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.
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.