When the Chicago Bears narrowed their search for a new president and CEO, general manager Ryan Poles sat down for conversations with the finalists to evaluate how they would work and communicate with one another.
In Kevin Warren, Poles found someone with an impressive background and presence who values people and shows humility in his everyone-contributes approach to working toward a championship. Poles saw a leader who shares his mentality on how to build sustained success through the draft and selective free-agent signings.
And Poles saw someone whose breadth of NFL experience with the St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings can aid the second-year GM as he dives into a crucial offseason.
“There’s a ton of knowledge there that’s going to help us,” Poles told reporters at Halas Hall last week after the Bears introduced Warren. “Everyone’s got blind spots, and when you have someone from a different background that’s been through a couple different organizations, they can give you a little bit of information if maybe there’s (something) that you didn’t see. Challenging you on your decisions to make sure you’re making sound decisions.
“He’s been through a bunch of those tough decisions and just bouncing those off (him) will help both of us.”
As Poles marks one year as Bears GM on Wednesday, the big, tough decisions are only beginning.
One of his biggest accomplishments during a 3-14 season in 2022 was building hope — also fueled, of course, by quarterback Justin Fields’ strides.
Poles brought in some promising rookies in safety Jaquan Brisker, cornerback Kyler Gordon, offensive tackle Braxton Jones and linebacker Jack Sanborn. He cut ties with many of former GM Ryan Pace’s prized acquisitions and he spent frugally in free agency to help give the Bears the most salary-cap space in the league heading into the offseason.
Now Poles has the No. 1 draft pick along with a pick in each of the second and third rounds, two each in the fourth and fifth and a seventh-round pick. He has a boatload of cash to spend.
And he has a new boss who is talking about championships and who was drawn to the job because of “the opportunity to create greatness” in the Bears’ pursuit of both a new stadium and on-field success.
“We’re at a point in time with the Chicago Bears that the things we do over these next couple of years — just like the Big Ten — I want people in 20, 30, 40, 50 years talking about them,” said Warren, the Big Ten commissioner the last three years. “You look at the ‘85 Bears. They’re still talking about it. You look at ‘The Greatest Show on Turf.’ They still talk about that. Big Ten Conference, our media rights deal and expansion, they’re going to be talking about that.
“So the thing that energizes me the most is the stuff we’re going to do that 50 years from now they’re going to be talking about. To have that opportunity with this fan base and this city is amazing.”
So how exactly will Warren help Poles accomplish those big things on the field?
In 2022, Poles reported to Bears Chairman George McCaskey and said he was challenged to a degree by McCaskey and outgoing President Ted Phillips. They sat down before free agency and the draft to run through his plan, with Phillips and McCaskey asking questions about his potential moves.
Even though McCaskey said Poles has “complete authority to do what he thinks is best for the Bears” on the football side, Poles expects that collaboration to continue when he reports to Warren. The new president expects to officially start with the Bears in April but already has started to dive into the transition.
Poles and his staff were in the middle of free-agent evaluations last week, and he said draft evaluations — and conversations with other teams about potentially trading the No. 1 pick — likely would pick up over the next month after the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Bowl.
Warren rattled off the questions he likely will ask when Poles presents his evaluations.
“What do you like about the player? What do you not like?” Warren said. “What does he do better than any other player right now in the NFL? What are the strengths, weaknesses, costs associated with it? What will he bring in ancillary value to our team other than what he does on the field?
“How can we help? Are there any people that I know that have been around him that coached him or played with him? And what do we need to do from an ancillary standpoint to make sure we keep him healthy and ready to go?”
And finally, Warren said, the core question: “When we look at a day or a decision, are we closer to a championship before we made that decision? And I don’t want any negative plays.”
Poles said he and Warren are alike in valuing the creative process that comes from such sessions.
In fact, Poles said he first became acquainted with Warren earlier in his career when Warren reached out as Poles was interviewing for jobs. Warren shared ideas about the interview process from an executive perspective.
“There’s nothing better than sitting down with a group of people that are creative and just feeling completely free to dump your thoughts on the table,” Poles said. “Really cool things can happen from that, and it can circulate and come out and become a really cool decision that can help our franchise.”
Warren said he already believes he will work well with Poles, whom he called genuine, intelligent, detailed, methodical and well-trained from his time with the Kansas City Chiefs.
“He grew up in an environment to do things the right way,” Warren said. “There are no shortcuts to it. And the one thing I always love about working with offensive linemen is the fact they’re unique individuals. They don’t get a lot of credit on a football field. But they’re so critically important to the overall operation and success.
“And so he has that mindset, that DNA. With that, we trust each other. And he knows anything that I tell him or share with him or ask of him, it’s only to benefit this organization.”
Tribune reporter Dan Wiederer contributed.