The next step
For the Bears to rise in the NFL, first-time GM Phil Emery must hit the ground running
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Phil Emery certainly looks the part.
Of a scout, I mean. A football lifer. A well-tanned man's man who also knows the isolation of a video room.
"Football is all in the tape," said Emery, the new general manager of the Chicago Bears, at his introductory press conference at Halas Hall on Monday.
Like I said, he looks like a scout and he sounds like one, too.
I'd grade his tan a solid 6.7, for instance. He hangs his glasses around his neck, like a wise old soul, all the better for easy access at a pro day. I bet his thumb is stuck in the stopwatch position. He spoke mostly in football generalities, teamwork, being a teammate, all the clichés one could expect.
It seems to me, a professional scout of character, that Emery is an old-school, salt-of-the-earth football guy. He's certainly not a personality in the vein of Jerry Angelo, whose famous last words in Chicago were telling a reporter to "whistle dixie." But I have a feeling that Emery knows what he's talking about when he's in a room full of like-minded men. He's a scout, after all, a guy who works in anonymity, taking his victories mostly in silence.
And yes, he's a scout in the literal sense, an evaluator of the seen and the unseen. In an era of open-minded, outside-the-box talent evaluation, Emery brazenly said his tiebreaker on prospects will be the measurables.
"If one's a little faster, and they're both playmakers, we might lean toward one with better measurables," he said, in one of the rare peeks inside his philosophy during a long stretch at the podium.
"Because this is a big man's game," he said. "There are smaller players who have had success, but, overall, history will show you this is a big man's game."
Two things here: Lovie Smith's defense values speed over size, especially up front, and Emery was the southeast scout when the Bears drafted Rex Grossman and his tiny hands. So yeah.
Forget reporters, many of whom would scoff at George Halas if he walked through the door. The 53-year-old Emery seems to have charmed the non-football guys who make up the top two at Halas Hall. Team chairman George McCaskey and president/CEO Ted Phillips were wowed by his masculinity and his presence and the depth of his plan.
"Clearly, he was the best choice for the Bears," Phillips said, who later added, "Nobody had a negative thing to say about Phil Emery."
Well, I asked Phillips, how often does someone say something negative about a peer in the buddy-buddy world of the NFL? After all, you usually interview a guy's friends and coworkers, not the guy he stepped on or the cynic from another team.
"You tell me," Phillips said. "You guys probably checked out as many sources. Tell me what the negatives are. I haven't found them yet."
Emery's sterling reputation as a man and as a scout is how he surpassed the other candidates, including the other finalist, Jason Licht, a disciple of the Belichick-Pioli family tree. Personality goes a long way, and Emery seems like a guy who works well with others and, most importantly, works hard by himself. He's called a grinder more often than David Eckstein.
The unknown is still how he'll run a team and handle the myriad responsibilities that come with it. He who wears the crown and all that.
After all, he's scouted players, he's helped plot a draft plan, but he's never held a top job. Scouting a first-time GM is a lot like scouting a college player. Who knows how they'll do at the next level?
I thought Emery was perfectly cast for a role as a football guy, but to the meatball Bears fans listening on the radio and watching on TV, I'm afraid Emery's first impression was lacking. No talk about beating Green Bay, no firm enunciation of "I'm in charge around here," no Ditkaese, no lustrous mustache.
Instead, what we got was a lot of basic jargon with some background about his time at the Naval Academy thrown in the mix. Personally, I don't care if he was the greatest strength coach in college football history, but that's just me.
Even when I asked him what has changed at Halas Hall since his previous tenure here, which was filled mostly with losing football, he threw in a Navy anecdote. But his answer was pretty revealing, if you want to know what he thinks of his holdover head coach.
"One thing is we've had consistency with the coaching staff," he said. "I think that's extremely important. I've great respect for what Lovie has done. The consistency of teaching, of being systematic, is very important.
"At Navy, when we had a large turnover of coaches in terms of assistants, they didn't play fast. We all thought we had slow players. When we had consistency of coaches, our players played fast and we won games. When I watch Lovie Smith's defense, those players play fast because they know the scheme. Consistency is important."
When I later followed up on that, wondering how he would judge Smith, who has a contract that runs out in 2013, he said, well, not much of anything.
"The same standard is applied to everyone in the building in working toward championships," he said. " We're all going to be evaluated. I'm evaluated under that, and Coach Smith understands he's evaluated, too."
George McCaskey said one of the main reasons he met with Emery during the initial interview process was to make sure Emery was fine with working with Smith, for at least this year. What was Emery going to say?
I tend to think Smith's leash will be longer than most would think. Then again, Tim Ruskell, the guy who hired Emery in Atlanta, was the first to go. Most thought he was a lock to stay under his old protégé, perhaps including Ruskell himself.
Emery also said something that seems to support the theory that Smith's influence remains unusually strong. Emery said when it comes to the draft, the final group meeting will be him and Smith working together to plot the draft.
As for comparisons to Angelo, Emery tried to shoot those down while still praising the ex-GM.
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"I'm a very different person than Jerry," he said. "I worked with Jerry and I respect him. We both come from different backgrounds. My influences are different. How our drafts are structured, how we grade, our grade scale, all of that is different."
So that's good news, right?
Emery said he will continue to scout during the season, as most general managers do. I have no doubt he's an astute judge of talent, but I wonder if he really knows what he's getting himself into.
After all, he said he's working for "the best family, the best ownership group in the league," which caused ESPN 1000's John Jurkovic to tweet: This guy thinks he's in Pittsburgh. He's talking about the Rooney's (sic). Best family in football, Please."
Emery, of course, was being nice. To him, the McCaskeys are the best family in football, because they hired him.
George McCaskey was asked if he was impressed with Emery's knowledge of the "Patriots Way," which was passed down to him when he worked with Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff.
"Well, I liked how he talked about the 'Bears system,'" McCaskey said. "The idea is that we'll become the model for other teams to follow."
Now that's a tall order. But on days like Monday, anything is possible.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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