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The GM of the Future

Chicago's Phil Emery is showing how an open-minded mix of old- and new-school approaches to running a franchise is the best way to go

If I asked you to describe what a prototypical general manager of the future might look like, you would probably come up with some pretty distinct archetypes. You might envision a young gun like Theo Epstein or Sam Presti, organizational heads who have ridden analytics and outside-the-box thinking to success. Alternatively, you might go for somebody like Ozzie Newsome, the grizzled ex-pro who seems to have a sixth sense for drafting and developing superstars. You might even go so far as to point to somebody who totally doesn’t fit the profile, like Jay Z.1

The résumé that wouldn’t come up in your mind is the one from the 54-year-old that starts with “Strength and conditioning coach, Western New Mexico” and traverses its way through a seven-year stint with the Naval Academy before a 14-year run as a scout and scouting director in the pros. You’d write him off as an old-school scout, an anachronism who would scoff at quantitative analysis and rely exclusively on his gut. You’d underestimate Phil Emery, and you would be sorely mistaken to do so, because there might not be a single personnel director in sports who better embodies the values of the 21st-century general manager than the kid from Detroit running things in Chicago.

In saying that, I’m suggesting that the role of general manager is one that is materially different than it was even 15 years ago. The sports world is not just post-Moneyball, it’s post-post-Moneyball. Just as traditionalists and gut-deciders have fallen on their swords, the likes of J.P. Ricciardi in Toronto have proven that big data isn’t always a viable solution, either. The media and the nature of the media have changed. The language that comes into play is different. The financial landscape is, in some cases, radically opposed to where it was at the turn of the century. The sports world seems to move faster; ideas get stolen more quickly and trade secrets seem like something out of Pleasantville. By virtue of his background, his work ethic, his brainpower, and his open-mindedness, Emery gets himself ahead of the curve in four key ways that stand out as tenets of what a great modern GM should embody:

1. Treating fans like they might actually have an idea of what they’re talking about.

With the rise of Bill Belichick during the first few years of this century, saying as little as possible in press conferences became a bit of a sport among NFL leadership types. It was “Both teams played hard” for old white guys. You can understand Belichick’s reticence in discussing an injured player (which itself has been taken to a new level in hockey), but it got to the point where even relevant questions were brushed aside with coachspeak. A lonely nation instead turned its ears, for better or worse, to Herm Edwards. At least his coachspeak was compelling.

Consumers of sports are getting to the point where that doesn’t fly anymore. That traditional model — athlete or coach gives quote, reporter files away quote, includes it in 800-word article in the newspaper the following day, where reader sees it for the first time — is comically outdated. In a 24-hour news cycle, those quotes are on Twitter in real time, analyzed for any relevance immediately, and thrown away shortly thereafter. We as a culture have developed a voracious appetite for interesting content related to the sports things that we love, and that’s why 24-hour team channels like YES and team message boards and endless hours of sports talk radio and, of course, Grantland all exist. In the process, that has made sports fans a smarter bunch of information consumers,2 with a stronger knowledge of our history and a much deeper awareness of our present. Sports and some sports coverage haven’t necessarily caught up. Ask any Knicks fan who has had to spend a decade dealing with the argument “the Knicks aren’t allowed to bottom out and rebuild because their fans won’t let them” despite the fact every Knicks fan I’ve ever met wanted them to bottom out and rebuild from 2002 to 2010.

Now take Emery, who had to face a fan base that was likely to be (at least in part) hostile toward his two biggest moves this offseason. First, he fired longtime Bears head coach Lovie Smith after a 10-6 campaign, making Smith just the fourth head coach since 1990 to be fired after winning 10 or more games in a season.3 Then, three months later, Emery announced the Bears would break off negotiations and move on from iconic linebacker Brian Urlacher, who would later fail to find a suitable market for his services and retire. Getting rid of a statue player4 for your franchise is usually a tough enough sell for one playoff-less offseason, but firing one of the most successful head coaches in team history after a 10-win season, too? The vultures would immediately have begun to circle around a general manager who handled those situations poorly.

Emery beat those worries to the punch with his weapon of choice: the thoughtful press conference. With fans still reeling after an end-of-season collapse and the news that their coach had been fired, Emery struck the perfect balance between classy and progressive. Emery thanked Smith for his service in a genuine manner, but gave a concise, tangible explanation for his firing that any Bears fan could understand: The offense hadn’t developed under Smith’s watch. He even noted an appropriate statistic in pointing out that the Bears had a top-15 offense under Smith just once.

No general manager in sports gives press conferences like Emery, who is delightfully prone to giving long, detailed explanations of what went into his decisions. Words I wouldn’t use with any other public speaker in football come to mind. Transparency. Openness. Uncertainty, which nominally sounds like something you don’t want your general manager to convey, but is something that inherently comes with the territory of football and is otherwise disingenuous to ignore. Some general managers make vague references to analytics; Emery actually goes into detail about the different sources he has sought out to try to judge performance. Emery describes his verboseness bluntly enough: “If you ask me a question, I’m going to give you an answer. And I think you deserve the content and the process behind that answer. It’s really not enough for our fans to get a black-and-white answer that’s just a sound bite.” It’s more a fireside chat or a smart conversation at the bar than a press conference.

There’s also a subtle-but-meaningful impact produced by Emery’s openness. By explaining the process to fans, Emery simultaneously engages them in the process, as opposed to letting the regular season’s 16 outcomes define his season and his standing in the fans’ eyes. He phrases it in terms that link the fans and the organization as one: “I want our fans — and everybody I work with — to understand all the thinking behind [our processes], so that they’re more inclined to buy in and work toward that goal.” There will always be a subset of fans who care only about wins and losses, and there will be another subset of fans who actively disagree with your process, but relying on a season’s worth of wins and losses can be a very tricky enterprise, especially for a sport with such high variance. Sharing the process with inclined fans gives Emery a far longer leash to work with and creates a topic for discussion during those long stretches when there isn’t steady football action to define the story lines around a team.

That word “process” keeps coming up a lot. It’s another one of those important tenets of the modern GM …

2. A hyper-focus on process.

If you listen to Emery in press conferences or talk to him, you’ll hear the word “process” come up so many times that you’ll lose count. That’s a good thing. You can phrase it however you want — “process” often means the same thing as “the plan” in this context — but it’s essential for an NFL general manager to have a clear idea of his long-term process and stick with it regardless of short-term outcomes. That thought came up again and again when I looked at Ted Thompson’s history earlier this week.5

To Emery, focusing on the process not only provides a better chance of building a winner, it performs the perhaps more-meaningful role of preventing you from overreacting to fleeting streaks of success or failure. “Some of those bumps along the way are like hitting a tree; losses are very tough, particularly ones that have more impact than others [at the end of the season]. They’re tough to work through, but you have to believe in the process and the talents of the people you work with. If you let outcome drive you, you’ll be all over the place and never develop the process to get to the final goal.” And to Emery, the final goal isn’t simply winning a Super Bowl, which itself usually requires some incredible luck along the way.6 It’s “to be a consistent winner, to consistently be in the championship mix, and win championships.”

In terms of these Bears, it’s pretty clear that process involves focusing on drafting and developing young talent. Emery’s NFL background is as a scout with the Bears and as the director of college scouting for the Falcons7 and, more recently, the Chiefs, so it seems natural that he would have a passion for identifying emerging college talent and using that to build the organization. The changes to rookie contracts in the new CBA and the stagnant post-CBA growth of the salary cap make building through the draft more essential than ever before. Emery hasn’t put a Thompson-esque focus on stockpiling draft picks, having made minor moves to trade up in each of his first two drafts, but his one notable draft pick trade appears to be a huge success: The Bears would happily trade two third-round picks for Brandon Marshall again.

Marshall was the first step in the clearest plan Emery has for the team:8 placing the appropriate parts around Jay Cutler to see if he’s a Super Bowl–caliber quarterback. The cosmetic fixes surrounding Cutler that failed to change things are gone. The new regime doesn’t pretend that Devin Hester is a good wide receiver, that Kellen Davis can catch passes, or that Mike Martz is a suitable offensive coordinator for a guy who gets hit all the time. In two years, Emery has rebuilt the offensive line by using a first-round pick on guard Kyle Long and signing two new starters, left tackle Jermon Bushrod and left guard Matt Slauson.9 Martellus Bennett is a real tight end. Alshon Jeffery could be a breakout player after being taken in the second round last year. Marshall seems to have a telepathic connection with Cutler. There’s genuine talent here.

And then, on top of that, Emery replaced Smith with an offensive-minded head coach, Marc Trestman, who has placed a significant focus on keeping his quarterback well-protected. If this helps Cutler take a step forward, it gives the Bears a reason to commit to him over the long term. If not, they can move on accordingly. It’s a decision they have to make by the end of this year, when Cutler’s contract will run out. By making these moves, Emery’s process allows them to make the best possible decision on Cutler’s future.

That the Bears and Emery are comfortable letting Cutler play out the final year of his deal speaks to another 21st-century quality:

3. Having no fear of the unknown.

The sabermetric movement in baseball brought the concept of replacement level to sports, and it permanently changed the ways that we value players, both as fans and (amateur or professional) analysts. Teams who found a first baseman with a little bit of power or a sound reliever from Triple-A had a tangible reason to realize that they could move on from those players and find a new one without having to pay a premium, because supply was so plentiful and replacement level was so high. It’s what led the Red Sox under Epstein to move on from the useful-if-replaceable Brian Daubach and go reaching into the free-agent market for a non-tendered first basemen who had failed to impress in his last stop, David Ortiz.

Bad organizations are terrified of the unknown and make moves to ensure that they’ll never have to end up shopping in those circles, even if they found that talent there in the first place. They give that running back they plucked off the waiver wire and put behind their great offensive line a big new contract, even though there are dozens of running backs just waiting for a similar opportunity available for the minimum. They re-sign players to deals above market value because they’re afraid of some near-zero possibility that they’re the only team left with money to spend and there’s nobody left to spend it on. (Hi, kicker contracts!) In doing so and ensuring that they won’t end up with a total mess at a position, they’re forced to pay a premium for an often-inferior talent. They also forgo the opportunity of finding a bargain, a player who will outperform his salary and allow the organization to spend more on a player who they truly can’t replace.

There are certain general managers who would not physically or emotionally be able to handle the situation that Emery is in with veteran contracts right now. The Bears have 13 “key players” in the final year of their respective deals, including Cutler, Robbie Gould, Hester, Tim Jennings, and Charles Tillman. It’s a risk, since the veterans could become disgruntled without any long-term stability, but this is the NFL, where long-term stability isn’t a thing, regardless of how long your (unguaranteed) contract runs. Cutler also could end up having a tremendous season that dramatically raises his asking price, à la Joe Flacco last season, but Emery rightly doesn’t feel too stressed about that, noting to ESPN Chicago, “I guess if you’re saying an enormous amount of leverage [for Cutler], that means we’ve had a great season … that’s a problem I look forward to.”

The most promising feature of Emery’s tenure so far, though, is the one that every organization aims to pull off but often struggles to maneuver.

4. An inclusive, occasionally nontraditional decision-making process.

In June, Emery hired Mitch Tanney from STATS LLC to serve as director of analytics. For somebody with such a strong traditional scouting background to hire a director of analytics says a lot about Emery’s open-mindedness and willingness to consider alternative viewpoints, but there’s more to it than that.

Hiring an analytics guy or even a couple of analytics guys doesn’t mean very much. For one, NFL analytics aren’t really very useful; they offer more in terms of broad, team-based concepts than they do in individual player analysis or in defining player value. Then, consider that the analytics director or researcher often doesn’t have very much clout; in the often-political front offices of the NFL, an analytics employee hired by an owner might threaten a general manager or a personnel director enough for them to be squeezed out of the picture and ignored.

What’s promising about Tanney’s position with the Bears, then, is how Emery suggests he’ll link Tanney in with the rest of his scouting and personnel department. “In putting together our staff,” Emery told me, “you’re always looking for people who have unique skill sets. We have a number of people who have the title of scout, but they have other unique skill sets which help make our scouting staff better as a whole. With somebody like Mitch, we’re adding to the mix of good people who are thoughtful and have a unique skill set who can make the group better.” Emery brought up senior national scout Mark Sadowski, who the Bears also rely upon for his skills as a computer engineer, as a possible path that Tanney might follow. That’s exciting news: The best thing a team can do with an analytics person is stick them with a scout (or on a team of scouts). That interdisciplinary approach makes both sides better and makes for a smarter organization in the long run. Getting there takes some subjugated egos and patience, but the Bears appear prepared to offer that to Tanney in exchange for what his skills can bring to the table.

That same open-mindedness unquestionably led Emery to Trestman, a risky pick who spent the last five years as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. It’s one thing to bring in a guy like Trestman for an interview; that’s the sort of thinking that gets “outside-the-box” and “progressive” attached to your name in features just like this one. Actually hiring Trestman speaks to just how devoted Emery was to his plan of finding out about Cutler as soon as possible, and how willing he was to offer the job to the candidate who impressed him the most. It remains to be seen whether Trestman succeeds as head coach of the Bears, but the process that led to him being hired seems pretty healthy.

That phrase — “seems pretty healthy” — is the scariest part about football. In baseball, if you get just about everything right on an organizational and personnel level, you’re going to succeed in the long run, because you get 162 games a year to prove your quality. The return of the Rays and A’s to contenders in the American League is a good measure of that. You need a big star and some luck in basketball, but as Daryl Morey’s last 12 months have shown in Houston, you can create your own opportunities to get lucky when the time is right. There you get 82 games to prove your point. Football is fickle and maddening, thanks primarily to the 16-game season and how it can affect your decision-making. Emery might land upon a championship process and fail to get the outcomes right quickly enough to prove it. An injury to Cutler could throw the whole plan out of whack. All a good process can do is give you a better shot at winning what occasionally resembles a lottery. Then again, if you were the strength and conditioning coach at Western New Mexico and dreamed about running the Chicago Bears, you might consider that winning the lottery, too. Nobody knows if Emery will succeed, but he didn’t get here through failing, either.

Filed Under: Bill Barnwell, Future, People, Series, The Future

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell