If the Rams provided a blueprint -- pair an energetic and brilliant young offensive coach with a young quarterback -- for what the Bears were seeking when they began plotting a future beyond John Fox, is it possible they will again be an inspiration for general manager Ryan Pace?
While the Bears were not aiming to copy the Rams a year ago as much as they were seeking the right coach, Pace's No. 1 initiative was to find a coach who could develop quarterback Mitch Trubisky. That led him to Matt Nagy, at 40 the third-youngest NFL coach behind the Rams' Sean McVay (32) and the 49ers' Kyle Shanahan (38).
McVay, paired with veteran defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, immediately awakened the Rams in 2017, leading them to the playoffs to end a 14-year run of non-winning seasons with an 11-5 record and the NFL's highest-scoring offense. The Bears (8-4) enter Sunday's meeting with the Rams (11-1) with a 1 1/2 -game lead in the NFC North, poised to end a seven-year playoff drought.
There's no telling how the remainder of the season will unfold, and with arguably the league's best defense, the Bears are a threat to make a serious playoff run. But it's not too soon to wonder if the Rams' blockbuster 2018 offseason caught Pace's attention. Will the Bears' success and the way the Rams approached this season lead him to double down on the most remarkable free-agency period in franchise history?
The Rams, coming off last season, are a fascinating study. Often winning teams will focus on re-signing their free agents and trying to fill holes through the draft with maybe a modest swing or two in free agency. Rams GM Les Snead took his impressive stack of poker chips and went all-in.
The results -- when the ink dried on the contract extension that made tackle Aaron Donald the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, days after the Bears paid Khalil Mack -- were staggering. Some wondered if the Rams were borrowing a page from the Eagles "Dream Team" in 2011, a roster aggressively constructed for what turned out to be a flop of an 8-8 season.
Snead likened his offseason plan to a coach being aggressive with in-game decisions, and the success of this Rams team will be judged by its playoff performance. Entering Week 14, they are the first team to secure a postseason spot.
The highlights were so numerous, they would fill two offseasons for normally aggressive teams. The Rams traded for starting cornerbacks Marcus Peters (Chiefs) and Aqib Talib (Broncos) to minimize the loss of Trumaine Johnson in free agency. They used the franchise tag on safety Lamarcus Joyner, signed veteran cornerback Sam Shields and signed nickel cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman to a three-year extension.
They traded defensive end Robert Quinn to the Dolphins and dealt linebacker Alec Ogletree to the Giants five months after signing him to a lucrative five-year extension. They extended the contract of center John Sullivan and signed Ndamukong Suh to a one-year deal. To make up for the loss of wide receiver Sammy Watkins in free agency, Snead traded for Brandin Cooks (Patriots).
Then came the big extensions -- $81 million for Cooks, $60 million for running back Todd Gurley, $32.5 million for right tackle Rob Havenstein and the biggest one, $135 million for Donald.
Before the season kicked off, the Rams had signed players to contracts totaling more than $235 million in guaranteed money, setting themselves up for a Super Bowl run or a massive disappointment awash in huge contracts. Given that they've lost only one game, a 45-35 shootout Nov. 4 in New Orleans, it's difficult to argue with the results so far.
What does it mean for the near future of the Bears? Maybe nothing. But Pace was naturally aggressive (trading up in the draft to select Leonard Floyd and Mitch Trubisky) even before his busy 2018 offseason that brought the Bears wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabiel, tight end Trey Burton, kicker Cody Parkey and others.
Ownership had to green-light the acquisition of Mack because the Bears had exceeded their budget for the season before the trade, and it's possible Pace had to "borrow" from the 2019 budget. But it's also possible the Bears will see this season's success as a clear sign their window to compete for a championship is open and they need to strike now.
The biggest difference between the teams in terms of foundational building blocks is the Rams drafted Donald and the Bears had to trade away 2019 and 2020 first-round picks to acquire Mack. Both teams have quarterbacks playing on rookie deals, which provides extra salary-cap flexibility until the time comes to invest in them.
The Bears project to have $20 million in cap space for 2019, a figure that's constantly moving. That's enough to make a bold move or two, and it's a little more than half of the $37 million the Rams project to have. Snead made difficult decisions on players the Rams liked, trading Quinn and Ogletree and watching Johnson and Watkins depart.
Pace will have to make honest assessments about his roster when the season ends, the most difficult job a general manager has.
"It's easier for me to clean up your backyard than it is mine," former Bears GM Jerry Angelo said. "Yours looks like junk. Mine looks like art."
The Bears don't have many holes to consider in 2019. They will likely prioritize re-signing nickel cornerback Bryce Callahan, who will be an unrestricted free agent. Right tackle Bobby Massie and strong safety Adrian Amos are in the final year of their contracts, and Nagy will likely want a running back to replace Jordan Howard.
Maybe the Rams' bold strategy provides a map, but it probably won't be as great a motivator as the Bears' own success.