The Jerry Angelo era in Chicago ended with a great sigh of relief from Bears fans. In 2011, a promising Bears team went 7-3 before dropping the next five out of six games, largely due to a string of devastating injuries. Chicago’s inability to field even adequate replacements exposed a lack of depth on the Bears roster.
The 2011-2012 season unmasked the strengths and weaknesses of Angelo’s management style. While many Bears fans are quick to write off Angelo’s tenure, his stewardship is partly responsible for the Bears’ stout defense: Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Henry Melton, Corey Wootton, and others have greatly contributed to Chicago’s recent success. On the other side of the ball, Matt Forte and Devin Hester have been vital members of the Bears offense and special teams. Angelo, despite claiming that “free agency starts at home”, made two crucial moves by landing Julius Peppers from Carolina and Jay Cutler from Denver. The former added a fearsome pass rush, the latter finally added stability behind center.
If there were several major successes, there were many critical failures. While Angelo was able to find some diamonds in the second round and later, his first round selections were almost exclusively failures. The only pick to find some modicum of success, tight end Greg Olson, found it on another team. Angelo’s frustrating failure at drafting big men created a perpetually porous offensive line, much to the chagrin of Bears quarterbacks.
Reading a series of blog posts written by Angelo may shed light on his thought process. A cursory glance indicates that Angelo placed less value on athleticism and more on professional discipline.
“Drafting talent is easy. Drafting talent with character and a good medical report is the ultimate challenge for any personnel evaluator. There are much better ways to evaluate a football player than on just speed or athleticism, ” Angelo writes, “In the end, you’re much better off drafting players who have talent with a strong history of practice and games started, than a player with elite talent, that can’t be counted on.”
This strategy is not altogether unsound. The best players in the NFL are those who meticulously work to improve their skills at a single position. The NFL is filled with stories of athletically gifted college athletes who thought their natural gifts would allow them to coast in the pros.
Angelo’s drafting troubles were also not entirely his fault: Many of his first round picks suffered from serious injuries throughout their careers with the Bears. Offensive linemen Marc Colombo, Chris Williams, and others were frequently injured while with Chicago. Their talent wasn’t entirely the issue: Colombo and Williams have gone on to have respectable careers at their next destination. Coaching, too, can be partially to blame: What does it say about Chicago’s coaching staff when your top draft picks go on to have better careers somewhere else?
Some of his failures, however, can be traced back to not following his own advice: See Cedric Benson, who had a history of off the field issues that only got worse when he became a pro.
Fundamentally, however, Angelo’s greatest problem was his inability to understand offensive talent. This can be attributed to his background as defensive line and linebackers coach. Only a few offensive players drafted by Angelo are currently on the Bears roster. Of those, none are linemen. With a defense-minded GM, and a defense-minded coach in Lovie Smith, it is no wonder that the Bears failed to build a solid core of offensive players through the draft.
This lack of understanding trickled down to the coaching staff. Angelo was great at finding excellent defensive minds, but repeatedly put inept or ill-fitting offensive coaches in place.
In contrast, Emery has appeared to value athleticism, versatility, and “upside” in his draft selection.
On Kyle Long, Chicago’s first round pick in 2013, Emery declared “He is the type of athlete and player that we have targeted; a fast, tough, dynamic athlete, a productive athlete,” and “Part of the reason we’re extremely excited about having him here is his versatility.”
In fact, for all five Bears draft picks in 2013, Emery cited their flexibility and athleticism as the primary reasons for drafting them. In 2012, Shea McClellin was drafted for his explosive speed and ability to play both defensive end opposite Julius Peppers and linebacker, a potential replacement for Brian Urlacher.
In his “State of the Bears” address Sept. 3, Emery laid down his vision for the future: A quarterback-centered team, with a highly- athletic defensive roster of playmakers. This transformation will be predicated on the development of homegrown talent. In his address, Emery pointed to Chicago’s division rivals as a source of inspiration. While only 55 percent of the current roster is original Bears, 81 percent of the Packers roster consists of original Packers.
Emery’s address is indicative of another facet of his management style: transparency. Emery has been detailed, often long-winded, about his plan for the Bears franchise, and recently held a question and answer session with Bears fans, a sharp departure from tight- lipped Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo.
Emery has only been the Bears GM for two drafts, so it is unfair to judge him at this point. We will not know for several years if his strategy has panned out, just as it was not fully known how thin the Bears roster had become under Angelo until 2011. It remains to be seen whether the Bears, known for its tough defenses, will be able to transition into a “quarterback-centered” team, or if Emery’s focus on athleticism is misplaced, as Angelo has warned. Regardless, there is a sense of optimism in Chicago not seen in several years. That, at least, is enough to give Emery the benefit of the doubt.