The Chicago Bears’ 2014 campaign ended with a whimper.
Monday was in fact the day the Bears made the most noise all season, firing both General Manager Phil Emery and Head Coach Marc Trestman after just five combined years in the organization.
Trestman seemed to be a forgone conclusion (more on that tomorrow) while Emery’s fate remained decidedly more cloudy; but all the questions were quickly answered yesterday morning when Emery was fired before the more expected Trestman departure.
Emery took over the Bears in 2012 after eleven seasons with Jerry Angelo at the helm. As is the case most of the time in sports, fans were overjoyed to be out with the old and in with the new. Emery’s background as a scout (including 1998-2004 with the Bears), his detail-oriented approach and his calm, explanatory demeanor with the press bought him early goodwill.
He wasted no time using some of that goodwill to trade for Brandon Marshall, who came with loads of baggage. The Marshall move paid immediate dividends on the field however, as he returned to form as one of the league’s most productive receivers and one of the best in Bears history. A month after trading for Marshall, Emery put his out-of-the-box thinking on display at the 2012 NFL Draft.
Given the benefit of retrospect, it’s easy to look at the 2012 Draft and deem it one of the least productive in Bears’ history. Emery infamously used his debut first rounder on Shea McClellin, a hybrid pass rusher who most experts agreed fit better in a 3-4 than the Bears’ 4-3. McClellin hasn’t developed into much of anything; and productive defensive players like the Vikings’ Harrison Smith, plus the Patriots’ Chandler Jones/Dont’a Hightower, all went in the next ten picks.
Hindsight can be unfair, but even at the time the McClellin pick was well panned. The second round proved to be one of Emery’s saving graces as he selected wide receiver Alshon Jeffery; although after a relatively down third season, Jeffery looks like less of a lock to be one of the NFL’s elite receivers than he did a year ago.
While the McClellin pick would get all the headlines as Emery’s biggest head scratcher, his most egregious pick in the fateful 2012 Draft was the third round selection of safety Brandon Hardin. Hardin had suffered multiple back injuries during his time at Oregon State and it was unclear if he would even be able to continue playing football. It was expected for someone to take a flyer on him late, but using a third round selection on him was one of the biggest shockers of the entire draft.
Hardin has never played a game in the NFL. The last three picks in 2012 were fullback Evan Rodriguez (released after his rookie season for disciplinary reasons), and defensive backs Isaiah Frey (appeared in 19 games for the Bears before being released this season) and Greg McCoy (hasn’t appeared in an NFL game).
It was a pivotal moment in the career of Phil Emery, as those misses would ripple through his next two seasons and ultimately represent a large part of his undoing. Emery’s reputation of trying to be the smartest guy in the room on draft day hurt him big-time in 2012; and save for his selection of Kyle Long in 2013, it’s hurt him throughout his drafting career.
As the defense fell apart in 2013, it could be traced to poor drafting. The pass rush was struggling because McClellin hadn’t developed, the interior line was decimated because Emery hadn’t spent a single pick on depth, the linebacking corps was overmatched after draft picks Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene both underwhelmed, and the secondary was a disaster thanks to poor safety play. There were six safeties selected after Brandon Hardin who are still active NFL players, including Pro Bowler Justin Bethel.
Emery does deserve credit for putting together 2013’s potent offense.
Marshall and Jeffery were Pro Bowlers, the offensive line was one of the best in the league and they got big time contributions from both free agent acquisitions (Martellus Bennett, Matt Slauson, Jermon Bushrod) and draft picks (Long, Jordan Mills). Despite the booming success of the 2013 offense the true MVP may have been the training staff. Aside from Jay Cutler and Josh McCown the Bears’ offense had ten starters start sixteen games. That’s a stat nearly unheard of in the NFL, and one of the true reasons for the 2013 offensive dominance.
The draft woes rippled into this year as Emery had to fill voids left by the under producing draft classes with free agent signings. One can argue the merits of Willie Young, Lamarr Houston, Jared Allen and Ryan Mundy one way or the other. All four had their highs and lows this year, but simply don’t replace homegrown talent.
A look across the league will show that most of the elite talent is homegrown, because teams don’t usually let elite players make it to free agency. Essentially, you’re trying to fill holes on your team with players that at least one team deemed replaceable. That isn’t the way to build a productive team, and the Bears fittingly led the league in players that weren’t drafted by the organization. The team with the least?
The NFC North Champion Green Bay Packers.
The draft failure would have eventually cost Phil Emery his job but the move Emery will be remembered for, and ultimately the reason he won’t be with the Bears in 2015, is his biggest gamble and unquestionably his biggest bust.
What can be said about Cutler that hasn’t been said already? This year certainly wasn’t all his fault, but he didn’t help cover the mess like you would hope the league’s highest paid player would. At this point Jay Cutler is what he is, he’ll wow you then kill you, wow you once more before killing you all over again.
Phil Emery bet his future and the future of the Bears on Cutler and he lost. Talk to fifty Chicagoans and you’ll get fifty different opinions on Cutler, but at this point it’s pretty clear he’s a solid NFL starter short of being a franchise quarterback. The spotty draft record could have been ignored for one more year, but Emery paid Jay Cutler like a franchise quarterback despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
Ultimately, Phil Emery was in charge of personnel and his lack of success in that area is where he truly failed the Bears. But it can’t be discounted that he had a large hand in bringing in Marc Trestman.
Coaching decisions, unlike personnel, are unfortunately much more of a group effort in Chicago- with Ted Phillips and the McCaskeys playing a role in the vetting/recruiting of potential coaches. You can be sure that Emery had people in his ear about Trestman’s modest price tag as opposed to Bruce Arians’ higher one, but it was Emery who signed off with his job on the line.
It was an extremely costly move for the franchise, especially because it was Emery’s choice to dump Lovie Smith after a relatively successful season. If Emery the talent evaluator and drafter had produced at a higher level, there’s a good chance the Trestman hire would have looked a little better. He didn’t get any help from his hand picked coach, but above all else the GM needs to build the team on the field.
And that’s why Phil Emery is packing up his office this week.
Come back tomorrow for the Marc Trestman edition of the 2014 Chicago Bears collapse.
(Featured image from YesChannel)