I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news for those fans that subscribe to the Barack Obama method of handling football affairs, but change will not be coming to Chicago any time soon. Barring a colossal failure of team management, Lovie Smith and his methodology will remain in place in Chicago.
When things go bad, particularly over long periods of time, the first thing people will do is point the finger at the coaches. After two seasons of mediocrity and a possible third straight year in a playoff drought, fans are losing patience with Smith.
Ironically, Smith’s highest and lowest points as a head coach happened so close together that it often makes the low point look extra dramatic. As we all know, the “peak” in Smith’s career was a trip to Super Bowl XLI during a season in which the defense was ranked No. 5 in the NFL, Devin Hester set a record for kick returns, and the offense finished No. 2 in the league with 26.7 points per game, tied with the eventual Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts.
On the other hand, the “valley” in Smith’s career came during the subsequent off-season when Smith chose not to retain defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and instead hired his long-time friend, Bob Babich — who had no prior play-calling experience — as Rivera’s replacement. Smith also lobbied Jerry Angelo to trade away the team’s best playmaker, Thomas Jones, a model teammate and workout warrior, and also to acquire a washed-up Adam Archuleta — whom Smith coached in St. Louis — from a Redskins team that was eager to get rid of him. In addition to that, Smith assumed — incorrectly — that Mark Anderson’s 12-sack rookie season was a sign for things to come and promoted him ahead of Alex Brown, a move the Bears have since regretted and rectified.
To this day, I am convinced that Smith, according to football intelligence and defensive knowledge, is a good football coach. But what he lacks — and Angelo is part of the problem — is talent evaluation and player development.
Aside from the quarterback position, the turnover among position coaches has been the highest in the organization during the Smith era. It’s not uncommon for teams to cycle in coaches on a yearly basis and have to replace those guys each year. But, typically, those coaches are are getting promoted to higher positions on different teams whereas the Bears are having to replace these coaches because they’re not any good. The amount of position coaches during Smith’s tenure that have left the Bears and went on to coach elsewhere can probably be counted on one hand. The reason why is clear. Smith likes to give guys — coaches with little to no experience at the NFL level — their first coaching gig and a shot at proving themselves.
This method of hiring assistants has a two-fold effect. First, it demonstrates the inability to evaluate personnel — it’s not just players that Smith and the organization have trouble evaluating. Second, it hurts with player development to have an assistant coach that doesn’t know what he’s doing, or doesn’t do it well.
We’ve identified some of Smith’s executive problems, but what about his managerial duties? One such problem is the Tampa-2. Almost every team runs some form of the Cover-2 defense, so I dislike when I hear fans complain about that. Cover-2 is a scheme and a coverage, it’s not a philosophy or a system. Tampa-2, on the other hand, is what Smith has based his entire coaching philosophy on and it’s a system that is outdated and no longer works in today’s NFL. Teams have figured it out. And with more good quarterbacks than ever, it’s not hard to pick apart that defense, as we’ve witnessed since the beginning of last season.
Because of Smith’s philosophy, Angelo’s draft strategy changes. Instead of taking the best football players, guys who can fit into any system and excel because they play the game well, Angelo often selects niche players that fit the Tampa-2 system. Everything is predicated on speed instead of overall talent. When he does this, he often drafts these players way too high, sometimes a round or two higher than any scouts or general managers around the league have them projected. When you draft players too high and they don’t pan out, it makes you look bad. But when you draft niche players — or project players who didn’t have much success in college, but whom you feel you can develop — to fit a system and they turn out to be busts, it makes you look ridiculous. Such players include Tank Johnson, Leon Joe, Claude Harriott, Mark Bradley, Airese Currie, Danieal Manning, Dusty Dvoracek, Dan Bazuin, Garrett Wolfe, and Michael Okwo.
I’m not going to blame all these failures on Smith. It takes an entire organization, from the general manager to the scouting department, to fail so badly on these picks. But it is Smith’s system to which they’re trying to fit players.
We’ve established Smith’s shortcomings and I’ll allow each Bears fan to make his own judgment about whether Smith deserves to be the Bears’ head coach much longer. And let’s say hypothetically the Bears do decide to part ways with Smith at season’s end. With whom would the Bears replace Smith?
I’ve heard Mike Shanahan’s name dropped by many fans and analysts. The former Broncos offensive guru won back-to-back Super Bowls with some guy named John Elway during his 14 years as head coach in Denver. Jay Cutler is no Elway, although he was drafted to be Elway’s eventual replacement. But he is one of the league’s most talented quarterbacks, and this would seem like a logical fit because Cutler and Shanahan worked well together in their three seasons together in Denver.
There’s just a few problems with such a move. First, Shanahan will be a hot commodity and his price tag will be steep as his services will be requested by many teams. Second, less than a month after Smith led the Bears to the Super Bowl, he signed a lucrative contract extension with the team that runs through 2011 (for those keeping score at home, Angelo signed an extension at the same time that runs through 2013). So, if the Bears were to fire Smith after this season, he’d still have two more seasons under contract which the Bears would be forced to pay.
You can’t blame Bears fans and analysts for looking outside the organization for a fix. After all, there are several Super Bowl-winning head coaches that remain unemployed and are, or might be looking for work. Shanahan, Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, and Bill Cowher are some of the hotter names. Other popular candidates include Mike Holmgren, Mike Martz, Jim Fassel, and Steve Mariucci. Tony Dungy’s name has come up often, but he has repeatedly denied any interest in returning to coaching. However, the guy is as stiff and rigid as a tackling dummy — and as interesting as one to boot — in his gig on NBC’s Football Night in America, and he may not last long in the television business.
The bottom line is that the chances of the Bears firing Smith with two years left on his deal are about as slim as Johnny Knox’s frame.
The problem then becomes the choice the Bears will face in two years when Smith’s contract is set to expire. Do they sign him to an extension? Or will there be so much work to be done in the next two years to repair this floundering team that Smith currently sits as a lame duck coach?
I’m afraid Cutler came just three years too late. Had he come out of college three years earlier than he did and had the Bears acquired him during the 2005 or 2006 seasons, I have no reservations saying the Bears would have been Super Bowl XL or Super Bowl XLI champions. That was the time period in which the Bears’ defense as currently constructed was at its peak. The window was wide open and with a great defense, amazing special teams, and a quarterback like Cutler to pair with one of the league’s top run games, the Bears would have been championship material.
Those days are long gone now. The defensive system is outdated, but it doesn’t matter because the core defensive players are out of their prime and the younger backups — guys that were drafted to specifically fit the Tampa-2 philosophy — don’t appear as if they’ll be any part of a future Bears championship team. The offensive line is composed of either old players who’ve lost a step — like Orlando Pace or Olin Kreutz — or players with uncertain futures, like Frank Omiyale and Chris Williams.
If Smith remains Bears head coach for the next two years, to which all signs are pointing, this team will have a serious reconstruction problem on its hands. They’ll already begin in a hole without a first or second round pick in the 2010 draft. And even though Angelo has been able to identify some talented mid-to-late-round players, he’s also missed on a bunch of others.
No, the only thing that could possibly save the Bears now is by spending via free agency and trying to conjure up a quick-fix strategy that will make the Bears Super Bowl contenders sometime before the 2013 season when Cutler’s contract expires, fittingly the same year as Angelo’s will run out. If the Bears can’t turn things around quickly enough to make a Super Bowl run by 2011, when Smith’s contract runs out, the team may be forced to let him go. And if that does happen, it’ll take that much longer to remove all the square pegs from the new head coach’s round-hole philosophy. After two years of rebuilding under a new head coach, will Cutler even want to stay in Chicago? Not if he plays well enough to earn a lucrative deal from a championship caliber organization while in the prime of his career.
One thing that might help the Bears to right the ship, so to speak, is a potential uncapped year that might be looming. But the problem with that is that the Bears would not be as big spenders as some of the other big market teams like Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, the New York teams, and New England.
Let’s hope that the organization’s talent evaluation and player development improve over the next two seasons, and that the team can lure some good free agents to make this a Super Bowl-contending team by the end of Smith’s contract. If not, there could be dark days ahead.