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Wednesday, June 19, 2013

MoneyBears? Phil Emery, Marc Trestman, and the Evolution of the Bears Organization

The Chicago Bears entered the twentieth century in 1974. That was the year they hired Jim Finks, the General Manager and architect of the Minnesota Vikings 11 division titles and 4 Super Bowl appearances in 14 years. In his first draft Finks brought in Walter Payton. He was the one that drafted Doug Plank, Mike Hartenstine, Dan Hampton, and many others who formed the backbone of the successful Bears teams of the 80s. He oversaw the hiring of Buddy Ryan. Under his guidance the Bears made the playoffs in 1977 and 1979, breaking a postseason drought going back to 1963.

More important than all of this, however, was that Finks was the first person to run the Bears that wasn't part of the Halas/McCaskey family tree. The Bears had been surpassed in the division they used to rule by the Vikings, and it wasn't even close. Driven to desperation by a decade of futility, George Halas loosened the reins of control, and the result was the resurrection of the franchise.

Then, in 1982, Mike Ditka wrote George Halas a nice letter asking if he could be the head coach of the Bears. Without consulting his GM, Halas hired Ditka. Finks responded as any GM who had just been publicly neutered would: he walked away. Personnel control went to Jerry Vainisi, the team's long-time treasurer, who continued largely in Finks' stead for the next several years as the team built upon the foundations laid by Finks' overhaul and turned into a championship organization. Just as quickly as this turnaround began, however, it fell apart. Vanisi clashed with Mike McCaskey, and McCaskey, always quick to credit himself for the success of a team he had no hand in building, fired Vanisi and assumed total personnel control for himself. After a decade of improvement, the Bears were back to being a small-time mom and pop organization.

The results are well-known. The Super Bowl champion Bears fell apart, McCaskey's drafts failed to come close to replicating the quality of Finks and Vanisi's, then McCaskey made the ill-fated decision to hire Dave Wannstedt and grant him personnel control. Finally, after the team's second consecutive 4-12 season in 1998, McCaskey botched the hiring of Dave McGinness, turned the entire franchise into a laughing stock, and forced his own family to fire him.

After the firing of McCaskey, the Bears slowly took steps towards becoming a respectable franchise once again. They hired a search firm to find them a real general manager, and for some reason that search firm settled on Jerry Angelo. Angelo eventually hired Lovie Smith, and together the two of them built a team that competed regularly and garnered respect, but still came up short.

 Lovie and Jerry represented a comfortable middle-ground for the always-conservative McCaskeys. Angelo valued his scouting department, his gut feelings, and the evaluations of his coaches. Lovie Smith talked of getting off the bus running, promoted a closed-door policy with the media, and spoke with reverence for "Chicago Bears football." While both were steps forward from the lunacy of the era before them, they were still thoroughly old school types, determined to build the Bears on a tried and true playbook written long ago.

Enter Phil Emery and Marc Trestman. What the two of them are trying to accomplish right now has rarely been attempted before in the NFL, and certainly not in Chicago. In a press conference he gave back in January, Emery referenced the extreme statistical analysis he uses in order to evaluate a player:

Yes we’re going to pay attention to the coach’s grades. Yes we’re going to pay attention to our internal scouting grades. But let’s look at this another way. I went to STATS Inc., went through all the numbers. Went to Pro Football Focus, did all the numbers. I’m familiar with STATS Inc. We’re one of their contracted teams. Spent quite a bit of time with their people, not only their programmers but went to their offices, watched how they grade tape, how they triple check all their facts. So I trust all their data, that’s it’s unbiased, that it doesn’t have my hands in it, that it doesn’t have our coach’s or scout’s hands in it, or anybody else in the league. They are simply reporting fact. Some ways to look at it is in a very Money Ball way, crunching the numbers.

That evaluation process right there is a big step forward from Mike Tice telling us that J'Marcus Webb "graded out well" in the team's evaluation process while every other statistical metric and our own eyes told us otherwise. Just today, Emery took this process a step further by appointing Mitchell Tanney as Director of Analytics, a new stat-oriented position in the front office.

Another sign that Emery valued statistical analysis and an unbiased evaluation of player performance was the decision to move on from Brian Urlacher. Urlacher said it all when he stated that he believed he'd still be a Bear if Lovie Smith was the head coach. Emery was unswayed by Urlacher's history, his presence, his leadership, or the historical importance of MLBs in the Bears defense. He simply saw what any statistician or objective evaluator would see: a washed up football player.

This new mode of thinking also shows up in Emery's draft strategy. It's clear from his statements on the importance of versatility and the drafting of players like Shea McClellin and Kyle Long that Emery understands the changing nature of the NFL, and the need for fast, athletic "tweeners" who can fit multiple schemes without substitutions.

Kyle Long is also an example of the Bears new forward-thinking approach. Aaron Kromer, explaining why the Bears put Long at guard instead of tackle despite their assertions that he is their most talented lineman, cited statistics that demonstrated that most pressure on quarterbacks actually comes from the interior, and stated that the Bears philosophy would be to build their pass-protection from the inside out.

The last, and most important, change that Phil Emery has brought to the Bears is Marc Trestman. As mentioned nearly everywhere, Emery took a huge risk bringing in a guy from the CFL to coach the team. Trestman is regarded as a guru and an innovator, a guy who has witnessed the evolution of the West Coast Offense practically since it's birth, who has incorporated elements of the spread offense, the read option, and other recent trends, and who was brought in to give the Bears a counter to the machinations of the Packers and other offensive juggernauts. While it remains to be seen how Trestman will fare in the NFL, it's clear the Bears are going in a very new direction.

When Phil Emery was hired last year he was more or less an unknown. Some questioned how much power he would even wield, considering he was forced to keep Lovie Smith on as head coach. Since then, however, it's become painfully obvious Emery has complete control of this team. He fired Lovie, despite Lovie's stellar reputation and relationship with the McCaskeys. He moved on from Urlacher, despite McCaskey conspiracy theorists' fears that George McCaskey's comments about Brian meant they would pressure Emery to keep him. He made a bold and unorthodox coaching hire after a lengthy interview process, passing on several "safer" picks. Regardless of what anyone thought in the beginning, Phil Emery right now IS the Chicago Bears.

There's no guarantee, of course, that any of this will work. Numbers are imperfect, and both Emery and Trestman remain unproven quantities in the NFL. The fact of the matter is, however, that the future seems more hopeful for the organization now that it's finally free of people who appeared to be more concerned with the past.