifeblood.
"And I look at the Steelers — that's why I think (GM) Kevin Colbert is so good. They have third-, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-round draft choices that they're winning in the playoffs with every year. And New Orleans rebuilt that team in a hurry, and that's how they rebuilt it. Listen, (quarterback Drew) Brees was a big pickup and all. That's fine. But you look all through that line, and you have players playing all through those two lineups that they picked in the middle or lower rounds. So, on paper, I thought, 'Someone has to be making the right decisions here.'
"(Pace) declined an invitation to interview in 2013 with Carolina. He wanted to stay (with the Saints) and I don't think they wanted to lose him. Subsequent to that, the commissioner formed this career advisory panel where he has five former GMs and three former coaches — Madden, Denny Green, Tony Dungy, Carl Peterson, Ron Wolf, Bill Polian, Charley Casserly and me — and we have done a study on rising GMs and rising coaches.
"Pace kept surfacing from everybody, not just me. So when this came up, I called his agent, who I knew. I said, 'He's going to have to make a decision. Does he want to be a general manager or not? He can't keep turning opportunities down.' He said, 'No, he's ready. He didn't think he was ready two years ago. He's ready.' So we interviewed him, and he did really well right away."
What did you admire about Ryan?
"He's very bright. He has a good track record on player personnel. people can do well in the interview, but you look at their record of drafting and free agent signings. His grasp of the big picture was obvious. He has been trained well with (coach) Sean Payton and (GM) Mickey Loomis. Just everything about him. I did research on him. Hard worker. Everybody was high on him among the scouting community.
"I kind of describe him: he has that modern cutting edge expertise these young guys have today — how to use the computer and all these technological advantages. Not that they pick players for you, but they can find a player and a play at the drop of a hat. I couldn't do the job today. I had no clue how to do all that stuff. But I felt he had a modern cutting edge talent and ability, and he had a throwback's heart.
"He had a sense of history of the game. The Bears meant something to him, which meant a lot to Ted and George, and obviously it meant a lot to me. I'm a big historian, romantic, when it comes to the old franchises. He had a sense of history, and a lot of people today don't. When I was a young guy in the business, I had heard of Nagurski. I knew all about Nagurski. Today, a lot of guys never heard of Unitas.
"But he has a great overview of the big picture of the game, of the people who came before him. And I really felt the Bears meant something to him. He's from Texas, but he went to Eastern Illinois University, and his wife's from Illinois, so he had some connection. But I'm a big believer in that. I worked for the Baltimore Colts, Browns and Giants, so one of those things that appealed to me about this was that it was the Chicago Bears. That meant something to him, and that's important to hear.
"I always ask that question, and, of course, everybody who's interviewing is going to tell you that. It's your job to figure out how genuine it is and how much it really means to him."
What did you need to know or learn about the current state of the team to make sure you were equipped to find the right fit?
"Personnel, that wasn't my job. … I can't tell you I had great feel for the Bears. I didn't see them play (often), but that wasn't my job. I don't think it mattered. We weren't trying to tailor a coach to the players. That wasn't what our objective was. My job was to advise them.
"I had the benefit of this committee I'm on, so I had a lot of homework done already. It was to give them what they asked for, give them what they wanted. I gave them a lot of names. They had to pick who they wanted to talk to. Then I broke down who I recommended and rated them going in, and then we just were all immersed in the process. But I was always cognizant that I was just the counsel on it. I was not the decision maker. I knew my place.
"And I knew the people. I knew Ted for many years. I didn't know George personally, but I was really a good friend of his father's. (Ed McCaskey) was the one that was in charge of the whole (Brian) Piccolo situation, and Piccolo and I were dorm-mates in college (Wake Forest). So through Brian, I had talked to Ed a lot about it and spent time with Ed. So I had a good relationship with the family going in and with Ted going in. It was really a great experience."
Ted praised your ability to filter through the content of candidates' presentations to target the most important factors. What were the elements that really needed to be crystallized with Ryan in his presentation?
"Understand that today we're in a different world of interviewing. They all have agents; I never had an agent in my life. They're all well-coached. They're all well-schooled in interviews of what to say. You have to cut through somehow what it is they're saying that they want you to hear, and what do they really, truly believe.
"I wasn't smart enough to get into Harvard, but I do have an instinct with people. I can read people, and that comes from experience of years and years of being in this game. I'll listen to presentations and all, but they all know what questions you're going to ask, and I don't ask the typical questions. But my objective with him is: How are you going to build this team?
"I don't mean, 'Well, it depends what (draft) choice we have.' No, no. All things being equal: what's important to you? How are you going to build this team? What positions are important? What's your feeling about the quarterback position? Not this quarterback — that's not my business, OK? They did ask him about that.
"The one thing that was important is they all came in prepared to discuss our team. They knew they were coming here. They evaluated our team before they got here. That was important. But my thing was I want to find out what kind of general manager you're going to be.
"I've been in interviews where they've said to me, 'You know, the quarterback is not that important.' When I said, 'How can you say that?' And the answer was, 'Well, there are only four or five of them, so everybody else has to compete, too.' And my answer to that is, 'Well, you're being hired to go find one of those four or five. You have to find them.'
"Russell Wilson was picked in the third round. (Joe) Montana was picked in the third round. (Tom) Brady was picked in the sixth round. That's why you're being hired. So I want to hear what they're going to say about those kinds of positions and what they think are the most important ingredients. You're not going to have 22 All-Pros. It's stuff like that."
"I always think the GM's job is a personnel executive's job. It's not an on-the-road scout. You have on-the-road scouts. You have to run your organization from the office. You could go on the road, but you're the captain of the ship. He doesn't abandon the ship. He doesn't go off on a boat somewhere. He's at the bridge. That's how you have to be a leader. George Young (former Giants GM) taught me that."
When John became available, what did you want Ryan to know about him?
"I didn't want to say a word about John Fox to Ryan because I didn't want to in any way predispose him. I didn't want to make any bias in his mind, or 'Look for this. Look for that.' I wanted to hear what he had to say fresh."
What did you admire about John from your experiences with him with the Giants?
"His office (as defensive coordinator) was right next to mine, so we interacted. In a lot of places, the GM and the coach are at two different ends of the building. We were right beside each other, and (Fox) happened to be in the office next to mine. We interacted every day. First of all, he's just a great football coach. Second thing, he has a way with people. He's not going to lock himself in the office and draw up plays and be aloof. Players love to play for him.
"When we lost him, Mr. Mara actually said these words, and they were printed. When we lost him and he became head coach of Carolina, Wellington Mara said, 'I feel much the same as I did when (Vince) Lombardi went to Green Bay.' He said that.
"I'll just give you an anecdote about John. We're going to play Minnesota in the NFC championship game (in 2001). They have Randy Moss, Cris Carter, Robert Smith, Daunte Culpepper, and they're scoring a million points a game. Now, all week they already scored 50 touchdowns in my apartment while I was trying to sleep.
"Finally we get to Friday, and I bump into Fox, and Fox says, 'You've been ducking me all week.' I said, 'I don't want to talk to you. I'm afraid of what you're going to tell me.' He said, 'We may just shut them out.' And we did (41-0). I thought we had a chance to win because we could score, but I thought we were going to win 45-38. He said, 'We may just shut them out,' and we did. And John doesn't say that kind of stuff … to be boastful or bravado or anything like that."
What are the challenges for a new GM and coach to forge their relationship to the point they can honestly evaluate the roster?
"They're experts in their field. Then the obvious is, 'Who do you keep?' You have to make roster decisions about how to rebuild the team and whatever you're going to do. And they're both of the mind: Let's find out who's good here — because you don't want to go in and start just getting rid of players when you might have a lot of good players. That's one part.
"The key to the relationship is that they trust each other and that they can work together and complement each other, and there's no doubt in my mind that they will. You see model relationships. Kevin Colbert, I mentioned, with every coach he has had. You look at John Schneider and Pete Carroll (with the Seahawks). The successful tandems in the league, the ones that win, they're compatible. Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, they work together and they help each other. Neither one wants the other's job. That's what you have to be, and if you have that, you have half the battle won. The business is the matter of judgment. You have to be able to make proper judgments on your acquisitions of players and your manipulation of the roster.
"The one thing that there's no question (about is) Fox will coach them. He'll get the best out of them. And to be honest with you, to me, it's even more important that he lost two Super Bowls. Because having lost one, I know what it's like. He knows. We've talked about it. The fact is that you never get that out of your system, and you can't sleep until you rectify that. He is possessed with going to the Super Bowl and winning it. I mean, he lost one by three points. He tied the game with 1 minute, (8) seconds to go, and the kicker kicked the ball out of bounds. So that's how close he came to beating (Bill Belichick and the Patriots). There's a drive and a hunger there that was obvious from the first time we even met."
How interested were the candidates in Jay Cutler, in particular?
"Well, they evaluated the team for everybody. John had the least amount of time for it because he had just coached on Sunday, but we understood that. We wanted to get him in there right way. I don't want to talk about what they said about the quarterback, but they evaluated the quarterback and gave their opinion on the quarterback. They're willing to make this work. All of them were. But that's for them to talk about. I'm not involved in that.
You functioned in New York, the biggest market out there. Do you think there's anything about the city of Chicago, the market here, the stage here that makes these jobs unique?
"I do. If you count these last couple of years as a consultant, I have 44 years in the National Football League. I have found that the bigger markets, I enjoyed the media more. Generally, when you're in a city like New York or Chicago or L.A., everybody aspires to work in those cities, so you're talking about the best, usually. Everybody wants to work in New York. Everybody wants to work in Chicago. That's what your goal is. I was a sportswriter. That's where I wanted to work. I never made it. I made it to Philadelphia. That's as far as I made it, which is a good place to work.
I never ever had a major problem with a member of the media anywhere, and I never even came close to having one in New York. And we had a couple of bad years, and they were tough, no question about it.
"But I think, first of all, John is exposed to all that. The other thing about today is every job has a national media now because of the Internet and social media. It's not like it used to be. You would be able to say something in Kansas City 30 years ago that never got out of there unless the AP guy got it and put it on the wire. Every fan is a reporter now because he has Twitter and he puts it out there, and the media people scan that to make sure they don't miss anything.
"John has been through it, plus John was in New York for five years. He knows. I think that they'll both be fine with it. I watched Ryan handle that first press conference. For a guy who had never had one in his life, I thought he did very well. I remember my first. I was a nervous wreck. You stand up there, it's intimidating."
Ted's role is a talking point here. Is there an important difference between a GM that reports straight to the owner and a GM with a team president who's over him, particularly in this case? Is there an important distinction with that structure?
"Well, I can't speak for other organizations, but after observing the relationship between Ted and George, they're almost as one. They know each other so well. They understand each other so well. It was so easy for me with the two of them because they were 1 and 1A, and all the communication was with both of them. They were so compatible and got along so well, understood each other so well and had such a great relationship. That is not going to be any kind of problem at all for Ryan. None at all."
"I told both of them, 'There is no better job in this league.' I said you have a family that owns the team, that their whole life's work has been this franchise. They founded the damn league. It's the same family. I said you have Ted Phillips, who's a great person, smart as heck, fits in just so perfectly with George. And you have the Chicago Bears.
"I'm not making this up, and a lot of it was Piccolo, but it was a thrill to walk in that building every day because it's a museum. I would look around, and I didn't miss a picture or a display because it's the Chicago Bears. I know I'm older. I followed pro football when there were 12 teams. I know how much they meant. It's just — you can't get a better job. I told those guys, if I was 35 or 40 years old, I would have been your first interview."