Phil Emery’s second season as Chicago Bears’ General Manager has been defined by a spate of injuries to his team. Emery has placed two defensive tackles, starter Henry Melton and his replacement Nate Collins, starting middle linebacker D.J. Williams and nickel back Kelvin Hayden on season-ending Injured Reserve.
Quarterback Jay Cutler and starting linebacker Lance Briggs were expected to miss at least four weeks following the Bears’ loss to Washington on October 20. Starting nose tackle Stephen Paea missed two games earlier this season with a foot injury, and starting cornerback Charles Tillman has missed one game with a knee ailment and is questionable for Monday’s game against the Green Bay Packers.
However, the Packers’ injury woes make the Bears’ look mild in comparison.
Eleven Packers have been placed on Injured Reserve or the Physically-Unable-to Perform-List or will be sidelined for multiple weeks. They include starters left-tackle Bryan Bulaga, wide-receivers James Jones and Randall Cobb, tight-end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Clay Mathews. As the injuries have mounted for the Packers, they have raised their level of play with four consecutive wins to take control of the NFC North with a 5-2 record. Conversely, the Bears, who started 2-0 and 3-1, have slumped to 4-3 and to third place in the standings.
Resiliency is a Packer trademark. When they won the 2010 Super Bowl, the Packers placed fifteen players on Injured Reserve. So why is Green Bay so adept at overcoming injuries and assembling a roster chocked full of quality depth?
The Packer Way involves astute player acquisition and development and front office and coaching staff continuity. Fifty of the players currently on the Packers’ 53-man roster have never played for another team. General Manager Ted Thompson, in the same position for nine seasons, rarely makes big splashes in free agency, preferring to mine for undrafted and street free agents. Head coach Mike McCarthy has been in place for eight seasons, and most of his assistants have been with him for the majority of his tenure.
It is always debatable whether it is a better practice to hire personnel with or without experience. In the context of the NFL, an experienced player provides general managers with a body of work by which to evaluate him, but questions still abound. How will that player adjust to a new offensive or defensive scheme? To the culture of the team? To the market? To the locker room?
A player who has never played for another team does not have to un-learn defensive or offensive terminology. He is less likely to carry preconceived notions about practice habits and his role on a team. He is more likely to be malleable. He will probably triumph with an uncluttered mind and integrate more seamlessly into his team’s schemes. Further, undrafted and street free agents are much less expensive than their marquee alternatives, and thus releasing them would result in minimal damage to a team’s salary cap.
Of course, the Packer Way is only as good as the quality of the players being acquired and the ability of the coaching staff to develop them. The Packers are clearly the premiere organization at drafting and developing players. However, at least the last ten Super Bowl champions used the draft to build their core and employed trades and free agency only to fill a few outstanding voids.
Refreshingly, Emery’s biography and early personnel moves suggest that he might employ a close variant to the Packer Way. For seventeen years prior to becoming a professional scout, Emery worked as a college strength and conditioning coach. In this role, Emery must have gained appreciation for how a player could be molded and his performance upgraded through superior conditioning and training. It would be a natural extension for Emery to stock the Bears’ roster full of undrafted and street free agents and pluck players away from other teams’ practice squads with the objective of burnishing their skills through superior conditioning and coaching.
Locating such hidden gems is where Emery’s eleven-year scouting background should prove instrumental. It is far too soon to judge Emery’s first two seasons as a general manager or the coaching staff’s first season developing the players he has acquired. Just thirteen of the 31 players he has obtained who are currently on the 53-man roster have played only for the Bears, but the results have been encouraging.
Due to his predecessor’s subpar performance, it appears Emery was forced to deviate from the Packer Way and sign a number of free agents to one-year deals to fill out the roster the last two years. However, it does appear he is making a concerted effort to build the team through the draft and undrafted free agency, much like the Packers, and then using unrestricted free agency and trades to supplement the roster to fill in the final pieces to cement a contending team.
The Bears have lost eight of their last nine games to the Packers, and only the Packers’ trophy case has expanded during this stretch. Emery must recognize that the Packers’ dominance is a result of superior scouting, player development and continuity. Imitating the Packers’ approach would not only be the sincerest form of flattery, but it might just be the best route to finally overtaking them in the standings. Emery must out-Packer the Packers. If he does, Emery could go down in Bears’ lore as one of the team’s finest front-office executives. If Emery does not, he will likely meet the same fate as his foul-mouthed predecessor. Imitate the Packers and then eviscerate them is our suggestion to Mr. Emery.