Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Lions (12.30.12)

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I can’t say that I’m too surprised the Bears season has reached an abrupt end. Despite their 26-24 victory over the Lions on Sunday, the Vikings knocked off the Packers, thus eliminating the Bears from playoff contention.

It was not surprising to see a Vikings team that was on a roll hold off a good Packers team at home. Similarly, when the Bears were knocked out of their playoff seed following a loss to the Packers at home in Week 15, it was not surprising that they could not climb back into the postseason picture.

What was surprising, and what is and forever will be surprising, is a team that jumped out to a 7-1 record fail to make the postseason. Collapses like that don’t mean as much in the scope of a one-season outlook. But when you combine that with last year’s collapse from a 7-3 record to no playoffs and throw in the fact that the Bears have just one playoff appearance in the last six years, it’s a bit disconcerting.

And so now we wait. At the time of this writing, Lovie Smith still remains Bears head coach. News of other head coach and general manager firings throughout the league are coming across my Twitter feed. It’s entirely possible Smith could lose his job even before I finish writing this.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a coaching situation as complex as the one for the Bears.

The fans, by a simple majority, hate Smith and want him gone because he’s laid-back southerner who doesn’t have “fire and passion” a la their hero Mike Ditka. And when something isn’t working the way it should, their immediate reaction is to “blow it up” and “start brand new.” Never mind the fact that demolition leads to a slower rebuilding process and more painful seasons.

The media hates Smith because he doesn’t give them what they want to hear, and they want a guy who will be buddies with them and reveal all. The Chicago media thinks they’re entitled to know every little secret that goes on in the Bears organization simply because they’re the media. But Smith is under no obligation to divulge what they want to hear. The only thing Smith is mandated to do is talk to the media. No more, no less.

But the two factions that matter most — the players and ownership — both love Smith and don’t want to see him go.

The players love Smith because he stands up for them in the face of criticism from outside the organization and he treats them like respected adults instead of insolent children. The sentiment expressed from many players in the locker room is that they’d “run through a wall for him.”

And ownership loves Smith because he’s a good man, a good coach, and a guy who gets the most out of the talent he’s been given while running a clean, respectable program.

My view, of course, is that I like Smith, think he’s a good coach, and he could probably do more if supplied with more talent.

Critics like to talk out of both sides of their mouth. They have no problem ripping Smith to shreds and saying he hasn’t taken the Bears to the playoffs enough or won the division or beaten the Green Bay Packers. And yet, at the same time, critics will say Jay Cutler isn’t a “franchise quarterback,” the offensive line is terrible, and very few players from the Bears offense could start for any other team in the league.

…well, which one is it? Is Smith the bad coach? Or is the offense so bad it makes it difficult to compete with an offense like the Packers’, one which consistently ranks among the best in the league?

I tend to lean toward the latter.

Former Bears GM Jerry Angelo was fired because the talent gap between the Bears and the Packers — among other teams — was so big that it created an unfair disadvantage. So, new GM Phil Emery was hired and he made two big acquisitions to immediately stop the widening gap. He acquired one of the best receivers in the NFL in Brandon Marshall and he drafted perhaps one of the next good receivers in Alshon Jeffery.

But holes remains along the offensive line, and Emery still has work to do up and down the roster.

The Bears can go ahead and fire Smith if they want to try something new. I’m not sure there are any coaches out there that would be an immediate upgrade unless the team is willing to dish out megabucks for a retired coach of past glory. But then the question is, are the Bears ready to win now, anyway? As previously mentioned, Emery has to retool the line and add another playmaker to the offense while also infusing new, young talent to the defense. This is a team that finished 10-6, so it’s not a bad one. It’s just one that’s not quite good enough.

The dilemma facing the Bears is that Smith is under contract for one more year. If they fire him, they have to pay him in addition to another coach next year. To me, it makes no sense whatsoever to bring him back as a lame duck coach to finish out his contract. They should either let him go and hire an up-and-coming offensive mind who can focus on bringing that unit out of the dark ages and into the upper half of the NFL offensive rankings — which would be uncharted waters for the organization — or they should sign Smith to an extension so that he has a few years to rebuild under a general manager who apparently knows how to add talent and address needs.

If the Bears do bring him back, offensive coordinator Mike Tice would need to go. If the Bears want to change the culture around the organization and become an offensive-minded group, Tice is not good enough — nor does he have the respect of his players — to bring them into the Top 16 in the NFL. But then that means the Bears players would have to learn yet another offensive system in such a short period of time.

So, to whom would the Bears turn to lead their offense? If Smith stays, the conventional choice would be quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, who was briefly a coordinator for the Seahawks, and he’s someone whom Cutler and Marshall greatly respect. But to be honest, I don’t think he has the chops for the job, either, and I would almost rather Smith be let go and bring in an offensive-minded head coach.

This whole disaster might have been averted if Smith had gotten the extension and job security in a public declaration of trust from the organization prior to the 2010 season. Because Smith was on the hot seat after the 2009 season, no respectable offensive coordinator candidates wanted to come to Chicago for fear of having short-term job security under Smith. So the Bears settled on Mike Martz and that turned out to be a disaster. Two years later, after Martz was fired, with Smith still in a tenuous situation, the Bears turned to Tice because of a lack of interest in the job from outside the organization. It’s hard to blame Smith for the past two “default” offensive coordinators. If the organization would have expressed its full support in Smith and they would have hired a respectable offensive coordinator, who knows where we would be today, three full years into that system.

Although I support Smith, I can see both the argument for dismissal and for the best path moving forward while rebuilding the roster and infusing it with young talent.

Will Smith survive? On Black Monday, all we can do is wait…

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