MIAMI – In the Bobby Fischer sense, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith will say general manager Jerry Angelo began moving these pieces into place years ago. He will discuss the roster like it's a carefully plotted plan of attack, and make Angelo sound like a Grandmaster who saw this week coming 100 moves ago.
"You see our football team right now?" Smith asked this week. "That's what the plan was. We have the player we want in just about every position."
That's high praise coming from a head coach who – to borrow a metaphor from Bill Parcells – got to the Super Bowl cooking with Angelo's groceries. And while the pinnacle is still slightly beyond his reach, just being in Miami this week is something of a coup for Angelo. Undeniably one of the most embattled NFL architects of the last six years, some of Angelo's most shrewd decisions paved the way for this team. Over the last three years, all Angelo has done is secure a successful head coach, supply him with impact players that fit his scheme, and weather the most criticism in the NFL west of Matt Millen.
Sort of makes you understand Angelo's response when he was asked Wednesday if he wanted to win Super Bowl XLI against the Indianapolis Colts for 84-year-old Bears owner Virginia McCaskey.
"Certainly, we would like to win for her," Angelo said. "But I'd like to win for me, also. This might be my best last chance, too."
Not likely, but you get the point. Angelo's newfound genius aside, if the Bears lose Sunday, he'll likely be put squarely onto the coals again in 2007. You can almost hear the clatter on the media keyboards right now:
"If Jerry hadn't counted on Rex Grossman …."
"If Jerry hadn't wasted that pick on Cedric Benson …"
"If Jerry didn't look so much like Ralph Nader …"
Even today, type "Jerry Angelo" into Yahoo's search engine, and the first result that pops up is firejerryangelo.com, a piece of Chicago pop culture that has stuck like a thorn in the side of the franchise. In fact, the Bears took a stab at shutting it down, sicking the hounds from NFL Properties on the site. However, the move didn't do much more than force a few cosmetic changes and give an injection of Big Brother-type hatred to the anti-Angelo crowd.
The only weapon Angelo has against his critics is success, and to be fair, his struggles weren't entirely his fault. He took over as general manager in 2001, when coach Dick Jauron had authority over the roster. Yet, it was Angelo who took the brunt of criticism when the Bears went from 13-3 in 2001 to a combined 11-21 over the next two seasons.
It would be an understatement to call his first three years trying. There was continuous acrimony over roster decisions between Angelo and Jauron, and even some fracturing in the McCaskey family over who should have ultimate authority. It wasn't until owner Ed McCaskey's death in 2003 that Angelo was eventually empowered with absolute GM responsibilities – authority he flexed by firing Jauron, who at the time remained a popular coach among the players.
The subsequent hiring of Lovie Smith was framed as a lackluster choice in Chicago, particularly after Angelo interviewed Nick Saban. And yet, if you traced your finger back to 2003 – Jauron's last season and when Angelo took full control – that is when much of the current roster began to solidify. Draft picks like linebacker Lance Briggs and cornerback Charles Tillman emerged as quality starters. And personnel moves began to cull more successes than busts – including in the vital middle rounds of the draft, where championship teams unearth starters and quality depth. These moves were made in concert with Smith in accordance with their shared philosophy from their days with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I've always said when you hire someone, you need to share the same vision, philosophy – however you want to say it – because then you have strength in numbers," Angelo said. "Then it's easier to work [with that coach]. And whatever strengths I have, it's easier to bring those to the table. You know as well as I do, you have to hit the ground running. There are no five-year plans. You have to have your plan in place and you have to make it work quickly. That blueprint was established in Tampa. Lovie was a part of that and I had the good fortune to be a part of it, too."
The Bears were aggressive in adding pivotal pieces to the defense (drafting defensive tackle Tommie Harris and cornerback Nathan Vasher; dealing wideout Marty Booker for defensive end Adewale Ogunleye), and were equally active in upgrading the offense during free agency (signing wide receiver Muhsin Muahmmad, running back Thomas Jones and offensive linemen John Tait, Ruben Brown and Fred Miller).
Many of those signings came with criticism – Muhammad was overpaid, Jones had never lived up to his hype, Tait and Brown were overrated and Miller was supposedly too old. Yet they've all found niches in Chicago. Muhammad and Jones have become offensive leaders, while Tait, Brown and Miller have meshed with center Olin Kreutz to create one of the league's best offensive lines.
Even some of Angelo's purported missteps have finally flourished. He stuck with Desmond Clark when it seemed logical for the Bears to invest one of their high 2006 draft picks in a tight end. He resisted the call to ditch the investment in quarterback Rex Grossman, despite a series of frustrating injuries. And he gave one more shot to wideout Bernard Berrian after the receiver spent his first two seasons looking like just another fast player who couldn't develop into a consistent weapon.
And in between, Angelo made some of the little moves that set the good general managers apart from the average ones – yawning roster additions like Arena Football League product Rashied Davis, and special teams savants Brendon Ayanbadejo and Robbie Gould.
But 2006 may have added the exclamation point. Not only did Angelo add two difference makers in return specialist Devin Hester and pass-rushing rocket Mark Anderson through the draft, he tweaked the depth where it mattered in free agency, signing quarterback Brian Griese to push Grossman and spending a third-round pick to acquire restricted free agent cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. – moves Smith contends were complex because of the Bears' precise approach in filling out the roster.
"We're playing different-type guys," he said. "Our defensive line, there's a different body type we use on our defensive line. At the linebacker position there's a different body type."
Angelo has delivered by meshing his old-school scouting roots with new-school salary cap management and free-agent economics, an amalgamation of theories that began to form as far back as the mid 1980s, when he was an area scout for the New York Giants – a team that not only won a Super Bowl, but featured a talented roster of team builders … and a special teams coach by the name of Bill Belichick.
Along the way, Angelo picked up little pieces of information from Bo Schembechler and Bill Mallory at Miami (Ohio) University, Tom Landry in Dallas, Parcells in New York, and Rich McKay in Tampa Bay. Spend time with those brains long enough and you learn how to walk the NFL personnel high wire – something Angelo has done admirably in Chicago.
"Confidence starts at the top and trickles down, and I think that's the case [with Jerry]," Kreutz said. "The [franchise] has stood behind a lot of guys and the rest of us have been right there with it. But you have to know that other people have that confidence. You have to know where it's coming from."
After six long years, that question has been answered. By Sunday night, Angelo could cement the rest of his legacy, too. And in the process, quell any of his lingering questions.
"Did I ever think it couldn't work? Certainly I thought that," Angelo said. "But did I ever doubt the plan or what we were doing? I never doubted that."
Finally, the rest of his critics are catching up.