The NFL fired 21 percent of its head coaches on the day after the end of the regular season, what's become appropriately known as "Black Monday", but only one public execution seemed to divide America's legion of NFL junkies: the Chicago Bears' decision to can Lovie Smith. It was called 'The Firing That Doesn't Make Any Sense', and it was deemed unwarranted by 68 percent of the country in one poll. That Smith was fired after a 10-win season, that he had turned the Bears into something of a sustained hard-luck contender, that he finished his nine-year tenure with 81 victories to 63 losses all pointed to signs that perhaps the Bears made a short-sighted move after again failing to qualify for the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six seasons.
Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone, as the saying goes, and the Bears certainly had a good coach in Smith. It's likely he'll be hired to run another team this offseason and it's likely he'll turn around whatever ailing franchise gives him a job. It's also possible the Bears hire someone worse. But any fears centered around the latter sentiment should have been squashed on Tuesday during general manger Phil Emery's hour-long press conference with local reporters. Forget the opinion of sports radio callers, newspaper columnists or even humble bloggers: Phil Emery's got this.
Emery looked reporters in the eyes on Tuesday and did something akin to seeing a UFO hover over Halas Hall: he told them the truth. The Tribune called it a 'virtuoso performance', Sun-Times columnist Mark Potash wrote Emery "gave us more information we didn't know in one 10-minute answer than Lovie Smith did in nine years. I was tempted to ask Emery 'What time is it?' just so I could learn how to build a watch."
It's true: wrapping your mind around some of Emery's answers was nearly impossible on first listen. This was the type of detailed thought that can only be appreciated after transcription, after you can take a moment to comprehend the dizzying analytical process that seems to find a home behind every one of Emery's words. It was the ultimate football nerd-out session and it should give Bears fans every reason to believe their GM will make his first head coaching hire count.
Phil Emery is the direct opposite of the national caricature of the fanbase that has persisted since the 1985 Super Bowl team. He is not going to make a decision on who to hire after downing seven beers and three brats, he is not going to make a choice that is emotional or irrational. Whoever the Bears hire to be their next head coach will be selected because of the exhaustive research done by Emery and his staff. He is not going to be too proud to turn away data; he welcomes it, seeks it out. He is not going to limit the scope of the search to one side of the ball. He is casting a wide net with an open mind and he'll only make a decision after careful reasoning.
Emery's answer to a single question about Chicago's offensive line play is too long to quote in full here because it's 2,234 words, but it's gives great insight into how the Bears' GM makes decisions. It proved he is not some shoot-from-the-hip renegade and it proved he's too smart for some in this city who believe Mike Ditka or Mike Singletary are viable coaching candidate in 2013. Again: Phil Emery's got this.
Emery isn't some Ivy League educated wunderkind with an algorithm in his pocket. He's been a football man for over 30 years, a strength and conditioning coach and then a scout before becoming the Bears' general manger after the 2011 season. But hearing Emery speak, it's impossible not to think of Andrew Friedman or Daryl Morey or general managers in other sports who have become acclaimed for their new-age take on personnel decisions. Yes, he even referenced "Moneyball". On evaluating his own roster, Emery said:
"Yes we're going to pay attention to the coach's grades. Yes we're going to pay attention to our internal scouting grades. But let's look at this another way. I went to STATS Inc., went through all the numbers. Went to Pro Football Focus, did all the numbers. I'm familiar with STATS Inc. We're one of their contracted teams. Spent quite a bit of time with their people, not only their programmers but went to their offices, watched how they grade tape, how they triple check all their facts. So I trust all their data, that's it's unbiased, that it doesn't have my hands in it, that it doesn't have our coach's or scout's hands in it, or anybody else in the league. They are simply reporting fact. Some ways to look at it is in a very Money Ball way, crunching the numbers.
Men of Emery's age and men that come from his background can be easily scared off by data; they're more likely to criticize "Moneyball" without reading it than to take something from its "market inefficiencies" ethos. But Emery isn't too conceited to write off anything. He values information. What more could any football fan ask from their GM?
Finding a better coach than Lovie Smith isn't a given and it won't be easy, but Emery gave Chicago every reason to trust him on Tuesday. If anyone is going to end this city's Super Bowl drought and find a way to do the unthinkable and turn around institutionalized offensive ineptitude, it's him.