Ryan Pace and the Art of War: Establishing a Winning Culture and Roster

Ryan Pace and the Art of War: Establishing a Winning Culture and Roster

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War  is commonly thought of as a complete work on military strategy and tactics. While Sun Tzu’s work goes into intricate detail on warfare and all that it entails, the concepts and theories developed have transcended across the battle field and into daily life. Many presidents, military leaders, corporate executives, lawyers, and businessmen have read this historical text, written in the 6th century B.C.  One can argue that Ryan Pace has applied the theories and concepts developed by Sun Tzu when constructing the Bears coaching staff and roster.  This piece will argue that the basic concepts and theories laid out in Tzu’s “The Art of War” have been used by Ryan Pace when constructing the Bears’ coaching staff, roster, and philosophy when it comes to building a roster meant to sustain success for years to come.

Pace bio



Laying Plans

At Ryan Pace’s introductory press conference, he established how he planned on building a championship roster capable of sustaining success for years to come. Pace understood that to develop the winning culture he envisioned he would have to gain the respect, support, and trust of the players, coaches, and administration. Developing this culture wouldn’t come easy as Pace made the right decision by placing priority on developing a positive culture over production in regards to Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett.  While Sun Tzu stressed that Moral Law or obedience from his soldiers was an important factor in determining an outcome of a battle, Pace demonstrated his belief in this concept when he traded both uber-talented players. In order to be successful, Pace has deemed that players must have a team-first attitude both on and off the field.

Ryan Pace, like Sun Tzu, recognized the importance a commander of men is in determining the outcome of competition. In his introductory press conference, Pace laid out his strategy for sustained success by developing a plan of attack. Pace stated, “Our plan will start being put into place to get the Chicago Bears back to the sustained success this city deserves. The first order of business is to hire the right head coach to lead us to championships. Right now, that is the most critical thing I am doing. I’m not going to get into specific candidates today but I can assure you I understand the importance of decision.” Pace made it clear his coach would demonstrate confidence, charisma, leadership, and discipline. Pace assured fans repeatedly he would hire the best man for the job and the Chicago Bears would be competitive for years to come. With John Fox, Pace checked all the boxes when it comes to hiring a coach. Fox is a leader of men who had success in his previous two head coaching stops, an established coach who could relate to his players and staff, and a historian of the game. By hiring John Fox, Ryan Pace brought discipline to an organization that was without consequences for the previous two seasons. John Fox was able to assemble a talented staff that included the well-respected Vic Fangio and up and coming Adam Gase.

Chicago Bears GM Ryan Pace, left, and new head coach John Fox arrive at O'Hare Airport in Chicago on Friday, Jan. 16, 2015. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune)

After the hiring of John Fox, Ryan Pace had to develop “methods and disciplines” to create a recipe for success. Sun Tzu’s warriors had defined roles and responsibilities when it came to warfare and Ryan Pace’s football roster is no different. With the assistance of his coaches and their staff, Pace and company were able to define the purpose that each players had on the roster. Like any well trained army, a football roster is only as strong as your weakest link. Pace placed specific characteristics and qualities that members of the team possessed. In his introduction press conference, Pace was quoted as saying, “We are not just collecting athletes. We are acquiring football players that fit the Chicago Bears. There will be a major emphasis on character, toughness, instincts and intelligence.”

By developing these defined roles, each player knows what is expected of themselves both individually and collectively. Whether it be while watching game film, working out, or in the off season, every player understood the expectations that game from both the head coach and general manager. By creating this culture, players are able to buy into the team first mentality on Sundays. For  example, each defensive tackle has to understand the concept of setting the edge by taking on the tackle head up and eating up space and time. If he is able to do his job correctly, the inside linebackers should be able to flow to the ball and make plays. By understanding both their role and responsibilities to the team, players naturally adapt a next man up mentality when it comes to changes to the roster whether it be by injury, suspension, or other means. Each player has prepared, understands their strengths and weaknesses, and contribute when called upon.

Sun Tzu argued these three factors (moral law or “culture”, the commander/coach, and methods & disciplines) can determine an outcome to a battle. In the case of Ryan Pace, it can determine wins and losses, contract extensions, promotions, and championships. You can hear the excitement and optimism in the voices of the players, coaching staff, and those who cover the Bears. By creating a dedicated and hard working atmosphere around the Bears, Ryan Pace has brought respect back to Halas Hall.


Waging War

“In war, let your great object be victory and not lengthy campaigns.” This Sun Tzu quote jumps off the page and screams Ryan Pace’s approach when it comes to free agency. Pace has been frugal when it comes to dishing out big money contracts in free agency, but when attractive players fall in his price range, Pace acted quickly and sealed the deal. For example, at the beginning of last years’ free agency period, the Bears agreed to terms with Pernell McPhee right out of the gate. That same trend continued this year. Shortly after free agency officially opened, Chicago announced they had agreed to terms with inside linebacker Danny Trevathan. Pace found and attacked his target early, sealing the deal without lengthy negotiations or multiple teams jumping into the fray. The very next day, opportunity presented itself in the form of Jerrell Freeman. Pace was able to negotiate a team friendly deal and land another highly rated defensive chess piece early in free agency. Without lengthy campaigns or negotiations, Pace was able to concentrate on improving the roster as a whole.

Ryan pace


Attack by Stratagem

Unlike the past two generals managers, Ryan Pace’s preparation seems to separate him from those who came before him. For Ryan Pace to be a successful general manager for years to come, he will have to string together multiple successful drafts. But he has an opportunity to build needed depth through free agent additions. In year two of free agency, Pace showed a clear understanding of the tactics and games that take place during free agency. His frugal approach allowed him to land team friendly deals from Trevathan, Freeman, Miller, etc. His strategy never faltered: use the draft as tool for success, use free agency as a means of growth. By adding players to the roster that fill a role, Pace has allowed himself flexibility when it comes the draft. He has enough picks to be able to trade up and grab a player he likes. Moreover, there is a chance that he sticks to his board and drafts the best player available building depth throughout the roster. Or he could trade down and acquire more picks to build the roster the way he feels necessary. Ryan Pace has placed a profound importance on not overpaying in free agency, acquiring more draft picks, drafting best player available, and sustained success through drafting. His first steps of attack were unleashed during free agency. Now, we’re about to witness the full onslaught as the draft approaches.

Tactical Disposition

Perhaps, the most important chapter of The Art of War is about knowing your enemy and knowing yourself inside and out. In my opinion, this has become Ryan Pace’s most successful venture as a general manager. While studying the strengths and weaknesses of fellow NFC North rivals, Pace has learned new approaches to attacking the opponent but also the habits, limitations, and vulnerabilities of his own roster. In which situations is my team susceptible? How can I change that approach? How can we attack their weakness when constructing our roster? Pace answered these difficult questions with his corresponding transactions.


Coming up on draft week, this concept may be the most important this time of the year. Pace has to be able to find a way to focus his energy in the most creative and timely manner. The process of creating a draft board, reviewing film, discussions with scouts, coaches, and staff, and conversations with other teams could be overwhelming to most. But Pace’s focus and mental determination have brought his visualizations of this roster to life. It’s during this time that he needs to focus his energy into landing impact players with multiple picks. His scouting department has put in the hours, his staff has discussed every situation possible, and know their game plan going into free agency and the draft. Their preparation and mental determination has taken the Chicago Bears from being a laughing stock in 2014 to a team the city of Chicago can feel proud about again.

It hasn’t come easy and Pace has been criticized by many along the way. Plenty of people, myself included, doubted some of the roster decisions that Pace made when it came to the 2015 roster. But Pace never wavered and continued constructing the roster with the guidance of the coaching staff the way he saw fit. No pun intended, he paced himself as the season progressed and weighed his options. Early in the season, Pace pulled the trigger and traded away Jared Allen and John Bostic for sixth round draft picks.Was it a mistake in hindsight to pay Jared Allen the roster bonus of 11.5 million for his three games? Yes, but Pace understood the Bears had the available money with the team he inherited. While one could criticize Pace for trying to make Allen fit the new defensive scheme as an outside linebacker or why Bostic made the roster over Mason Foster and John Timu, Pace was able to receive compensation for both players to build through the draft. Pace worked at his leisure and made moves when he deemed fit. When the time came to make these tough decisions, Pace continued to move forward with his eyes on the future.

Jan 3, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears general manager Ryan Pace before the game against the Detroit Lions at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

Weak Points and Strong

Sun Tzu argued that a great leader understood where his army is strongest and how to use those strengths to his advantage. On the other hand, he must study and learn his weaknesses, how to overcome these adversities, and turn weakness into strength. Throughout the 2015 season, Pace assessed his team, studied film, and envisioned ways to improve his team. First, he recognized the talent that Alshon Jeffery possesses and placed the franchise tag on him in hopes of a long term deal. The next young building block this roster contains is Kyle Long. Long’s versatility and desire to be great has made him a welcome addition to the Windy City. Moreover, Pace let the organization’s second greatest running back walk away without offering him a contract because of his faith in Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey. Both were able to contribute valuable snaps throughout the 2015 campaign and capable of handling running back duties as a committee for the team going forward. On the other side of the ball, he saw the strength of his defense in two young players. Eddie Goldman dominated on the inside as a rookie showing good use of his hands, ability to penetrate while taking on double team blocks, and the athleticism to move laterally down the line of scrimmage when in pursuit of running backs. A fellow rookie also stood out on the 2015 defense: Adrian Amos. Amos could be considered the best value pick of Ryan Pace’s 2015 draft. Amos’ physicality makes him a willing and able hitter when he comes into the box. While his ball skills leave some to be desired, he’s only a rookie. He will grow under the tutelage of Ed Donatell into the player Ryan Pace envisioned when he drafted him.

However, not everything Pace saw on tape was a pleasant sight on the eyes. As he self-evaluated the roster, concerns about the lack of quality depth along the offensive line made Pace and staff apprehensive going into 2016. After moving Kyle Long to tackle going into week 1 of the season, the lack of depth immediately showed with the loss of Will Montgomery. Montgomery’s injury forced Matt Slauson to play out of position, but more importantly, required both Vlad Ducasse and Patrick Omameh to taking meaningful snaps this season. While Ducasse and Omameh has moments where they competed on the field, Pace knew changes had to be made. Enter Bobby Massie, Manny Ramirez, and Ted Larsen. All these men have experience starting in the National Football League and are upgrades when compared to their 2015 counterparts. Ramirez and Larsen, not only serve as quality depth at guard, but both also have the versatility to play meaningful snaps at center. Perhaps the biggest addition Pace made was the addition of Bobby Massie. Not because Massie can play right tackle for the Bears, but the addition of Masssie moved Long back into his All-Pro position at right guard. Not only was Pace able to acquire quality backups but he was able to move his best offensive lineman back into his natural position. Pace turned what was once an offensive weakness to a strength on paper and has the chips in the upcoming draft to add another player to the competition.

While guard was the most glaring need offensively, inside linebacker was in dire need of a revamp. Both Shea McClellin and Christian Jones struggled in the 4-3 of years past and weren’t better when transitioning to the new 3-4 scheme. McClellin and Jones both struggled to shed blocks, lacked the physicality at the point of attack, and don’t have the instincts to play in Vic Fangio’s middle. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bears had the worst inside linebackers in the league this past year, but that won’t be the case in 2016. Pace landed Trevathan from the Super Bowl champion Broncos and Freeman of the Colts. Pace added the #1 and #3 rated linebackers of 2015 according to ProFootballFocus. In other words, Ryan Pace was able to trade in those beat up, rusty, old swords and spears for state-of-the-art weaponry. Not only had he turned his biggest weakness into a strength, but by doing so, Pace also protected his best assets he already has on defense in Goldman and Amos. Make no mistakes about it, the strength of this Chicago Bears defense is up the middle, exactly what Vic Fangio and company want.



When making these roster moves, Pace has to trust his instincts. But he also has to communicate with his scouts and coaching staff. Communicating intelligently is the key. Cohesion on all levels of the organization is a must when it comes to constructing the roster. The scouts must understand the preferences of the coaching staff when watching a player. The strength and conditioning coach has to come up with individualized plans for each member of the team. The nutritionist must keep each athlete fed with the proper foods. The trainers are responsible for a multitude of things from dispersing water to changing cleats. Each member of the Chicago Bears organization has a specific role they must perform to achieve success. Without cooperation on all levels, the team won’t be as successful as it could be. Every employee has an active stake in the success of the team. Mutual support with intelligent communication is what promotes good franchises into great franchises.


The most successful players, coaches, and general managers in the NFL are those who have the flexibility to adapt to changes both on and off the field. By hiring John Fox, Pace hired a coach who can directly change the outcome of a football game. By assessing what his team can and cannot do on the field, Fox is able to game plan differently when it comes to games on Sunday. Injuries, clock management, and situations that occur during the game allow Fox to change his tactics on the fly. Often times the coach and team that is able to adapt to theses variations smoothly will have success on the gridiron. On the other hand, these professionals have to adjust to the unseen or unexpected events that could take place. Early in his career Pace took a chance on Ray McDonald despite his past history. Pace couldn’t have predicted that McDonald would be arrested again for domestic violence. He had to adapt to the situation and put the team first. McDonald was cut and Pace even admitted he would consider red flag players in a different light than previously. To put it simply, Pace learned from his mistakes on the job. That wasn’t the only time this happened either. Jay Ratliff thought he still intimidated upper management and coaches after his was cut. In fact, he even wished death upon employee’s children. Does the NFL have a handbook for GMs on what to do with disgruntled employees? No. It was Pace and staff who had to communicate and adjust on the fly. They attempted to work with Ratliff, but when his behavior became uncontrollable, Pace and staff made the necessary changes to the roster. Two very talented players with off the field issues that changed their employment status with the team. This is just a glimpse into what we are able to see. Imagine all of the news that is never brought to life. Pace has shown his ability to adapt and make the necessary change, even if it means admitting his own shortcomings.

The Army on the March

For every action, there is a reaction. It’s no different when it comes to NFL general managers construction their rosters. While Ryan Pace has placed significant importance on his own roster, he has continued to keep a watchful eye on the acquisitions his rival GMs have made the past two seasons. Whether it is the ‘draft and develop’ strategy of Ted Thompson or the adding of key, veterans in an attempt to repeat as division champions the way Rick Spielman in Minnesota has approached the offseason, Ryan Pace has altered his approach based on the methods of his rival GMs.

For example, while bringing up the Martellus Bennett trade feels like beating a dead horse, one can gain insight into the mind of the Bears young GM. Teams, like the rival Packers, waited for Pace to cut Bennett as rumors swirled that the team would do so if unable to find a trade partner. Let me tell you one thing about the “rumors” you hear associated with the Bears: they are only rumors. One aspect of the new culture Pace is creating in Chicago is the lack of leaks. Tight lips throughout the organization is a welcome sign after the fiasco in 2014.  So while teams waited in the shadows and rumors swirled the Bears would be forced to cut the Black Unicorn, Pace continued to mold his roster at his own discretion. Pace realized that Bennett would be a highly sought after commodity with thin tight end classes both in free agency and the draft. He diligently worked on finding a willing trade partner to take on the much maligned tight end as well as his contract. Furthermore, Pace didn’t feel rushed. Bennett was under contract and the Bears were set with cap space; he wouldn’t be forced into a decision that he didn’t believe benefited his team. Pace allowed the process to run its course and was able to trade Bennett and a 6th round pick to New England in exchange for a 4th round pick in the 2016 draft. Sun Tzu stated, “The clever fighter imposes his will on the enemy but doesn’t allow his enemy’s will to be imposed on him.” Whether it was the Brandon Marshall trade, Marty B trade, or Jared Allen trade, Ryan Pace has imposed his will on his fellow NFL GMs.

Furthermore, Pace has looked into the trends that shape the game of football. He comprehended that opponents in the division, while having average to elite quarterbacks, were placing a greater emphasis on balanced offensive attacks. As a result of his rival GMs attempting to become more balanced offensively, Ryan Pace added play makers at all three levels of his defense the past two seasons. He also flipped the switch and added a dynamic wideout in Kevin White and veteran slot receiver Eddie Royal to trot out with Alshon. He’s also made it clear the team actively searching for more weapons to surround Jay Cutler. After studying his own roster’s strengths and weaknesses as well as his rivals, Ryan Pace was able to learn his opponents strategies and destroy them. In order to thrive in this league, Pace and his staff will always have to remain one step ahead of the curve.


While Ryan Pace continues to review ways to improve his team in the near future, it was the ancient works of Sun Tzu that helped guide him along his journey. By creating a new, winning culture with the help of head coach John Fox and staff, Pace has constructed a roster where each player serves a defined, unique role. The adaptability and flexibility of the general manager has allowed him to understand his strengths and weaknesses on the roster. Not every move Ryan Pace has made has been a slam dunk, but if he continues to follow the work of Sun Tzu, Ryan Pace will be successful in the NFL for a long time.

As I look over the options on the jukebox, one song sticks out when thinking of Ryan Pace’s tenure in Chicago. Hey barkeep, turn it up to 11!


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NCIUf8eYPqA&w=420&h=315]

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