Before being hired as general manager of the Chicago Bears, Phil Emery was the director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs – an organization that runs a 3-4 defense. Throughout the history of the organization, the Bears have run a 4-3 scheme. Never once has the team lined up in a traditional 3-4 set. Yet, when Emery took over, the rumblings began about whether the team would switch to a 3-4 if Lovie Smith were fired.
We've now reached that junction, with Smith having been relieved of his duties yesterday. The search now begins for the franchise's 14th head coach. GM Phil Emery outlined today numerous traits he'll be looking for in the next head coach. Near the top of that last is the candidate's ability to mold his system around the key players already on the roster.
"I think it's real important to find the person that has the knowledge and feel to make things fit with the talent that they have," Emery said. "That's the mark of excellence that I'm looking for. Somebody that is adaptable or has the flexibility and the skill set to make the players we have fit towards making a run towards a championship."
Much of that applies to Jay Cutler. All three of his offensive coordinators in Chicago – Ron Turner, Mike Martz, Mike Tice – failed to get the most out of him, building systems that could not utilize his strengths as a quarterback.
Yet that also applies to the defense, where Chicago is stocked with players tailor made for Smith's 4-3 Cover 2 scheme.
DT Henry Melton
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports
"I was on a 3-4 team in Kansas City," said Emery, "great experience. I've been in one of the best, here with the 4-3, with coach Smith – No. 1 rated defense in the Aikman ratings. A lot of excellence there. I've seen both.
"We have 4-3 personnel. For somebody to move from 4-3 to 3-4, they're going to have to convince me that we have the players with the skill sets and the body types to move towards that defense."
Therein lies the biggest problem with transitioning from one scheme to the other. Both require very specific types of players, with very specific body types and skill sets, in order to work effectively. Many players will only fit well in one scheme. Trying to move them into a different defense is akin to fitting a square peg in a round hole.
This is especially so in the front seven.
The Bears have smaller, quicker, more-athletic defensive linemen, guys whose responsibility it is to penetrate gaps and be disruptive in the backfield. A 3-4 scheme requires bigger, heavier down linemen, players that eat up space and occupy blockers.
Linebackers in Chicago are pure pro linebackers, guys asked to be stout as run stoppers and in coverage. In a 3-4 scheme, linebackers are more specialized, with outside players expected to be speed pass rushers. Every 2012 Pro Bowl linebacker in the NFC is an OLB from a 3-4 system, voted to Hawaii because of his sack numbers.
"What we ran in Kansas City was a 3-4 with a two-gap, three down linemen, big nose tackle, big ends," said Emery. "We don't have those people."
Defensive ends Julius Peppers, Israel Idonije and Corey Wootton are horrible fits as "five-technique" ends in a 3-4 scheme. Linebacker Lance Briggs would not be a Pro Bowler in a 3-4. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton, whose contract is up, would not return. While last year's second-round pick, 305-pound nose tackle Stephen Paea, would likely be cut or traded.
The only Bears defender that fits a 3-4 scheme is defensive end Shea McClellin, who could excel as a rush linebacker off the edge. Beyond that, switching to a 3-4 would force Emery to make almost wholesale changes on the defensive side of the ball.
"[The next head coach] is going to have to do a lot of convincing to me," said Emery, "to convince me that's the direction that we want to spend additional time and resources reconstructing our defensive talent base to fit a brand new system."
Based on Emery's comments, and the personnel on the current roster, a switch in Chicago to a 3-4 defense at any point in the near future seems highly unlikely.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.