On the Legacies of Marc Trestman and Phil Emery

A large feature of analytics is a focus on process. It involves dissecting the thinking behind decisions more than the decisions themselves, since there is so much variance involved in outcomes. There are so few large decisions that ever come our way, and by evaluating process you can filter out that variance. One of the problems with fans assessing coaches and general managers is that we either judge based on outcomes – which is faulty because of the impact of that variance – or we attempt to get inside the heads of people whom we likely have never met, and whom all we have to go on is decisions themselves, media reports, and press conferences.

The Bears today fired Head Coach Marc Trestman after a very disappointing 5-11 season marred by locker room controversies after coming into the season with Super Bowl aspirations. General Manager Phil Emery was also let go, the man who had hired Trestman two seasons ago. The decisions were completely defensible. For a team with this much talent to perform so poorly was simply unacceptable, and there wasn’t anything to suggest a turnaround for next season in the last few pitiful weeks of the season.

Now I have to admit up front that my connection with Trestman goes back to his time in the CFL back when I would have called myself a CFL fan and a serious Alouettes fan. Trestman took a team that had gone through a number of failed head coaches, couldn’t produce on offense, and was floundering for success, and led it immediately to the Grey Cup, eventually winning two consecutively in his time in Montreal before falling back to earth. When Trestman was hired by the Bears, I was ecstatic because I had seen what he could do with an offense, because of how highly recommended he came from people like Jim Harbaugh, Rich Gannon, and Jay Cutler himself. Some people will now say that Lovie Smith should have kept his job, but after seeing him struggle with an admittedly poor Buccaneers roster this season I can safely say that Smith never would have brought the Bears back the Super Bowl. More on that shortly.

So Trestman came in last season with a mandate to revitalize an offense that hadn’t had success in, frankly, the entire history of the franchise, as well as to defeat the archrival Green Bay Packers. And I think it’s important to note that for 15 weeks, Trestman did just that. The 2013 Chicago Bears featured arguably the best offense in the franchise’s history, and scored the second most points in the NFL. Jay Cutler was very solid, Alshon Jeffery had a breakout season at wide receiver, Matt Forte was once again a monster, the offensive line held up like it hadn’t in past seasons (Trestman had also worked miracles with the offensive line in Montreal) and Josh McCown, unlikeliest of all, stepped in seamlessly on a warm fall day in Washington – a game I attended – and the weeks that followed to bring his team to within one win of a division title.

The flip-side to all this was of course the degradation of what had been a feared defensive unit, into an undisciplined and mentally weak group that teams could run all over, and that would forget to pick up the ball after a questionable fumble. It is important, though, to recognize that the defensive group that Trestman inherited wasn’t the same bunch that led the NFL in turnovers in 2012, or the even more fearsome group that took the team to the Super Bowl six years prior. This was a mashed up bunch of aged retreads like D.J. Williams, sorely lacking their departed leader Brian Urlacher, who were all a year older and over the course of the season suffered injuries like no other team. It is difficult in situations like this to separate the role of the head coach with that of the defensive coordinator – just look at what Rod Marinelli managed to accomplish in Dallas this year – but I would venture to say that even if a Lovie and Marinelli coached Bears defense wouldn’t have allowed the second-most points like Mel Tucker’s D did both last and this season, it would certainly have more closely resembled the Tampa Bay defense that this season allowed the eighth most points than any of those Bears defenses of old. And let’s face it, Lovie’s offense would have remained largely dysfunctional. The Bears went 8-8 last year, but with Lovie I would be surprised if they would have done even that well. He would have been gone, deservedly so, after last year anyway.

But back to Trestman. He came in and introduced an offense that dominated the NFL with a team that had never come close to that in the past. He defeated the Packers – albeit after injuring Aaron Rodgers – in his first attempt, and – maybe most impressively – took a group of players torn apart by the decision to part with Lovie, and brought them together as a family just as he had in Montreal. It’s funny how now, after seeing everything go so wrong, pundits are quick to point to Trestman’s unfailing loyalty to his players and coaches, his unwillingness to throw anybody under the bus, his flexibility and acts of kindness, his actions like changing up locker stalls to bring his full team closer together, all as reasons for his downfall, whereas only just over a year ago he was being applauded for those same characteristics and actions bringing together a locker room that may have crumbled under the leadership of anybody with slightly less charm.

Before addressing this season, I want to talk a bit about Phil Emery. There were the obvious positives, like selecting Alshon Jeffery in the second round of the draft, and the obvious missteps, like taking Shea McLellin in the first round. But every GM has some of both. I listened to just about every press conference Emery gave while in his position, and I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed by an executive in any sport. Now as I mentioned above, it’s impossible from my position to get a complete read on Emery’s process, and it’s also impossible to know whether other general managers have similar ways of doing business, and Emery was simply better at communicating it to fans and the media, but I would venture to say that Emery’s process, at least at an ideological level, was top notch. Emery consulted a number of different analytical services, he scrutinized every decision he sought to make, he never overreacted, and he seemed to legitimately understand the shift in importance in the NFL towards offense and the passing game, and how best to maximize his team. Many will look at the decision to hire Trestman over Bruce Arians, the likely 2014 Coach of the Year in Arizona, and see only the result. But I liked the decision then and I still like it now. Arians would have been the conventional and the safe choice, and NFL offensive coordinator who had had some success as an interim head coach with the Colts. But Trestman had the potential to be great, he had shown as much in Canada and in his past as an NFL offensive coordinator and in college. Trestman brought ideas new to the league, and while he brought higher risk, if he could overcome his shortcomings, he could easily become a Super Bowl winning coach. It’s easy to look back and say that Arians would have been a better choice – although we don’t actually know that for sure – but how could Emery have known that? Trestman came highly recommended; I would imagine he interviewed spectacularly; and Emery saw the upside there that he didn’t with Arians. The process, or at least what we can ever know of it, was largely sound. In the end, Trestman couldn’t overcome his weaknesses and everything fell apart. But for a season we at least got a glimpse of what Trestman could accomplish. That, plus obviously a superior defense, was what Emery had envisioned, and it’s not unreasonable to think that in a parallel universe we could have seen that become a reality. I understand why the McCaskeys felt that a clean house was needed, but I would have kept Emery, or I’ll put it this way: I think Emery deserved to keep his job, but I think he also understands that by choosing Trestman, he took on a large amount of risk to go with the upside I discussed. Emery took a leap with the hope that a Lombardi Trophy would be the reward but with the understanding that losing his job could be the repercussion. I would hope that any GM would make that move, but also understand why the reasoning falls apart if GMs don’t actually lose their jobs when it doesn’t work out. I wish Emery all the best and I’m sure he will find success wherever he goes next.

But back to Trestman one more time, and to the 2014 season. It’s hard to defend him for his handling of the Aaron Kromer situation – although I’m still baffled at what that was really all about, since apparently coaches blab like that all the time – but again his loyalty to his coach was a characteristic of Trestman that worked well up until it didn’t. In other words, Trestman’s whole culture is built around trust. It’s what makes players want to take a bullet for him. But as soon as that trust is broken even once, the entire system falls apart. Trestman is also used to coaching within this system; it’s the skeleton of his success. But Trestman also hadn’t had to deal with true failure as a head coach before, and when the team stopped winning this season, it became harder and harder to maintain that loyalty and that trust.

And that is why I believe that the mystery behind this both infuriating and confounding season – and for me it’s even more the latter – lies in Trestman’s bread and butter: the offense. Why did a unit that posted the 8th most total yards in 2013 tumble down to 21st in 2014? Why couldn’t the receivers who always looked so open last year after two or three seconds never manage to do so this time around, and why couldn’t Cutler ever find them when they were? In my mind there are two possible explanations. Either Jay Cutler really did ruin this offense, whether through a poor work ethic or an inability to hit throws, or a regression from being above average last season, or the rest of the NFL adapted to Trestman’s schemes, and he couldn’t make the necessary changes to get back on top. While the week 16 game in which Jimmy Clausen ran the offense better than Cutler in any week this season suggests that it is the former, the fact that Trestman didn’t make this change earlier suggests that maybe it was the latter. Was Trestman simply overly loyal to Cutler, and it doomed his offense as a result? Or was Cutler simply helpless in an outdated scheme? It’s a question to which nobody has been able to provide a decent answer, and to me it is the answer to this question that should truly shape Trestman’s legacy as a Chicago Bear. Was his demise the result of an inability to adapt offensively, or a result of his misplaced loyalty in a quarterback he wanted so badly to see succeed, but who simply wouldn’t? Unless somebody undertakes a detailed project to examine film from both last and this year, we may never know the answer (although the futures of both Cutler and Trestman will likely provide some clues), and that’s too bad. Was Trestman a great tactical offensive coach done in by his own system of trust? Or was he overrated tactically, and did that torpedo his interaction with his players?

Whichever version of the truth you opt to believe, there are a few points about Trestman’s legacy that everybody should remember before lumping him in with some of the worst coaches this league has ever seen.

1. Trestman was able to succeed with this offense for a season like nobody has before.

2. It was Emery and not Trestman who hired Mel Tucker to run the defense, and there’s no question it was an unmitigated disaster. What would this team have looked like with better defensive (and special teams) coordinators?

3. Trestman is by all accounts one of the nicest guys in football. There’s no reason to dance on the grave of a guy who gave it his all every week, did some great things, was never stubborn or dismissive with the media or with fans, had a solid process, and in the simply failed under tough situations.

To take this story full circle, there’s a lesson in analytics to be learned here. If it wasn’t obvious before, buying into the practice doesn’t mean you will be successful. It gives you a better chance to be, but it doesn’t mean that a certain GM or a certain coach will balance different numbers, scouting, gut, and other factors correctly in coming to decisions. This is where we are limited in our ability to evaluate. I don’t know how good of a process either Emery or Trestman truly had; we simply can’t with current public knowledge. But it’s clear that both were progressive minds, and maybe Chicago – a town of people with little patience when it comes to failure and accustomed to a workman’s team led by its defense – wasn’t the right setting for the duo to learn together. Managers like to say that they can’t bow to public pressure, but there is a snowballing effect that comes from public displeasure that can lead to a dissolving of locker room culture. It’s something that the Houston Astros are currently figuring out in baseball, and that other organizations will have to reconcile when it comes to analytical adoption sooner rather than later. There is so much nuance involved in sport, and the line between success and failure is so slim. At the end of the day of course, though, success is still success and failure is still failure. And it’s very difficult to reverse course with the same group of people once it goes down the latter path.

So we should all wish the best to Phil Emery and Marc Trestman, hardworking, intelligent, and kind football people, who will undoubtedly have future success in some capacity in football. Just because firings are defensible, doesn’t mean that anybody should dance on the grave of those who lost their jobs. And doesn’t mean that the times at which those people succeeded, or the process used to achieve those successes should be forgotten.

So good luck to you Phil and Marc, thank you for building the greatest Bears offense I have ever seen, and best of luck.

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