Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Gordian Knot that is Professional Football: Reflections on the Bears at Season End

Season endings are a time of both reflection and action for football clubs. Season endings are a time of pronouncements from fans and critics about just how awful players, coaches, front office personnel and owners performed. There is only one Super Bowl winner each year and every other team in the NFL gets a good dose of criticism when they don't reach that pinnacle. Making it all come together in a season is the Gordian Knot of Gordian Knots.

Chicago Critics

Chicago Bears critics are pretty intense this season. Whether Chicago is the most critical town for sports, it's hard to say. National sportscasters covering a recent prime time game here in Chicago expressed surprise at how vicious some sports radio commentators had been that morning.

This year the Bears showed a lot of promise. And by most counts after a rough early season, they were improving to the point where it looked like they would make the playoffs again. That was before Cutler and Matt Forte were injured. The Bears coaches made a number of adjustments when the offensive line grew thin again at the beginning of the year, but no amount of adjustments could make up for the loss of the two most important offensive skill position players. That's pretty much the way it works in professional sports. There are exceptions, but generally if your top guys go down, your season is lost.

Three Issues—Two Falsehoods, One Truth

When bad things happen, it becomes open season on the team. Let's take a look at few points of criticism that are common these days.

1. Bears Owners Are Cheap

If you study your Bears history, you know that "Papa Bear" George Halas started the team and was there at the beginning of the NFL. He played himself for 10 years and coached for 40. You won't find any other NFL owner who did as much. Halas was not a big guy, but he was a tough one and he took a beating. He knew what it was like to live with football injuries in later life. He also lived through a lot of years when keeping the Bears afloat was touch and go. When Halas passed down the Bears, it was more than an investment to his family, it was a legacy that he had won with blood, sweat and tears--often his own.

Despite NFL team wealth, as bigger and bigger player contracts are made, ownership is a riskier and riskier business. When teams sign first-round draft picks or go for a proven player in a trade, they end up paying huge sums of money. Contracts pay players going forward, not backward. Inevitably, some of these deals don't help the team one bit. But one thing teams can do to mitigate the risk is to manage contracts wisely. The Bears are a team that is more than willing to spend to get good players who will help the team, but they historically have been disciplined with their terms. In addition to being one of many football franchises, they are still a leading franchise family. Like a lot of teams, they also don't like to renegotiate existing contracts.

Much of the "cheap" label this year was used in the context of Matt Forte, who was currently under contract. Before Forte there was some discussion about Briggs contract and some about Olin Kruetz. In all three cases, few can argue rationally that the Bears took the wrong position on these issues or owed these players more.

Some people will point out grudgingly that professional football is a business and they go on to suggest that some player is getting the shaft in compensation. But you seldom hear the argument used in reverse. If the owner ends up paying more for a player than the player produces, the owner didn't get the shaft, the owner was at fault--even if they drafted someone that every other team in the NFL wanted.

According to Spotrac.com, Julius Peppers, Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher, and Devin Hester average at least $10 Million a year. According to Spotrac, only two Green Bay Packers are in the same class, Aaron Rodgers and Charles Woodson. At New England only Tom Brady and Logan Mankins are in the $10 Million plus category according to Spotrac. In New Orleans, it's Drew Brees and Will Smith. Do these numbers make the Bears cheap?

Peppers and Cutler were two guys the Bears went after outside the draft and when you do that you pay dearly. From a business perspective, teams like to develop players from mid and lower round draft picks. In that way, the players need to prove themselves before the big pay days come. In this way, the Matt Forte contract was perfectly standard and right for a second round draft pick. But there are some who believe everyone should get a big pay day especially when it is not their money being used.

2. Lovie Smith Is a Bad Coach

Under Smith, the Bears took the top spot in the NFC North in 2005, 2006 and 2010. The Bears were the NFC Champions in 2006 and lost in the Super Bowl. In 2010, the Bears won the Divisional round of the playoffs by beating the Seattle Seahawks, but lost in the NFC Championship game to the Green Bay Packers. Smith’s record with the Bears is 71-57.

Smith has put together a tremendous coaching stuff that includes former head coaches Mike Martz, Rod Merinelli, and Mike Tice. Smith will be looking for another solid offensive coordinator with the exit of Mike Martz. The Bears players routinely express their respect and admiration for Smith and many observers give the Bears high marks for their intensity and dedication. Smith is a quiet, soft spoken man who is not easily excited. He calmly goes about his business and accepts all criticism that comes his way and does not deflect any on his players or coaches. If Smith is asked to leave the Bears, it won't be because he is not a good coach. He is an excellent one.

3. Bears Have Not Been Good at Acquiring Talent

Jay Cutler did not come cheap. The Bears traded a good backup QB in Kyle Orton and two first round picks--2009 and 2010 for Cutler. One of the more difficult challenges for NFL management is acquiring talent without paying too heavy a price. Perhaps the biggest weakness with the Bears today is the issue of depth.

Most believe that the Cutler acquisition was a necessary move for the Bears, but one that had implications for the Team's depth chart. Teams that can develop talent from draft picks, have a better chance of doing well in the long term. Trading for existing developed players is generally going to be costly.

The two top draft picks traded for Cutler hurt the Bears chances of building more depth, but the Bears had the perennial problem of poor quarterback play. It was the poor quarterback play and quarterback injuries that hurt the Bears more than anything else during the Smith years.

It’s easy to understand why Smith might be looking forward to next season with a healthy Jay Cutler and a number of supporting players on offense who have the necessary experience and talent to do well. The Bears will need more help in the wide receiving corps and more depth on the offensive line. But they have more pieces in place on offense than in recent past.

Jerry Angelo had a long run with the Chicago Bears. Management changes are not just common, they are often necessary to help an organization stay on its toes. Angelo had a bad streak of luck more than he made a lot of bad decisions. It’s easy enough to criticize draft choices a few years after they are made.

Look at any one draft selection by itself and you might see a success or failure that was more luck than skill. For example, the Tom Brady selection by the New England Patriots. Brady was selected for backup purposes. It was Brady who proved his mettle after the selection and Patriots Coach Belichick was smart enough to respond to it. Belichick's actions after the draft showed his skill at judging talent.

However in the NFL, an evaluation over a longer period of time must be made that sets aside the lucky picks and the unlucky ones as well. The Bears picks in the last seven years did not give the team the players to sustain a championship tradition. Smith simply was not given enough talent to put the Bears into a leading position within the league. It’s that high standard which is being used today to measure Jerry Angelo's performance.

When you look at the recent Bears drafts, you can see a number of factors that play into the success or lack of success , but you do not find stupidity as some commentators would like to suggest. Angelo is a smart man.

2005 Draft
Cedric Benson was the Bears first round pick in 2005. Mark Bradley was a second round selection and Kyle Orton a fourth. Chris Harris, the safety, was a sixth round choice.

Bear fans know the history of Benson. He was a University of Texas standout—a strong runner who had all the skills to do well in the NFL. Historically, the Bears are at their best when they have an explosive runner. Benson was a natural choice for the Bears, but he would do poorly in Chicago. Only after he was picked up on the cheap by Cincinnati did he approach his potential.

The Bears were not cheap with Benson. According to http://www.spotrac.com, Benson signed a 5-year $35 Million dollar contract with the Bears in 2005 with $17 Million in guarantees. But he averaged just 531 rushing yards for his three seasons with the Bears. He has been averaging well over 1000 yards in Cincinnati. When Benson was released, the Bears had nothing to show for the first round pick that had held so much promise.

Bradley had a brief NFL career and is a free agent today. Orton did a good job for the Bears filling in and Harris had his ups and downs with the Bears. Most would say this was not a good draft for the Bears, but if Benson had hit his stride with the Bears, it would have been a very good draft.

2006 Draft
The Bears traded their first round pick in 2006 to get more picks in the draft. This is a strategy that is being used by many teams who are trying to build more depth especially when they believe the draft talent for a particular year is sub-par. Not every draft class is the same.

After the Benson acquisition the previous year, the Bears leaned towards defensive players in 2006, but it was the special teams who would get a big star. They selected Danieal Manning and Devin Hester in the second round and Mark Anderson in the fifth. Many see Hester as a likely Hall of Famer. Manning made a considerable contribution to the Bears returning kicks and then as a corner back and safety before he left the team. Manning wanted a better contract than the Bears were willing to provide. Manning was much more valuable to a team in need of a good returner--the Bears had Hester.

Mark Anderson would have an up and down career with the Bears that left most fans puzzled because he had the talent to become a game-breaker. Anderson was a long-term disappointment to the Bears, but at least had one very good year for them. Dusty Dvoracek who was selected in the third round, would be injured four seasons running before his release. Jamar Williams, a fourth round selection would serve as a backup linebacker for a few years.

Hester made the 2006 draft a good one for the Bears, but it had the potential to be a great one if Anderson’s career would have developed. Anderson racked up a 12-sack regular season with the playoff bound New England Patriots in 2011.

2007 Draft
Greg Olsen was a late first round pick in 2007. Olsen was building a solid career with the Bears with 39 receptions in 2007, 54 receptions in 2008, and 60 receptions in 2009. He was not a bulky tight end who could substitute for another huge lineman, however. Under the Mike Martz offense--Olsen's numbers dropped to 41 receptions in 2010. Under Martz, the tight ends are used more as blockers and for shorter pass routes. Olsen was excellent at longer routes. Olsen was traded to the Carolina Panthers where his numbers are climbing. His yards per catch average is now up to 12 yards—a couple yards over his average with the Bears. Other draftees included Garrett Wolfe, Josh Beekman, Daniel Bazuin, Michael Okwo and Corey Graham. Corey Graham is a backup corner back who has been outstanding on special teams -- voted to the 2011 Pro Bowl as the NFC's Special Teams player.

The Bears traded Olsen for a third round draft pick in 2012. Olsen was the meat and potatoes of the 2007 draft, and not making use of him long term makes the 2007 draft a poor one. However, he was picked before Mike Martz was put on the staff. It is unlikely that Angelo would have selected Olsen under the current offensive system.

2008 Draft
The Bears drafted Chris Williams in the first round of the 2008 draft. Williams required back surgery in his rookie season and recently underwent surgery on his wrist. He gets high marks for his play, but his long term contribution to the team remains in question. Matt Forte was drafted in the second round and his selection suggests that the Bears were ahead of the curve in recognizing his talents. Earl Bennett was drafted in the third and he has been a key receiver for Cutler. Tight end Kellen Davis was a fifth round pick who made his mark under Martz system. Other draftees who remain with the Bears are Craig Steltz and Zack Bowman. Williams's injuries mar the 2008 draft for now. The 2008 draft is one that could look better if Williams is able to contribute for several years. Never-the-less, the Bears got a number of contributors from the 2008 draft.

2009 Draft
The Bears had no first or second round picks in 2009. Their first round pick was traded as part of the Cutler deal. They had two third round picks that did not work out: defensive end Jarron Gilbert and wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias—both gone. Other picks were more fruitful. Defensive tackle Henry Melton has made a strong contribution. Cornerback DJ Moore, wide receiver and kick returner Johnny Knox, and offensive lineman Lance Louis all contributed in 2011.

2010 Draft
Again, the Bears did not have a first round pick in 2010 because of the Cutler deal. The Bears did land Major Wright, Corey Wooten, and J’Marcus Webb. Dan LeFevour, a college quarterback who amassed phenomenal numbers, was also drafted, but did not impress and was released. Corner back Josua Moore was picked up and is on the Bears’ practice squad.

2011 Draft
Monster offensive lineman from Wisconsin Gabe Carimi was drafted in the first round of the 2011 draft. Until Carimi proves himself on the field for an extended period of time, this draft will be difficult to grade. He suffered a dislocated knee early in the season, which was followed by two knee surgeries. Super strong defensive lineman Stephen Paea, safety Chris Conti, QB Nathan Enderle, and linebacker J.T. Thomas were also acquired. It’s way too early to make much of the 2011 draft.

Before the critics hang Jerry Angelo out to dry, they might consider what might have been had Cedric Benson and Mark Anderson played for the Bears like they are playing today for their respective teams. Also consider Greg Olsen's value to the Bears had they not gone to a Mike Martz system.

Bottom Line
The Bears owners are not cheap. Lovie Smith is a good coach. And few people will argue that the Bears need to improve their talent acquisition. But keep in mind that talent acquisition goes a lot deeper than a GM making good picks. Good picks can go bad. And good picks one year, may not be good picks the next. No one has all the answers in this business.

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout, Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships, The 10 Commandments of Baseball: An Affectionate Look at Joe McCarthy's Principles for Success in Baseball (and Life), Maddie Takes the Ice, and Public Bonehead-Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle.  

Update: Sporting Chance Press's Pillars of the NFL: Coaches Who Have Won Three or More Championships by Patrick McCaskey now available--March 2014!  Order your copies here  for immediate shipment.

Copyright 2012 by Sporting Chance Press. Larry Norris is President of Sporting Chance Press.