Chicago Bears Stay Within Comfort Zone With Phil Emery

Remove the Heisman Trophy from the discussion and I don’t know if Phil Emery knows from Robert Goulet. I would assume he does; Emery has spent more than a decade traversing the country in search of N.F.L.-caliber players for three pro teams. But his eye for talent was hardly the focal point of a recent Halas Hall news conference unveiling Emery as the Bears’ new general manager.

His personality was. And Emery didn’t exactly leave ’em laughing.

In a similar session 11 days earlier, emoting a few bars of a soulfully mellow Al Green tune was like a miracle cure for President Obama’s stiff image. But for Emery, levity wasn’t the best approach — running the Bears is more serious than running the free world. Besides, “soulful” and “mellow” probably don’t come up much in personality sketches of the team’s new boss of all things football.

Not that it matters around the Bears’ grim Lake Forest headquarters, and it shouldn’t. But it’s worth noting that since Mount Ditka finally went dormant as the ever-combustible face of the franchise in 1992, the Bears have employed Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith as their coaches and Rod Graves, Mark Hatley and Jerry Angelo as their talent wranglers.

Notice anything? All sane, measured, moderate men, not an exposed hot button among them. Also among them in that 20-year span was one appearance, offset by a lot of mediocrity.

Oh, Angelo could get riled when his methods were questioned or his moves second-guessed, but what followed was most often a Casey Stengel-style malapropism: the deposed general manager defended the “mythology” of the Bears’ due diligence in the Sam Hurd matter. He meant to say “methodology”; regardless, tortured syntax is a poor substitute for a roiling stream of angry invective.

The waters grew calm with Ditka’s departure. With Emery, the Bears were hiring to a type: a calm, careful consensus-builder with whom they felt comfortable, not a fiery agitator who would keep things edgy.

Some observers see an increasingly powerful hand of Lovie Smith in all this; the coach had a say in hiring the man who will function as his boss, and even before the search began, the Bears made it clear that Smith was being retained.

The declaration was interpreted — and criticized — as a harmful restriction of Emery’s power, but it was purely business: Smith is owed roughly $13 million for the two years remaining on his contract. The Bears are the McCaskey family business, and eating Smith’s contract is an expense they would rather not absorb, especially when they remain quite fond of him.

What matters is whether Emery is up to a job that involves more than finding players — he is setting the course for the entire franchise. It’s only fair to withhold judgment until he has spent some time doing that job, and just as fair to say he is in a tough situation.

He was not a “buzz hire,” like Theo Epstein, whose World Series résumé will buy another round of patience among the longest-suffering Cub fans. He doesn’t have the three-title credibility John Paxson brought to the Bulls’ front office, or the royal bloodlines of the Blackhawks’ Stan Bowman, whose father has more championship rings than fingers.

What Emery has is a reputation as a meticulous, industrious grinder who worked his way into this opportunity by hitting more often than he missed in an unpredictable business. But with a long-sought franchise quarterback on hand and coming into his own at age 28, restless Bears fans don’t want to hear about starting over. Put the right guy in charge and it’s 1985 all over again.

Angelo was ousted a year after a fourth division title and a trip to the N.F.C. championship game, the second-best showing of his 11-year tenure. And if the Bears had stolen the two or three wins they needed to secure a playoff berth after Jay Cutler broke his thumb, chances are Angelo would still be around.

But Caleb Hanie’s shortcomings as an N.F.L. quarterback exposed an alarming talent disparity between the Bears and their divisional rivals in Green Bay and Detroit. They masked it for a time with defense, special teams and Cutler’s inspired play last year, but delete the franchise quarterback from the picture and the Bears became the Buffalo Bills West.

Add aging, too. The Packers and Lions were not just better, but younger. Something had to be done.

Sam Hurd’s hiring no doubt hastened Angelo’s departure. The Bears are George Halas’s legacy, and Virginia McCaskey is George Halas’s daughter. She might not be running the team, but she is fiercely protective of Bears history and their rightful place in Chicago. Hurd’s arrest and the scope of his alleged involvement in the drug trade was an embarrassment, compounded by the revelation that he was under investigation in Texas when the Bears signed him.

Hurd was as complicit in Angelo’s dismissal as Hanie. Memo to Phil Emery: character matters as much as 40-yard-dash times in roster decisions.

Then again, Emery didn’t have to be reminded of that. His résumé includes a stop at the Naval Academy, where it matters more.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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