Many, myself included, have been surprised by the meticulousness and breadth of Phil Emery’s first search to fill a head coaching vacancy. Two special teams coaches, what feels like a dozen offensive coordinators and the head man at the Montreal Alouettes have forced beat writers and bloggers to do more extensive Google searches in the last week than they’ve done in the last year. (I’ve exchanged emails with an Alouettes beat man at the Montreal Gazette. They generated very little.)
The surprise is not based on expectations of Emery. Nobody had any expectations of Emery because Emery – until his sprawling, hour-long press conference a week ago – was a shadowy figure pulling the strings in silence. All we really knew about him is that he’s a scout at heart and prefers to spend his time on the road. The surprise was based on an historical understanding of this process for the Chicago Bears since the passing of George S. Halas. This is the team that botched the Dave McGinnis hire. This is the team that had two options in 2004 after being spurned by Nick Saban: Russ Grimm and Lovie Smith. The Chicago Bears head coaching job is one of the crown jewels of the NFL and for the first time in a long time it feels that way.
Now Emery has to do the hard part. He has to hire the right man.
If there is one thing to be learned from these NFL playoffs it is this: the NFL is now about the coach and the quarterback. The rest – defense, backs, play calls, special teams, fan support – is secondary, tertiary, whatever the word is for fourth level. Coach. Quarterback. In a year when Adrian Peterson and Calvin Johnson climbed the record books the division round of the postseason will feature Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan…etc. And the quarterback can no longer simply manage the game. He must be explosive. That is why Harbaugh made the switch to Kaepernick mid-season and Carroll chose Wilson over Flynn in camp. It’s all about the quarterback.
Emery’s focus during the head coaching search has wisely been on the offensive side of the ball and task number one facing this new coach should be nurturing, developing and draining every ounce of greatness out of Jay Cutler.
There are some in the Chicago media and around the city beginning to wonder if Cutler is the QB of the future. They are questioning whether the organization should pad #6’s banking account in the lead up to the 2013 season – the final of his contract. If the Bears listen to these cries and move in a different direction they’ll be making a decision tantamount to organizational suicide. Cutler’s upside is a quarterback capable of putting an offense on his back loading and playing with just about any great quarterback in the league. Cutler’s downside is what the Bears saw in 2012: a pedantic yet serviceable performance (behind a 10 win club). There is no Good Jay Bad Jay the way there was with Rex Grossman. There is Great Jay Decent Jay (and twice a year 4 Pick Jay but who’s counting).
Now is not the time to run from the enigmatic but supremely talented quarterback. Now is the time to commit to him. Phil Emery must put in place a single offensive system and allow the quarterback to mature within that system over the next 3-4 years. With the exception of Peyton Manning – the greatest regular season player in NFL history – all of the other top tier quarterbacks in the NFL have benefited from operating within a single system for the duration of their careers. (Drew Brees is a possible exception but one can rightfully argue his career began when he arrived in The Big Easy.)
The Bears must also allow this new head coach to draft and develop his own man behind Cutler. And I don’t mean in a seventh-round, undrafted free agent sort of way like Nathan Enderle and Caleb Hanie. As dedicated as the new head coach should be to making Cutler the best player possible he should also not be hamstrung by Cutler’s potential inability to take direction or adapt his playing style. Noll benched Bradshaw. Holmgren knew he could bench Favre.
This decision, this hire, is entirely about the quarterback position for the Chicago Bears. Because without synergy (to use Emery’s word) between the coach and QB Bears fans across this country will continue to spend their January nights scouting college prospects.