From where the Bears currently stand, and taking into consideration the resources with which they have to work in order to improve to become a playoff team in 2010, Lovie Smith appears to be a lame duck coach.
It’s quite possible, and even likely, that team president Ted Phillips — and maybe GM Jerry Angelo, but maybe not — will be standing before the media one year from now to discuss Smith’s dismissal.
The rebuilding project that awaits Angelo and the front office is a daunting task. To hire two new coordinators, retool the offensive line, and acquire the necessary parts to make Smith’s defense work as it is designed to work will require nothing short of brilliance.
Trust in the organization’s ability to bring in long-term talent via the draft has waned over the years. Angelo has missed more often than he has hit in the past five drafts and nowhere is that more evident than in draft picks such as Dan Bazuin, Michael Okwo, Dusty Dvoracek, and the entire 2005 draft class, of which not one player remains on the roster.
Although, in fairness to Angelo, three of the players he drafted in 2005 — Cedric Benson, Kyle Orton, and Chris Harris — all played significant roles for other teams. And undrafted rookie free agent Brandon McGowan has played a big role for the New England Patriots this year.
What has been most discouraging as it pertains to the draft is that the Bears have not brought in many high draft picks that have been ready to contribute from Day 1. Matt Forte and Greg Olsen have been the two exceptions, but players like Chris Williams, Earl Bennett, Jarron Gilbert, and Juaquin Iglesias all are players that were drafted within the first three rounds and failed to contribute in their first seasons with the team. Smith has playfully dubbed these guys as “red shirt” players, a term used in college for players that sit out a year because they’re not yet ready to play for one reason or another.
With the Bears’ struggles to bring in NFL-ready players, and without a first or second round pick in April’s draft, it’s hard to believe the Bears will find players in the third round and later that can help them immediately in 2010.
That brings us back to Smith and his lame duck status. If the Bears are to improve and make the playoffs in 2010, they’ll have to rely on self-improvement because they won’t be able to count on much help from rookies or from a weak free agency class.
Because I don’t anticipate Smith being back in 2011, I feel the Bears need to plan for the future when looking to hire an offensive coordinator. They should look to hire a guy who has the possibility to stick around with the team and work for the new head coach so that Jay Cutler won’t have to work for four different offensive coordinators in four consecutive years. When the idea of such turnover at the position was brought up to Angelo at Tuesday’s press conference, Angelo explained that is why the hiring of the next offensive coordinator would be one of the most important moves of his tenure.
USC offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates makes the most sense from that regard. As the former Denver Broncos quarterbacks coach who worked with Cutler, Bates already knows Cutler’s strengths and weaknesses and can call an offense that will best utilize Cutler’s abilities. The Bears wouldn’t have to worry about he and Cutler butting heads because Cutler has lobbied for Bates since the middle of the season.
Critics of Bates will, and have said that Bates is too young — he’s 33 years old — and that he doesn’t have any experience coordinating an NFL offense. They’ll also point out that USC’s offense had modest success under Bates compared to years past. In fairness to Bates, USC had a freshman quarterback starting for them and their defense had lost a lot of playmakers in last year’s NFL draft.
Two of the things I like best about Bates are that he coached under Mike Shanahan in Denver and was trusted by him, and that Bates has NFL lineage as his father, Jim Bates, has been an NFL assistant for multiple teams since 1991.
For Smith, hiring Bates carries some risk as he’s untested as an NFL offensive coordinator. However, for the Cutler and the Bears’ organization, Bates is a terrific option because it’s a safe situation. If Bates doesn’t pan out as the offensive coordinator, the Bears can just fire him with the rest of the coaching staff when they do house cleaning at the end of 2010. However, if Bates does succeed and the offense finishes in the top half of the league, the Bears can consider keeping him around if the new head coach decides to keep continuity together on offense.