Improving the bottom line
Bears take risk with Brandon Marshall, but winning trumps character issues
Phil Emery's storied career in football has been well documented since he escaped public obscurity to take on the public job of general manager of the Chicago Bears.
I've read so many anecdotes about his salad days coaching at the Naval Academy, I assumed he was the Adm. Chester Nimitz of former strength coaches.
But throughout his scouting-based NFL career, Emery has never really had to make a big decision. Bringing in Brandon Marshall was his first. And it's a big one.
When the Marshall deal was announced, there was much applause. He had more than his share of legal troubles, some allegations are quite concerning, but he recently came out and admitted he suffers from borderline personality disorder.
But hours after we found out the Bears traded two third-round picks for Marshall, stories out of New York City told of a incident on Sunday at a nightclub. Marshall is accused of hitting a woman in the face during a melee of sorts. Not much else was known. Through his attorney, Marshall has denied all the charges. The Bears say they were aware of everything before consummating the deal with Miami, but have been a little squirrelly on the details.
Let's not pretend this kind of situation is unique in the NFL. But because of their family ownership and ties to the bygone days of the NFL's founding, the Bears like to occasionally hold themselves up as a humble mom-and-sons shop. Virginia McCaskey speaks to the team every year about what it means to be a Bear. It's quaint.
So the question had to be asked: Did Emery, the new man in town, ask her permission before signing a talented football player with a history of violent trouble with women, a history that could very well be part of the present and the future?
"We're always communicating with each other and all levels," Emery said of bringing this deal to matriarch Virginia McCaskey and her son George, the team president, during a conference call with reporters. "This is a team effort. We communicated with them and they were very supportive. But if you're looking for a final decision, that was my decision."
So it begins for Emery, the latest captain on the S.S. McCaskey. But this isn't about Emery. This is about the NFL, and sports in general.
Emery and coach Lovie Smith volleyed with reporters about the risks inherent in bringing Marshall aboard. Marshall will make a lot of money -- $9 million this year -- and if history proves a predictor, he will get himself in trouble. Check out this timeline.
But cutting through all the generalities and cliches issued by the two men, Smith encapsulated how every coach and every general manager feel about bringing in talented athletes with off-the-field issues, even serious ones.
"We're trying to win games," Smith said.
That's it. That's the bottom line. That was a sliver of honesty in an otherwise exercise in news conference strategy that included Emery using "courage" a number of times to describe Marshall and Smith noting sagely, "I think we all do some things we're not necessarily happy about."
Smith said he looks forward to working with Marshall, and there's no question he's probably the right coach for this point in Marshall's career. The Bears, at least the ones who aren't in his doghouse, love them some Lovie. He treats them like men. He's not a dictator. But this isn't Halas Halfway House. No one is trying to fix Marshall. That's for him and his doctors. He's a football player and he was brought in, at some risk to the team, to be a 6-foot-4, 230-pound offensive weapon.
The Bears want to win games, because that's the purpose of this barbaric sport. Smith wants to keep his job, Emery wants to succeed in his job, and Jay Cutler just wants a legitimate wide receiver.
There a lot of wonderful role models who play in the NFL and there are a lot of questionable athletes. A scout like Emery knows about balancing character with talent. He's just never had the final say before of whether a guy is worth the risk.
Naturally, he thinks Marshall is worth it. Just like his predecessor brought in Tank Johnson, who was, for a while, worth the trouble he brings in. I don't buy the Bears failed by signing Sam Hurd. I've yet to see or hear of any evidence he was a known drug dealer.
"I think there's a risk with every player you bring in," Emery said. "Every one. Some have had more issues than others in their past. Sometimes those don't work out, either as producers on the field or being a good teammate."
Emery and Smith tap-danced around Marshall's past troubles, and why shouldn't they? Both expressed a strong confidence that he will be an upstanding citizen, using the support staff in place at Halas Hall as a reason. But try as he might, Lovie's caring personality and Brian Urlacher's friendly patter can't influence grown men's decisions. They sure didn't stop Hurd from allegedly trying to be a drug kingpin. It didn't stop Johnson from getting into all kinds of trouble.
But, by and large, the Bears locker room is a good one. So maybe Marshall will be the right fit. Emery couldn't say whether Marshall would be suspended for this recent incident, only that the NFL was investigating and the Bears were too.
Football executives like Smith and Emery have something in common with Bears fans, and that's a healthy dose of cognitive dissonance when it comes to athletes.
If Marshall catches 90 passes and doesn't get into any serious trouble, he will be celebrated from Lake Forest to Blue Island. Because when it comes down to it, talent trumps character. That's just how it goes in America's sport.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.