The Legend of Phil Emery and the Potential of the Chicago Bears’ Defense

When the Bears announced their first press conference of the offseason, Bears fans knew excitement, change, and hope would be around the corner. Whenever general manager Phil Emery talks, there is always something of substance, and usually quite a bit of it. He is long-winded, but every word he speaks is full of knowledge and wonder. The team’s most recent press conference was no exception. The big announcements were the contract extensions of Jay Cutler, Tim Jennings, and Matt Slauson, which are extremely important in and of themselves, but it was what was said in his explanations and inquiries that really stood out.

Bears fans do not realize how lucky they are to have Phil Emery. What he has done in Chicago in just two short years has been spectacular. He rebuilt the Bears offense from the coach on down. The addition of Marc Trestman may go down as the best move of Emery’s career, but that’s not to underestimate the player moves he has made.

Think about what he has been able to do with the Bears’ offense. He has brought in two 1,000-yard receivers that were both deserving of the Pro Bowl. He completely rebuilt the offensive line, which allowed the fewest sacks by a Bears’ line since 2008. He gave Cutler a dynamic tight end, who, this season, had the most yards by a Bears tight end since Mike Ditka in 1964.

On the defensive side of the ball too he has built depth, slowly but surely. After a season of historic defensive dominance in 2012, the loss of Lovie Smith was followed by the loss of two of linebackers, Nick Roach and future Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher. Other than those two, the Bears’ starting defense remained relatively unchanged. While an injury-filled season helped reveal holes at a number of positions, the depth Emery had built, relying on youth at many positions, prevented their defense from being even worse than it was.

It is through the defense that we may once again see the brilliance of Emery in how he handles the situation. We saw it at the press conference; as soon as he began talking about the defense, he (and Trestman for that matter) immediately took blame for the issues. He said he did not do enough to provide the team with enough depth, particularly with the failed signing of Sedrick Ellis, who retired soon after signing his contract. Emery took full responsibility, and promised improvement in the future. He has proven that he is true to his word.

Last offseason, after the Bears’ offensive line gave up 44 sacks and looked pitiful, Emery took the stand at his press conference, and admitted that the offensive line was not good enough and took the blame. He said it was on him to put the right guys up front, and like he did this year, he indicated that there would be much improvement at the position. So what does he do? He signed a quality left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, to a long-term contract quickly once free agency started, then he waited for the market the cool down, before signing veteran Matt Slauson to a steal of a contract, for only one year at near the veteran minimum. Then he used a first round pick on a starting right guard, and then a fifth round pick on a starting right tackle. Now, the Bears’ offensive line is young and improving as the unit grows together.

Slauson is also a great example of some of Emery’s excellence. First and foremost, he is very good at finding cheap veteran players who become big contributors to the team. In addition to Slauson, he signed veteran linebacker James Anderson for $1.25 million, and he started all 16 games, finishing with 85 tackles and a career high four sacks. He brought in another starting linebacker, D.J. Williams, on a $900,000 contract, and he would have continued starting if not for a chest injury early in the season.

What furthers Emery’s great ability to do this, is how he has rewarded these players. The aforementioned Slauson received a comfortable four-year extension, although the monetary value has not been disclosed as of yet. Slauson was not alone though, he also gave fullback Tony Fiammetta a two-year contract extension, after signing him to a one-year $630,000 deal this past year. It is also expected that either Anderson or Williams may receive an extension as well.

Not only does this guarantee that quality players will be returning to the Bears, but it shows other veterans that signing with the Bears on cheap contracts will not only help them get closer to a championship, but also that if they perform well, the Bears will reward them financially. This leads other players to want to sign with the Bears and the cycle continues. It creates a team culture that makes players want to come and want to stay.

What also helps make the signings so effective is the relationship between Emery and Trestman. They meet and discuss every personnel decision, as most coaches and general managers do, and they seem to think and act as one individual. They have an excellent relationship as two of the smartest football minds in the league, and there is never a disconnect on any decision. It provides a level of stability that many fans take for granted.

Take a look around the league. Six teams fired their head coaches, and a handful more are still up in the air. A number of other teams also have what are widely considered as dysfunctional front offices. Fans of teams like the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would love to have a general manager like Emery, who has found his perfect match in a head coach like Trestman.

Furthering Emery’s greatness in the eyes of the fans is his transparency. Like the accountability he takes for the team’s successes and failures, the way Emery explains the thought-process behind every decision is something rare. Not only does he give fans a peek behind the “curtain” of the front office, but he explains his thoughts meticulously and thoroughly. For example, last offseason he went as far as to explain his decision for not drafting an offensive lineman in the previous year’s draft, citing the players available at the time of their picks, and how the players they passed on performed during their rookie year.

Emery is not the kind of guy to sit there and try to defend his poor choices, however rare they may be. He is the first guy to admit his mistakes, while working to fix any problems it may have created. Other general managers, *cough* Jerry Jones *cough*, have repeatedly tried to legitimize poor choices both in personnel and coaching hires, and they do not learn from their mistakes, eventually getting them fired. That is one of the best traits of Emery. He is far from a perfect general manager, but he can recognize his own shortcomings and do something about them.

Yet, as transparent as Emery has been, he never says too much. He does not reveal his thought-process until long after the decision has been made. He is also vague about certain issues. Take the defense for example. He stated his displeasure in the defensive performance and took the blame where it was deserved, but as for the future of the unit, he did not show his hand. He is an extremely smart man, and he is not going to say anything detrimental, just for the sake of transparency.

It is the unknowns and open doors that Emery has left open about the defense that should make Bears’ fans very excited. At the press conference, he and Trestman left the door open for just about anything. With the number of defensive free agents, the possibilities are endless. Trestman said, “Everything is on the table in terms of going through this process, and I don’t want to leave anything hanging out there. We want to be sure we’re making mindful decisions.”

While defensive coordinator Mel Tucker has not been given the official vote of confidence, he has experience in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defensive schemes, and that experience could be valuable for the Bears. Given that, and the versatility of many of their players, the Bears could very well make a defensive scheme change this offseason.

It is not a simple task to convert schemes, and it may take more than just one offseason to complete the switch, but the state of the team is one that would ease the pains of the transition. They have six defensive starters who contracts are expiring, consisting of two linemen, two linebackers, and two defensive backs, along with a number of backups at various positions. Plus, a fair share of their players currently under contract have either the ability to potentially play in a 3-4 scheme or have done so previously in their career.

It starts with the front seven. Highly criticized, first-round pick Shea McClellin played the outside linebacker position in a 3-4 defense in college, and he has not worked out well at 4-3 defensive end. Similarly, rookie defensive end Cornelius Washington played some 3-4 outside linebacker in college. Linebackers Khaseem Greene and Lance Briggs are built like 3-4 inside linebackers Patrick Willis and Lawrence Timmons, so they would fit nicely in the system.

What really would be the ideal change for the Bears’ defense, is to a “hybrid” defensive system, like those run by the Denver Broncos, New England Patriots, and San Fransisco 49ers. They run plays with both 3-4 and 4-3 concepts, creating unpredictable matchups for opposing offenses. Implementing it in Chicago would allow the Bears to utilize the versatility of many of their players without abandoning either system, putting players in the best position to succeed while confusing opponents.

Linebacker Jon Bostic played in a similar system in college, as did free agent D.J. Williams as a former Bronco. Another free agent, Jeremiah Ratliff, spent much of his career as a 3-4 nose tackle before coming to Chicago to play in the 4-3, and he could be a key cornerstone of the hybrid defense because of it. Also, Corey Wootton, a free agent, and Julius Peppers have the versatility to play multiple positions in the 4-3 and the defensive end position in the 3-4. When rookie David Bass was with the Oakland Raiders in the preseason, they utilized him as a hybrid defensive end and outside linebacker.

In the secondary too, players would not be asked to do things they have not done before. Whether a defensive back is playing the 4-3, 3-4, or a hybrid, they are asked to do fairly similar things. They may lineup in different spots and blitz from different angles, but overall, it is similar coverages, just done a little differently. In addition, the Bears are expected to look for two new starters at safety, so they could opt to find players more suited for the hybrid defense.

It is the free agency opportunities that make the hybrid defense switch such an exciting opportunity. The Bears have a number of holes on the defense, and a decent amount of cap space to fill them. As is the nature of the hybrid system, they must have the personnel to run both systems, so looking at their current roster, they would have the following holes. Regardless of system, the team needs another cornerback and two safeties. In the 4-3, they need one or more defensive ends and defensive tackles, and a linebacker. In the 3-4, they need defensive ends and outside linebackers, and a true nose tackle. Fortunately, the hybrid system allows for players to fill multiple rolls. They can have 4-3 defensive ends stand up to be 3-4 outside linebackers, like McClellin, and some 4-3 defensive ends can move out to be 3-4 defensive ends, like Wootton.

Many of those holes can be filled with their own free agents, including the aforementioned Williams, Ratliff, and Wootton.  If those three players were re-signed, all they would need is a 4-3, three-technique defensive tackle, which could be filled by one of their own free agents – either Henry Melton or Nate Collins, a 3-4 outside linebacker or two and probably a 3-4 defensive end. Lucky for them, there is a nice crop of players at both positions in free agency and the draft.

The Bears could go out and sign a guy like Shaun Phillips of the Broncos, who excels at both defensive end and linebacker in their hybrid system. Another option would be to take a player from a divisional rival like B.J. Raji or Ryan Pickett, both of who have played defensive tackle in the 4-3 and defensive end and nose tackle in the 3-4. In the draft, players like linebacker Vic Beasley from Clemson or defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix from Notre Dame would be great fits in a hybrid defense, and they could be targeted by the Bears in the first round.

Think about the possibilities for this Bears’ defense. They could lineup in the 4-3 with a unit of Peppers (who may be cut for salary relief) and Wootton at defensive end, with Ratliff and a free agent at defensive tackle, Briggs, Bostic and Williams at linebacker, and Jennings and three free agents in the secondary. Then on third down or whenever, they come out in a 3-4 lineup with, say, Wootton, Ratliff and a free agent on the defensive line, with Briggs, Williams, McClellin, and a free agent at linebacker.

For a defense that was ranked last against the run, tied for fewest sacks, and gave up the third-most points, the switch to a hybrid could be just what the doctor ordered. Gone are the days of Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2 defense. Now it is Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker (for now) who are running the defense, and the NFL is moving towards more modern, hybrid systems.

If Mel Tucker is retained as defensive coordinator, running a hybrid system may be a great career move. He had previously run the 4-3 defense in Cleveland, before going to Jacksonville to run the 3-4 and here to Chicago to run the 4-3. Combining the two would open up his playbook and allow him to get creative. Last season, he was greatly restricted by a slew of injuries, especially to the defensive line, the most important part of the 4-3, so opening things up with a hybrid would be a complete 180 for him.

It would finally be Tucker’s first opportunity with a healthy, talented squad to go with nearly unlimited creative control. We saw flashes of it this season, when he had relatively healthy squads, as he would rotate defensive linemen inside and outside and use McClellin from a stand-up rush position occasionally. It would be adjustments such as those that would be magnified in the hybrid. A guy like Wootton could play the J.J. Watt type roll and really become a great playmaker. It is up to Phil Emery to get the right players in there.

Emery has the opportunity to build a dominating defense that fits perfectly in the hybrid. A number of pieces are already in place, and it would only take a few more players here and there to put together a quality unit. He is still trying to make it his team, as the finger prints of former general manager Jerry Angelo are still all over the roster. He has stated his desire to grow the defense through the draft. The draft has quite a few quality 3-4 and 4-3 players that would fit well in the hybrid the Bears could potentially run.

Emery has struggled drafting defensive players at times throughout his career, and he has admitted so. While fans may argue that McClellin should be included among the failures, Emery is not ready to give up on him yet. One player he did take the blame for was former third-round pick Brandon Hardin, saying, “That’s on me. I selected Brandon Hardin. I put that young man in a bad position to succeed, moved him from a corner to a safety, and he wasn’t able to make that transformation, and that’s on me.”

Even in his previous jobs, as Director of Scouting for the Atlanta Falcons and Kansas City Chiefs, his teams have been up and down when drafting defense. They have been pretty successful everywhere except for defensive line, where they got mediocre production from multiple high draft picks. In an offseason where the Bears’ need defensive line help, Emery needs to get a solid player or two to play in the trenches on the defense.

He needs to show that he can build the defense like he has with their offense. When he came to Chicago, he recognized the Bears’ biggest offensive weaknesses: the offensive line, the wide receivers, and the tight end. And what did he do? He traded for Marshall, drafted Jeffery, rebuilt the offensive line through both free agency and the draft, and signed Martellus Bennett to shore up the tight end position, all in only two offseasons. Emery needs to attack the defensive issues with that same urgency.

The Bears’ offense became the second-highest scoring offense in the league in just their first season under Marc Trestman. They were a top-five passing team through two different quarterbacks with a formidable rushing attack to boot. They have bonded as a group and all appear to be best of friends. So much so, that this offseason that at least six of their key players will be working out and training together in Miami, all headed up by Brandon Marshall. Emery is keeping relatively the same group together while potentially adding more weapons. If he can build something similar on defense, the Bears will be a well-rounded, contender for years to come.

It is all of this that shows Emery’s value to the Bears. He has already done so much to build an excellent team, and with a defensive overhaul this offseason, the team will be fully his and ready to succeed. He is an excellent drafter and finds great free agent additions. There is almost never controversy in Chicago under his reign, and most Bears fans do not realize how lucky they are to have him. He is has one of the smartest football minds around, yet he treats fans and media alike with his transparency.

Appreciate Phil Emery, Bears fans and NFL fans alike. He is one of the best general managers in the league, and when he decides to call it a career, he could go down as one of the all-time greats. He has done some amazing things, and he is only getting started. Fixing the Bears’ defense could become just the next great undertaking in his career. Enjoy the ride.