After firing former general manger Jerry Angelo following the 2011 campaign, Chicago Bears president Ted Phillips laid out the key attributes he would look for in the team’s next GM.
“Talent evaluation is going to be key; chemistry with Lovie; understanding of the coaches; solid character and work ethic and a clear strategy to get us to win a championship,” Phillips said in early February of 2012.
Under that criteria, Phillips selected Phil Emery, a football executive who had never before been a general manager.
Emery was a strength and conditioning coach for six different universities between 1981-1998. His first scouting job was with the Bears, where he worked from 1998-2004. Emery then became the director of scouting for the Atlanta Falcons from 2004-2008.
From 2009-2011, Emery served as director of scouting for the Chiefs, where he was praised for the quality of the team’s drafts during those three seasons. Yet looking back, there were some obvious holes in Emery’s talent-evaluation prowess that were overlooked by Bears brass.
In Emery’s first year in Kansas City, the Chiefs did not draft a single Pro Bowler.
In 2010-2011, Emery and Pioli combined for three Pro Bowl draft picks (Eric Berry, Dexter McCluster and Justin Houston), yet in 2011, they swung and missed in the first round with WR Jonathan Baldwin. During Emery’s three years in charge of Kansas City’s scouting department, the Chiefs made the playoffs just once.
Yet that was good enough for Phillips, who took a chance on a candidate who had paid his dues and worked his way up the NFL ranks. Emery is widely regarded as meticulous in his preparation and one of the hardest working men in the business. With his scouting background, he appeared a no brainer.
Yet it didn’t take long before cracks began to show in Emery’s armor.
In the 2012 draft, Emery used his first selection on Shea McClellin, whom he pegged as the team’s next speed-rushing defensive end. The problem is that McClellin was a horrible fit for Chicago’s 4-3 scheme, as it was clear during his career at Boise State that an OLB role in a 3-4 would be his ideal scheme.
The McClellin experiment last just two seasons before the team switched him to linebacker, where he’s been little improved.
And McClellin was just the starting point, as only one pick from Emery’s first draft, Alshon Jeffery, is on the current roster less than three years later.
To Emery’s credit, he’s had stronger drafts the past two years and made solid selections in the first rounds of each. Yet when he’s missed on mid-round picks, he’s missed spectacularly: Brandon Hardin, Evan Rodriguez, Khaseem Greene.
In terms of talent evaluation, Emery must also be held accountable for the veteran contracts he’s doled out the past three years.
He’s dished out cap-busting contracts to Jay Cutler, Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Brandon Marshall, all within the past seven months. Emery made Jermon Bushrod the highest paid offensive lineman in franchise history and signed D.J. Williams for two straight seasons.
He hit slam dunks with Matt Slauson, Willie Young and Martellus Bennett, but Emery has invested far more money in underachieving players than those who have exceeded expectations. The same can be said of his drafts, so it’s clear that Emery hasn’t lived up to his billing as an elite evaluator of talent.
That’s a problem. Bad drafts can set a team back for years and put GMs in positions where they feel the need to break the bank on 32-year-old pass rushers like Jared Allen. Teams that can’t build from within are forced to scour the free-agent bin every offseason, a team-building recipe that very rarely results in success.
And that’s where the Bears stand today, with question marks surrounding nearly every draft pick and the salary cap cluttered with wasted investments.
Yet Emery’s biggest talent gaffe could be his decision to fire Love Smith after a 10-6 season and replace him with a first-time NFL coach in Marc Trestman, who was chosen over Bruce Arians, who is guiding a Super Bowl contender in Arizona.
Trestman’s offense burst out of the gates in 2013, finishing Top 10 overall and fifth in passing, yet opposing defense have figured him out this season and he’s yet to adapt.
Beyond his questionable X-and-O acumen, there have been those who have publicly doubted Trestman’s ability to lead an NFL organization at the head coach level. Going back to OTAs, fights between Bears players were a weekly occurrence, one player had to be suspended in training camp, Lance Briggs took off the first practice of the regular season to open up a BBQ restaurant, Lamarr Houston tore his ACL celebrating his first sack of the season in a Week 8 blowout loss and Brandon Marshall recently threatened physical violence to a Lions fan on a public forum.
Those things don’t happen under Bill Belichick.
In addition, former Trestman players, Blake Costanzo in particular, have thrown him under the bus publicly, stating outright he’s in over his head.
All the while, Arians is on his way to Coach of the Year honors. Emery chose Trestman over Arians because he knew he could still maintain control of the team with a limp-wristed coach like Trestman, something that could have never happened with the strong-willed Arians in charge.
Emery has always given the impression that he believes he’s the smartest man in the room. From Tyson Jackson to Shea McClellin to Kyle Long to Marc Trestman, Emery has consistently roamed outside the realm of popular opinion – and in some cases, common sense – to build his team. With Trestman, it appears Emery made a mistake that could set this team back for years.
And the problem, which will get into in Part II, is that Trestman will likely be the Bears’ head coach for at least one more season. It’s anyone’s guess what the state of the team will be after he’s eventually fired following the 2015 campaign.
Finally, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker must be considered in our evaluation of Emery. Tucker and Trestman do not get along, that’s a fact. The only reason Tucker is still in Chicago today – setting franchise record after franchise record in defensive ineptitude – is because Emery stepped in this past offseason and convinced Tucker to stay.
For some, the decision to keep Tucker is Emery’s most inexcusable mistake.
In 2012, Phillips said he wanted a GM who could evaluate talent. Emery hasn’t proven capable of doing that consistently. His next criteria was chemistry with Lovie Smith, whom Emery fired after a 10-6 season the following year. Finally, Phillips was looking for someone to lead the Bears to championships. The Bears haven’t made the playoffs in any of the three seasons Emery has been in charge.
By all accounts, Emery hasn’t met the criteria laid out by Phillips three years ago. Players, coaches and even Phillips himself deserve blame for this year’s disastrous Bears campaign. But if you’re looking to point the finger, look no further than the man in charge of the coaching staff and personnel.
If the Bears want to truly clean house and start from scratch this upcoming offseason, they should strongly consider replacing Emery, who is the true architect of this year’s debacle, just like the Chiefs did to Pioli after four years of diminishing returns.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.