Monday, April 29, 2013 Updated: April 30, 11:00 AM ET
Risks vs. rewards
By Melissa Isaacson ESPNChicago.com
Phil Emery was impressed by the way Kyle Long has turned his life around after personal issues.
It's one of the biggest mistakes a general manager or coach can make. The grand proclamations. You know the ones.
Our No. 1 goal is to beat Green Bay.
We get off the bus running the football.
We only want good-character people.
I like that Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman have not yet uttered, and are not likely to do so in the future, any of the above three.
Regarding the last vow, this is not to suggest that the desire to have a team made up of decent human beings is a bad thing. Or that criminals should hereby be welcomed to the Chicago Bears, all standards and screening be damned.
Or that Emery and Trestman are actively looking for the morally corrupt to fill up their roster.
But we've heard the promises and pronouncements. And we've seen the Cedric Bensons, Tank Johnsons, Sam Hurds and others in Bears uniforms.
It just ends up making jerks of all of us.
"We work extremely hard at knowing the character of the players," Emery said before last week's NFL draft. "And then, whatever we find out about their background, their personal behavior and any [incidents] they've been involved in off the field, [we decide] whether we find those acceptable for us and whether the fit's right for us."
Acceptable for them. Right fit for them. Their money, their risk. If a player is good, the football decision sound enough, then it might be worth taking a risk. Sounds simple enough. No self-righteousness, no bluster. And if you're right in the end, all the better.
Emery has not waited long to take what the outside world would view as risks in the character department. When he traded for Brandon Marshall a month and a half into his new job, it was just days after Marshall was accused of being involved in an altercation with a woman at a nightclub. The Pro Bowl receiver never faced criminal charges for that incident but had been involved in other violent domestic abuse episodes and described his borderline personality disorder in his introductory news conference with the Bears.
Last month, the Bears signed veteran linebacker D.J. Williams, who has had two DUI arrests and was suspended for nine games last season after violating the NFL's mandatory drug test.
Then, this past week, Emery and the Bears made Kyle Long, a guy who was arrested on a DUI charge four years ago, their first draft pick; selected Cornelius Washington, a defensive end who had a DUI two years ago, in the sixth round; and in the seventh round took Marquess Wilson, a wide receiver who was suspended from the Washington State football team for violating team rules, quit the team after nine games, accused the head coach of abuse, then took it back.
Some Bears fans might not even be aware of the stories involving Williams, Washington or Wilson. Why? Because even if they are high-risk citizens, they are low-risk football acquisitions.
Williams, a 10-year pro who can play any of the three linebacker spots and has had more than 100 tackles in three of four seasons from '07-'10, was signed to a one-year contract worth less than $1 million. The other two are low-round draft picks with significant enough upside to justify the picks.
Brandon Marshall so far has made a positive impact on the Bears.
And Marshall? So far, so good.
In pro sports, it is a far bigger sin to miss on talent or underestimate a previous injury than it is to take a flier on a character guy.
Emery will get beaten up a heck of a lot more if, say, Shea McClellin, his first draft pick as Bears GM last year, doesn't pan out at defensive end because he's simply not as good as Emery thought, than if Long somehow gets himself into trouble but comes back strong.
But if Long turns out to be a bust because Emery was wrong in thinking his inexperience would not be a factor?
And it should be pointed out that Emery did not seem to think Long was a character risk.
"I am not concerned," Emery said last week. "All of us have fallen in life at one point or another, and the important thing is do we get up and do we move forward? Do we try to get ourselves better and not only get ourselves better but get those around us better? That is what this young man has done."
As for Wilson, Emery also made the effort to say the Bears did their -- ugh -- "due diligence."
"And we felt at that point in the draft," Emery said, "that a person of this kind of talent deserves a second chance."
Precisely. At that point in the draft.
Speaking of due diligence, former Bears GM Jerry Angelo recently wrote an article for the website "The Sideline View," explaining the distinction between "football character" and "citizenship."
Football character, Angelo wrote, "entails a player's work ethic, competitive nature, threshold for pain, football IQ, overall passion for the game and level of play within these characteristics. Rarely does a player have a long career in the National Football League without football character since he can no longer mask those flaws with his talent as he once did in college.
"Football character has everything to do with what a player is doing when he's at work at the facility while his citizenship is defined by who he is once he leaves work. While both 'citizenship' and 'football character' are important to his future success as a football player, I would say that the latter carries more importance."
Of course it helps make the decision easier when the those lacking in "citizenship" (why does this sound more like a category on a junior high report card than Tank Johnson violating his probation for gun charges?) are also bad or even mediocre at football.
Emery, who can't count on a spot on the GM merry-go-round if his first try at it fails badly enough, is wise to avoid the grand proclamations and simply continue doing what he's doing, which is to make the best football decisions he can.
And remember that often, the only thing that comes of taking the high moral ground is a nosebleed.