CHICAGO - One of the last people trudging off snowy TCF Bank Stadium and into a joyous Bears locker room late Monday night was Chicago Bears chairman Michael McCaskey.
A camera buff, McCaskey spent the game that clinched the NFC North title for the Bears on the sideline pointing and clicking between shivers and snowflakes. While other McCaskeys and Bears officials watched from the warmth of a luxury suite, the team chairman, who soon will relinquish those duties to brother George, braved the single-digit temperatures.
However vivid McCaskey's shots of the big night turned out, they provided photographic evidence of something every professional sports owner needs to see: You get what you pay for.
Given the emphasis on the draft and salary cap complexity, conventional wisdom says you can't buy a winner in the NFL. The Bears just did.
Becoming the first team to win a division championship this season dispels two commonly accepted myths: 1. The McCaskeys are cheap. (Not when it comes to saving their franchise.) 2. Free agency often is the wrong path to take to the playoffs. (Not if the road winds from North Carolina to Chicago.)
As we begin debating playoff scenarios, it cannot be overstated how one signature from Julius Peppers changed everything we thought we knew about the Bears. It was as if the McCaskeys adopted overspending Redskins owner Daniel Snyder. When Peppers signed a six-year, $91.5-million contract last March, it reflected fiscal urgency to which ownership seemed immune.
"[Peppers] has been terrific; what a great team player he's been," McCaskey said Monday night as he cleaned off two cameras. "He's been part of the growth of the team and a lot of guys have added to that. He was leading the charge."
McCaskey was asked if he understood why many may have doubted he ever would sign a player such as Peppers, who was considered the prize in free agency. "Yeah, sure," he said, chuckling.
So does that give the family the last laugh? "Ha, ha, ha," McCaskey said. "This is the next step. Now, we have to beat the Jets and continue to grow."
In signing Peppers and less-impactful free agents in tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor, the Bears committed more money in one offseason than Angelo had in the previous eight - more than $55 million in guarantees.
In a year everybody at Halas Hall clearly identified as a make-or-break season, the Bears went all-in while the rest of the league spent so conservatively, a Wall Street Journal headline over a story on free agency said, "It's the National Frugal League."
Manumaleuna and Taylor have had mediocre seasons, suggesting the Bears overpaid, but Peppers, a Pro Bowl lock and NFL defensive player of the year candidate, has justified ownership's aggressiveness by being worth every cent.
It's a far cry from the days George Halas was famously accused of throwing nickels around like manhole covers.
Look at why the Bears are where they are, 10-4 and the No. 2 seed in the NFC. Their three most indispensable players - Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher and Peppers - illustrate how the Bears have ponied up to put themselves in the best position to win.
Cutler signed a two-year contract extension worth $20 million in October 2009. The Bears knew they had to make that kind of once-unfathomably rich deal with the quarterback the minute they traded for Cutler.
Urlacher's continued presence in the middle, a major factor this year, came at a less expensive but more awkward price. Contentiousness surrounded Urlacher's demands for a contract extension before the 2008 season but the Bears wisely acquiesced in adding one year and $18 million to his deal. A happy Urlacher is an angry linebacker, and we all know what that means when he's healthy.
Then there is Peppers. The most significant move in Phase 1 of Smith's early tenure - the Super Bowl XLI run - came when Angelo engineered the 2004 trade for Adewale Ogunleye, who at that point was the edge-rusher who completed the cover-2 defense.
As Smith tries to return to the Super Bowl in Phase 2, the signature player has been the man signed not only to replace Ogunleye but make Chicago forget how to spell his name.
"I saw a team that was on the cusp of making a run," Peppers recalled. "Nobody wants to go to a team that's already good and nobody wants to go to a team that has no chance. This team was bubbling. They were ready to make a run at it."
Now the Bears are in position to give the NFC's best teams a run for their money. Mostly because they were willing to spend it like never before.