Bears

Bears make sweeping changes at Halas Hall, fire GM Phil Emery

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Bears make sweeping changes at Halas Hall, fire GM Phil Emery

In the end, any organization needs to feel that its program is moving in a right direction. Going from 10-6 to 8-8 to 5-11 in three years, declining precipitously after firing a head coach well regarded within the Bears extended family, was a downward spiral that Bears ownership felt showed no indication of ending.

Looking to reverse the downward slide, the Bears fired Phil Emery as general manager three years after bringing him in with his stated intention of winning “multiple championships."

Indeed, Emery himself set the very bar, the standard, against which he would be measured and didn’t meet.

“Continue to improve and continue to make progress towards our goals, which is to win championships,” Emery said more than a year ago. “Be in the mix at the end, be in position to get in the playoffs and win championships.”

The Bears finished Emery’s first three years further from championships than they were when his stewardship began.

The broader question now is how the Bears will organize football operations, whether with a new general manager; a coach/general manager; a football czar on the level of President Ted Phillips; or some other structure.

Emery’s missteps were such that they followed a course of failures both in the short term, in the form of two more seasons with no playoffs, and longer term, in the form of falling further behind in the talent gap within the NFC North. The latter is reflected in the Bears losing eight of their last nine games to division rivals, and losing to the Green Bay Packers by blowout margins.

Emery inherited a team that went 10-6 under Lovie Smith in 2012. He fired Smith and then sowed the seeds of his own destruction with what were perceived to franchise-grade mistakes in the two biggest decisions entrusted to him: hiring a head coach and settling on a quarterback, whom he deemed “elite” base on simply having a winning record as a starter, with a contract that virtually left the organization’s hands tied when a more affordable and flexible course was available.

Trestman hiring process cost Bears Bruce Arians, then Rod Marinelli

Emery hired Marc Trestman, who was fired Monday after one bad season (2013) and one horrendous one (2014) marked by dysfunction at virtually every level. And the process blew up on Emery and the Bears from the start, beginning with the angry departure of then-defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli.

Emery’s search in January 2013 to replace Smith narrowed to three finalists: reigning 2012 coach of the year and Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who has taken the Arizona Cardinals to seasons of 10-6 and 11-5, the latter getting the Cardinals into this year’s playoffs; Seattle Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, who was behind the drafting and development of quarterback Russell Wilson and the NFL’s No. 11 scoring and No. 9 yardage offenses this season; and Trestman.

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At the time, the plan was to retain the highly regarded Marinelli to run the defense. And he had planned to, remaining on even after close friend Smith was fired. But back in mid-January 2013, as part of their final selection process for a head coach to replace Smith, Emery and the organization had Marinelli interview the three finalists for the head-coaching job.

Marinelli was asked to rank the three. He did. Arians was his runaway first choice; Bevell was the second; Trestman was a distant third.

Emery selected Trestman.

When he learned of the decision, Marinelli abruptly angrily resigned and left Halas Hall for Dallas and a de facto demotion to defensive line coach.

The problems did not end with Marinelli’s exit. The exact level of Emery involvement below the head-coaching job is unclear. With Marinelli gone, however, Emery was involved in hiring Mel Tucker as defensive coordinator and Joe DeCamillis.

Losing Marinelli, very well liked and respected by the players, contributed to the difficult situation into which Tucker was thrust. It was nothing against Tucker; it was the manner in which Smith and then Marinelli were treated.

NFC North talent gap growing

The Emery hiring reflected the organization’s desire to build through the draft, improve those drafts, and in the process, close the talent gap between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers, and as it is turning out, the Detroit Lions and Minnesota Vikings.

Emery’s background was as a scout, for the Bears from 1998-2004, and director of college scouting, for Atlanta from 2004-08 and for Kansas City from 2009-11. The core assumption was that he would upgrade the drafts from what they had been under Jerry Angelo, whose background had been on the pro-personnel side.

As Emery had done with the change from Smith (defense) to Trestman (offense), the organization’s plan was to approach talent from the financially prudent and youth-based direction of college talent.

Emery landed Pro Bowl talents in each of his first two drafts: wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the second round of 2012, guard Kyle Long in the 2013 first round. He upgraded the offensive line with Jordan Mills in the 2013 fifth round.

But he selected Shea McClellin with his inaugural No. 1 pick and got only a middling talent that was first slotted at defensive end for two misspent years, then shifted to linebacker this season. Emery subsequently acknowledged that force-fitting McClellin into the defense as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end was a mistake.

While it is always easy to second-guess and play what-if, it was an inauspicious start for Emery, who passed on players like Chandler Jones (two picks later to New England) and Whitney Mercilus (seven picks later to Houston).

Of Emery’s second-round picks (Jeffery, Jonathan Bostic, Will Sutton), only Jeffery won a starting job outright as a rookie. For comparison purposes, second-round picks under Angelo included Charles Tillman, Tank Johnson, Danieal Manning, Devin Hester, Matt Forte and Stephen Paea.

Emery’s first draft included busts Brandon Hardin and Evan Rodriguez among the first four picks. Linebacker Khaseem Greene was the fourth-rounder in 2013. Safety Brock Vereen has played only because of injuries to Chris Conte, and running back Ka’Deem Carey has been invisible, representing the Bears’ fourth round this year.

Contract plays

The Cutler contract will not go down as a blot on Emery’s record if the next Bears coach can win with him. The larger reality that confronted Emery last offseason remains; there are simply not a lot of quarterbacks better than Cutler available. And if the Bears choose to go another direction, the mechanics of a deal could reduce the financial hit from the deal made on Emery’s watch.

The issue with Emery, however, was the election to forego use of the franchise tag ($16.192 million guaranteed for one year). He instead went with a multi-year deal that ultimately cost the Bears $22.7 million this season after money was shifted to facilitate other offseason moves.

Curiously, considering the stakes involved, Emery acknowledged as recently as during the mid-season off week that Cutler was still showing some of the spotty fundamentals that plagued him as far back as Vanderbilt. Yet eight years into Cutler’s NFL career, Emery was willing to commit $54 million guaranteed to a flawed quarterback who had never posted a season rating higher than the 89.2 of 2013. Cutler may prove worth the money but Emery’s deal effectively created serious constrictions for the organization going into this offseason.

This followed him giving the Miami Dolphins two third-round draft choices for a receiver many around the NFL expected the Dolphins to rid themselves of anyway – Brandon Marshall. Emery followed the Cutler deal in May with a $30-million extension, paying him $14.8 million for 2014, despite Marshall having a year remaining on his contract.

Marshall saw his production drop because of injuries but has embarrassed his coach and the organization with a succession of off-field situations that have included challenging a Detroit Lions fan to a fight via Twitter, exploding in a post-game diatribe following the loss to Miami, holding a 45-minute press conference and launching into an ugly denunciation of Detroit center Dominic Raiola.

Marshall arguably added to the dysfunction involving Cutler. The receiver once declared that everything he does is “strategic,” then left Cutler unnamed in a run-through of players with a commitment to winning. As part of his work on “Inside the NFL” for Showtime, Marshall said that he understood some “buyer’s remorse” over the Cutler contract.

Stay with CSNChicago.com for more on this developing story.

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

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USA TODAY

Report: Bears could be a potential landing spot for Dolphins WR Jarvis Landry

The Bears are looking for an upgrade at wide receiver this offseason, and there may be one available.

The Dolphins used the franchise tag on wide receiver Jarvis Landry on Tuesday, in a move that many believe signals the team's desire to deal him instead of losing him in free agency for nothing.

Landry put up excellent numbers last season, catching 112 passes for 987 yards and nine touchdowns. He led the league in catches and was fourth in touchdown receptions but was just 17th in yards. His yards per reception ranked 108th of 139 qualifying players.

Still, it's no secret he'd be an upgrade for the Bears at wide receiver. Though they'll get Cam Meredith and Kevin White back from injury, the corps largely struggled and didn't give rookie quarterback Mitch Trubisky much help.

Luckily, they may be interested in Landry, per NFL.com's Ian Rapoport.

"There are a couple teams that we should keep an eye on as far as a potential Jarvis Landry landing spot......the Chicago Bears are looking for receviers," he said.

Rapoport also mentioned the Titans, Panthers and Saints as options for Landry. The franchise tag will pay Landry about $16 million before he becomes a free agent in 2019 (or has the franchise tag used on him again).

 

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.