Commentary

Bears need to see the Licht

If they are serious about change at Halas Hall, Patriots exec will be next GM

Updated: January 27, 2012, 1:43 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Jason Licht was in The Room on Thursday -- the Chicago Bears' interview room in Lake Forest, that is.

Of course, he's also been in the Patriots' draft room too, despite what you've heard. Sources hint he was allowed to put his drink on the Draft Table without a coaster.

That's some serious swag. (Also, a joke.)

As most football fans know by now, New England does things the Bill Belichick Way, which has resulted in five Super Bowl appearances, one "Spygate," a handful of books and a two-part NFL Network documentary.

[+] EnlargeTed Phillips
AP Photo/Daily Herald/George LeClaireHow serious are Ted Phillips and George McCaskey about real change at Halas Hall?

(You know: For a coach who is supposedly so secretive, Belichick is one Us Weekly cover away from being an unofficial Kardashian. When's the last time Lovie Smith has let a reporter into his inner sanctum?)

Part of Belichick's well-known way is a minimalist room on draft day, which is how the whole "Licht isn't in the room" talking point got around. It's a silly point, considering Licht got a second interview with the Bears, but it's one that has become a consistent talking point in Chicago. I know they're laughing about it in Foxborough.

Phil Emery, Licht's competition for the job, who is scheduled to interview again Friday, has worked for two Belichick guys in Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli. So he knows the drill. To some, he's the favorite right now.

If the Bears hire Licht, you know the McCaskeys and president and CEO Ted Phillips are serious about change. If they hire Emery, you know they want as little change as possible in a transition.

My biggest questions are: Do the Bears want someone with a new vision on how to change the organization while reveling in its history? Or do they want someone who will slide in, tidy up a few loose ends and keep the organization on track?

I hope it's the former.

Licht, who will be 41 next month, has been striving to be a general manager since he got into the league as a scout after graduating from Nebraska Wesleyan. I've heard that his aggressive attitude has rubbed some co-workers and league peers the wrong way. That's not uncommon from Belichick guys.

But whatever his faults, Licht is, from everything that I've read and heard, the perfect choice to shake things up at Halas Hall and lead the proud Bears organization into the future. He wants the job quite badly, and forward-thinking fans should want him too.

Which is, of course, why he probably won't get the job. Yes, I'm a Bears pessimist, which I guess makes me a real Chicagoan. (Full disclosure: I grew up a Steelers fans, so I'm used to trusting a family-owned football team.)

Emery, a 53-year-old former Bears scout and by all regards a well-respected football man, represents the continuation of the status quo at Halas Hall. And while there's something to be said for what Jerry Angelo built, he was fired for a reason.

This is a historic moment for the flagship franchise, and I hope, for the sake of the organization, the Bears take the plunge and hire Licht, who will bring fresh eyes and lessons learned in the years he spent with the most successful football franchise of the past decade.

He will probably also fire a lot of people, which is an unfriendly part of regime change. But why not start the transition now? Take the draft, for example, since it's such a hot topic.

It's understood there was some confusion in the Bears' draft room last year, resulting in an ugly war of words with the Baltimore Ravens over an agreement about trading draft picks.

It's different in New England. Under Belichick, and, well, most teams, the scouts and football executives prepare the room together in the months leading up to the draft, using a streamlined evaluation process that has landed the team its share of draft gems. When the day comes, there are only a handful of people in the room because there isn't a need for so many voices anymore.

Hard work and good scouting aren't trademarked by the Patriots, but as an organization, they certainly deserve emulating.

Michael Holley, the one-time Chicago Tribune columnist, has written two books on Belichick's football philosophies. The first, "Patriot Reign," was a yearlong fly-on-the-wall study of Belichick's team and included this throwaway line from observing the team's draft room, on page 169, that worried Bears fans might find interesting:

"Jason Licht was nearby, prepared to answer any questions about players or draft trends."

So I guess he was in The Room. Crisis of faith averted. Not that it means anything, but I fully understand the Bears fan's tender psyche. This isn't the Patriots.

That aforementioned snippet was from Licht's first tour of duty with the Patriots, when he rose to the title of assistant director of player personnel. Since returning to the Patriots in 2009, after holding jobs in Philadelphia and Arizona, he's held the title of director of pro personnel, and if he's not in The Room on draft day now, he's a big factor in setting it up.

There is relevance to dissecting Licht's familiarity with the draft because, as we all know, the Bears need to improve their kill ratio in the annual meat market. Chicago can't hire someone who is worse at the draft than the erstwhile general manager.

But from what I've heard, Licht not only knows how to scout college talent -- they have a distinct system in New England that seems to work -- but he's adept at the complicated world of managing the collective bargaining agreement and all the other minutiae that go into this job. He also has scouts and young executives ready to follow him to Chicago, which is looked at as a sleeping giant to implement fresh ideas.

Sound like any other team in Chicago you know?

Now, some might point to all the high-strung coaching failures that have come from the Belichick tree, but I've been told that's not the case with Licht. I'm more interested in the rock-ribbed organizational tactics that have built multiple Super Bowl contenders in New England.

You can't say Angelo and his scouts didn't have their share of success in the draft and on the open market, but, again, he was fired for a reason. The McCaskeys and their appointed organizational boss, Phillips, want more consistency. I'm sure Lovie does too.

This is nothing against Emery's candidacy. He was an area scout for the team from 1998-2004 -- the team went a solid 44-68 during those calendar years -- and while he's not beholden to Smith (who was hired in 2004), he did work under Tim Ruskell in Atlanta. Ruskell is the Bears' personnel director, a leftover from the Angelo regime. He's well-liked and regarded as an uncommonly hard worker. I hear him described as a grinder so much, I assume he's either a 5-foot-8 second baseman or a sandwich.

The Bears couldn't hire Ruskell to replace the man who brought him to Halas, though they gave him a courtesy interview. It would be like the Cubs hiring Dave Littlefield to take over for Jim Hendry. But if Emery is hired, conspiracy theorists might assume Ruskell would have major sway.

Is that change? Then again, we're dealing with the Bears here.

Like the rest of the five initial candidates for the job, Licht's first interview was with the pigskin gurus of Halas Hall: Phillips, salary cap specialist Cliff Stein and PR wiz Scott Hagel. Supposedly the interview included a mock introductory press conference. I wonder if anyone told a fictional reporter to "whistle Dixie."

After that meeting, Licht talked with Smith. That's nice, since Smith is someone who is actually involved in the scouting and coaching aspect of the game.

Of course, a general manager getting interviewed by a coach with two years left on his contract seems backward to outsiders. Sometimes I think you need a magic wardrobe to get to Halas Hall.

George McCaskey, the head McCaskey in Charge, met with candidates, too. He's not Robert Kraft, of course, but at least he's trying.

There is a very good chance the Bears already know who the next general manager is going to be, and it's Emery, and I might just be whistling Dixie.

All I know is I'd like to see change come to Halas Hall. I'm just not sure how much change the current residents can handle.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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