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

Smith Survives Housecleaning by the Bears

Now Angelo is out. Coach Lovie Smith, however, will remain. Angelo was fired Tuesday after a team collapse marked by injuries to quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte and a drug scandal involving receiver Sam Hurd.

Angelo had been on the job 11 years, but the Bears called for change after an 8-8 season. A questionable draft record and an inability to fill big holes, particularly on offense, led to his ouster.

The Bears also confirmed that the offensive coordinator Mike Martz and the quarterbacks coach Shane Day would not be back.

REID IS RETURNING Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ chairman, said Coach Andy Reid would return for his 14th season in Philadelphia, though he left open the possibility for changes on the coaching staff.

The Eagles (8-8) were strong favorites to reach the Super Bowl after winning the N.F.C. East title last year and adding several accomplished players in the off-season.

But they started 1-4 and were 4-8 before closing with four wins against nonplayoff teams.

FISHER TALKS TO DOLPHINS Jeff Fisher interviewed for the Dolphins’ coaching job and is thought to be Miami’s top choice. But competition from other teams may be fierce. Tampa Bay and St. Louis fired their coaches Monday, increasing to five the number of such vacancies.

TURNER STAYS The San Diego Chargers’ president, Dean Spanos, has decided to keep Coach Norv Turner and General Manager A. J. Smith despite the 8-8 team’s missing the playoffs for the second straight season. If the Chargers had had one more win, they would have earned the A.F.C. West title.

VIKINGS PROMOTE SPIELMAN Minnesota elevated Rick Spielman to general manager, the first move in what will be a key off season toward reviving a team that matched the worst record in franchise history at 3-13. Spielman was promoted from vice president for player personnel. He will now have final authority over all roster decisions.

 

Dismay and Disbelief for Those Who Knew a Younger Sam Hurd

This week, as locals grappled with Hurd’s arrest on federal drug charges, the house appeared empty, the neighborhood quiet except for the man who hung a homemade sign on a pole. It read: I buy ugly houses — for cash!

Those who professed to know Hurd, 26, now wonder if they ever really did. The emotions his arrest elicited — shock, disbelief, anger — are not unusual. But the charges, the scope of what Hurd is accused of doing while playing in the N.F.L., are perhaps without precedent in American sports, which only amplified the reaction in his hometown.

People who knew him here have become uncomfortably familiar with the details in the criminal complaint: $88,000 and found inside a car; the plan to buy up to $700,000 worth of drugs each week; the receiver, their hero, accused of aspiring to become not just a drug dealer, but a kingpin, Tony Montana of “Scarface” and football’s Joe Montana all at once.

“People are dismayed,” said Al Porter, a retired teacher for whom Hurd was a student assistant, a man who later helped Hurd run his summer football camps here. “We don’t want to believe it. There’s got to be something we haven’t heard yet.”

Porter sighed as he sipped sweet tea at a coffee shop. “Look, people can live a double life,” he continued. “Behind closed doors, you never know. It’s just. …” His voice trailed off, into a whisper. “What they’re accusing him of, it’s not small time. It’s a drug ring.”

Hurd, through his lawyer, has maintained his innocence.

The Sam Hurd whom Porter knew worked with special-needs students at Brackenridge High School and attended Right Way Baptist Church. Even when he scratched his way onto the Dallas Cowboys’ roster as an undrafted free agent to continue an improbable career arc, Hurd returned often to the area known as the Eastside, where he held annual Easter egg hunts.

The neighborhood sits minutes from downtown, east of Interstate 37. For all its warts — abandoned houses with boarded-up windows, homeless people living by the railroad tracks, drugs, gangs, crime — the Hurd family long and proudly called the Eastside home.

Hurd’s mother, Gloria Corbin, came from a family of eight children who moved to Texas from Louisiana, according to her sister Sue Perkins. Corbin, Perkins said, had six children of her own.

The family produced a large number of football stars — Carl Hurd, an uncle of Sam’s, won a city championship in 1979; John Corbin, a brother, returned Brackenridge to the playoffs in 1997 — but Perkins emphasized that the family included judges, lawyers and educators, too.

“We came from humble beginnings, but we are a family filled with productive citizens,” Perkins said. “You could say we went from cotton sacks to Cadillacs.”

Gloria Corbin married Sam Hurd Jr. in 1992, according to public records, but kept her maiden name. She worked at nearby Santa Rosa Hospital and ran the high school booster club even after Sam, her oldest son, made the N.F.L.

When friends asked why she did not move, Corbin told them she did not want to. Her son, she added, had his own family to support. When he gave her money, she often regifted it to others.

“Gloria was a fixture in the community,” said Daniel Thatcher, a family friend. “You’d still see her at games, even a year ago. People would say: ‘That’s Sam Hurd’s mom? Back there? Serving nachos?’ But that’s Gloria.”

The family was not immune to the dangers that surrounded them. One of Hurd’s uncles, Jimmy Corbin, was arrested several times, including on felony charges for robbery and cocaine possession, according to public records.

Sheelagh McNeill, Alain Delaqueriere and Lisa Schwartz contributed research.