Big shoes for Phil Emery.
It's crazy to think that the Bears, one of the flagship franchises in NFL history, have had five general managers. Just five. Consider that the first two were George Halas and Jim Finks, and you've got an idea of the pressure that Phil Emery, 53, has felt in the four months since he replaced the fired Jerry Angelo as GM of the Bears.
Talk about unlikely career ascensions. Fifteen years ago, Emery was strength and conditioning coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he also taught physical education. In that job at Navy and other college jobs before, he'd see the scouts pass through, some with the metal bar stretching from back passenger window to back passenger window, and two weeks' worth of clothes hung up. "I just always wanted to be a scout,'' he said. "It always fascinated me how they had their own little culture, and I thought it would be a great way to make a living, to identify and analyze the best players, and figure out who would fit with your team.''
At Navy, Emery spent time with Steve Belichick, the academy's original strength and conditioning coach, and learned much about scouting -- because at the time Steve was doing some of it for son Bill, then the coach of the Browns. "Just sitting and talking football with Steve was invaluable,'' Emery said.
Ironically, Emery never had much of a relationship with Bill Belichick, but he learned a lot of football from three of those closest to Bill: his father, obviously, and former New England underlings Scott Pioli and Thomas Dimitroff. After breaking into the business as an area scout with the Bears in 1998, he became the Falcons' director of college scouting in Atlanta in 2004. But when Dimitroff took over as GM of the Falcons in 2008, he demoted Emery to regional scout, something that Emery -- if you believe his strident words -- never took offense to. "I never thought of quitting,'' he said. "I've always thought, whatever my task is, just do it.'' A year later, Pioli hired Emery as director of college scouting in Kansas City, and that's how he springboarded to the Bears in January.
Emery's philosophy, he said, is to find players with growth potential, who make plays, who play like they love football. "I want the players with the high ceilings, with the largest capacity for growth,'' he said. "And I believe every aspect of that player is on tape. You can see him, you can read him.''
Emery's feelings on the tape will be tested with two new receivers: veteran Brandon Marshall and rookie second-rounder Alshon Jeffery. He traded two third-round picks for the troubled Marshall, and he traded up in the second round to get Jeffery, who had a poor 2011 season at South Carolina, with only 49 catches.
But Emery believed in Jeffery, in part because of his 23 career touchdowns, in part because of his hungry play around the goal line, and in part because of the consistent effort he showed. With Marshall, diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, Emery ignored much of the disruptive behavior that was on Marshall's resume from Denver and Miami (former Dolphin Joe Rose, now a talk show host in Miami, said last week Marshall was "the most selfish Dolphin I've ever seen") to reunite him with quarterback Jay Cutler.
"People have the capacity to change,'' Emery said. "He's an intelligent guy, and he's accepted his faults, and he's working toward improving them. I thought about it a lot. Isn't that what we'd want out of our children? They might stumble, but when they do, they seriously try to improve their lives. We felt if there was a place Brandon would fit, it was here.''
Emery will have a difficult road getting running back Matt Forte signed, to be sure; the talented running back and the Bears have been sparring over a contract for nearly a year. But just as important, I believe (and maybe more) is the state of the offensive line. Emery, when he took the job, did a needs analysis of the team. He felt he needed to get weapons for Cutler. He felt he needed a pass-rusher opposite Julius Peppers. He felt he needed offensive line help. "We just didn't feel, at the time we picked, that the list of players on the offensive line was as good as the players elsewhere,'' he said.
You can't solve every problem in the same offseason, and Emery has certainly addressed two need areas with good prospects and one good (if his head stays on right) veteran wideout. But the success or failure of the Bears could come down to how well they run -- assuming Forte is that runner -- and how well Cutler is protected, so he can be the premier quarterback he's shown signs of in Chicago. Emery has done well so far, but a lot of teams look good in May. His report card will come when we see how the offense produces.
This is where you lose me with the Tebow stuff.
The tale of two New York football teams took an interesting turn on Thursday. The Giants and Jets held Organized Team Activity practices that day.
The Giants, the defending Super Bowl champions, were beginning to adjust to life without their third receiver, Mario Manningham, who left for San Francisco in free agency. In the morning workout, top wide receiver Hakeem Nicks went down with a broken bone in his foot. The Giants announced he would be out for as long as 12 weeks, which is dangerously close to the Sept. 5 season opener. Nicks is one of the Giants' eight or 10 most important players. A broken foot for a man who cuts and torques as much as an NFL wide receiver does ... dangerous.
The Jets, coming off a season in which they didn't make the playoffs, had Tim Tebow in practice for the first time he could be viewed in action by the media. Tebow is the backup quarterback to Mark Sanchez, but with the charisma Tebow has and the way Sanchez struggled last year, it could be a matter of time before Tebow challenges the incumbent. But no one in Jetland was giving any final quarterback grades eight weeks before training camp began. Tebow threw two interceptions early in the workout, and observers thought Sanchez was clearly the better quarterback on Thursday.
I charted the coverage given the two events in the five major local papers Friday -- the New York Times, Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Daily News and the (Bergen, N.J.) Record. You can predict the outcome.
Words devoted by the five major dailies to the Super Bowl champions losing their number one receiver, possibly for all of the offseason training and training camp, and perhaps threatening the start of his season: 2,104.
Words devoted by the five major dailies to Tebow's first practice visible to the media: 6,971.
So 23 percent of the football writing in Friday's papers in greater New York was devoted to a serious injury to a top player on the defending Super Bowl champions.
It's Tebowland, baby.
There will be a major city in America without a daily paper this fall.
So many of us in the journalism business have had to get used to new things. New age of versatility that has us do print, Internet, radio and TV. Twitter. The 24-hour news cycle. The whole business has changed, and we all probably knew this day was coming. But it'll be an eerie day this fall: The storied New Orleans Times-Picayune, born in 1837, will stop publishing seven days a week. It'll publish three days a week -- Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
The Saints are the biggest story in the city, all fall. But you won't read about them away from a computer until Wednesday every week in New Orleans. There'll be a Super Bowl in New Orleans in February. Will those folks not inclined to read online have to wait 'til Wednesday to read about the biggest game in America?
The paper will cut about 50 jobs from the 150-member staff and begin devoting most of its energy to the online product. This cannot be good for journalism, no matter which way the parent company, Advance Publications, spins it.
On Friday, one of the best NFL reporters in our business, the T-P's Jeff Duncan, was mulling his future. He'll find out soon if he still has a job, or if he'll have to re-interview for it, just like the rest of the 150 journalists on staff. He hopes the paper's love for sports gives him a path to stay.
He was reminiscing about covering the city in the days after Katrina, when he saw a dead body wrapped on a porch, interviewed petrified zookeepers at the New Orleans Zoo who were afraid of looters invading their place, bathed in a neighborhood swimming pool because there was no running water for days, reported on gang members taking care of an older woman who didn't have access to her medicine (they broke into a pharmacy to steal it for her) ... and felt more alive than he ever had as a reporter -- even though he'd never been a news reporter before.
"I'll never forget going down to the Convention Center with our old sports editor, David Meeks, bringing the papers to a group of people at the Convention Center,'' Duncan said. "They were overjoyed. They were crying. It was a connection to their old lives, because they didn't know what their lives held, with all the doomsday reports they were hearing. It was like we were giving out money.''
I'll never forget after the Saints lost to the Bears in the 2006 NFC title game, and the team returned home to find this blaring headline in the paper the next day: "BLESS YOU BOYS.'' There's a great connection between paper and city and paper and team. And it'll never be the same, sadly.
Mike Tomlin gets a big hand at William & Mary.
When the Steelers coach was inducted earlier this month to the Hall of Fame at his alma mater -- Tomlin was a three-year starter at wide receiver at William & Mary in the early '90s -- he gave a rousing speech thanking his family and coaches and teammates for helping him as a player, person and coach. And he said something about why he's coaching in the NFL, and not college football.
"One of the reasons I work in the National Football League -- I'm tired of the NCAA rules,'' he told a crowd in Williamsburg, Va. "I am a win-at-all-costs kind of guy. The NFL is just right for me, although I am not a bounty guy in any form or fashion. Any form or fashion.'' Much applause. "What you've got to understand about the Pittsburgh Steelers is .. I ain't got to offer them anything. Guys like James Harrison -- they'll do it for nothing. The men I work with, I'm a blessed person."
Now for a few words on your favorite subject: legal mumbo-jumbo.
Last August, when the players and owners reached agreement on a new 10-year labor deal, lawyers for each side signed a side deal that said, in effect, neither side could sue the other regarding the new agreement for "all claims, known and unknown, whether pending or not,'' including TV contracts and specifically "collusion with respect to the 2010 league year ...''
So on Thursday the NFLPA sued the NFL, claiming collusion with respect to the 2010 league year.
The union filed the claim in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, with NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler (his nickname should be The Groundhog; seeing it always makes me think we're about to see six more weeks of legal wrangling) claiming Minnesota judge David Doty's order dismissing the Brady v NFL case was the more important legal ruling here and holds sway over the so-called "Stipulation of Dismissal."
As I said earlier in the column, I'd love to see the NFL have to defend what it did in the stupidly named "uncapped year,'' which actually was nothing of the sort. But how can the union win a legal challenge after it signed a document saying it wouldn't make a legal challenge for any claim known or unknown when it signed it? Makes no sense to me. As ProFootballTalk.com's Mike Florio wrote the other day: "It's hard to envision any judge agreeing with the argument that the NFLPA isn't bound by the plain language of the Stipulation of Dismissal ... It appears that the collusion claim was one of the things that the NFLPA sacrificed in order to strike the current labor deal.''
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