By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) That gurgling sound coming from the shores of Lake Michigan? That’s Lovie Smith starting to drown. When you lose Jay Cutler and Matt Forte two weeks later, it’s an uphill battle for even the best coaches.
Smith has earned some spurs, taking the Bears to the Super Bowl XLI in 2007 and to the NFC championship game last year. But there seems to be something lacking from his overall approach that would put him in a class with the very best in the game.
Smith’s players always go all out for him and that effort makes him a coach to be reckoned with. However, he’s simply not in a group with the top five in the league. Bill Belichick, Mike McCarthy, Tom Coughlin, Sean Payton and Mike Tomlin all have won Super Bowls and all have an edge on Smith. Here’s what gives them their advantage:
Bill Belichick, New England – Belichick is never going to be portrayed as Mr. Warmth. He is not about winning his players over and rallying them with an “us-against-them” speech. Belichick is all about preparation. He wants to outwork you in the film room, find your weakness and take advantage of that vulnerability. He’s not the only one working hard. He demands that all his assistant coaches and players do the same.
If you are a Patriots offensive lineman and you are playing a team that blitzes a lot on Sunday, expect him to quiz you on what you are supposed to do when you see a blitz and what blitz you are likely to see. If left tackle Matt Light is walking past Belichick in the Foxboro hallways, it’s no shock when Belichick asks Light what blitz he’ll likely see when they play the Jets and what his responsibilities are on the play. Light is expected to answer.
He’s not there to hold his players’ hands. Instead, he’s there to lay out what they have to do to prepare correctly and make contingency plans when they don’t. The Patriots don’t get outworked in game preparation and that separates Belichick from the rest.
Mike McCarthy, Green Bay – Don’t ever sell McCarthy short on being able to make the tough decision. He knew that Aaron Rodgers was a better quarterback than Brett Favre in the summer of 2008 and he made the tough decision to replace the legend with an unproven performer.
The benefit of hindsight makes that decision look like an easy one. But at the time, it was anything but simple. The 2007 season was one of Favre’s best and 99 percent of all coaches would have made Rodgers sit for one more year. McCarthy never wavered. That’s confidence and belief in your own ability to evaluate players.
McCarthy does not take the easy way out and his players respect his judgment and his leadership. Making the right decision on game day comes easily to him and he manages the clock like few of his peers.
Tom Coughlin, N.Y. Giants – You would not want to work for Coughlin. Watching Coughlin storm, stomp and throw fits on the sidelines tells you he is a high-strung leader with more than a touch of insecurity. But Coughlin gets results and he never gives up during a game or a season.
Coughlin’s Giants won the Super Bowl following the 2007 season against the previously undefeated Patriots because he was able to diagnose a formula that could give New England trouble and he got his team to stick to it. He knew the Patriots’ offensive line was vulnerable to relentless pass rushers and that putting pressure in Tom Brady’s face was the only way to slow him down. Not only did Coughlin come up with a way to put that pressure on Brady, he got his players to buy in against a team that had defeated them at home in the last game of the regular season.
That’s not easy to do. Players mouth words of confidence all the time, but they know when they are going up against a superior opponent. Coughlin had the strength of will not to let his players believe that.
Coughlin is often miserable during the week and grows frustrated when he sees mistakes on the practice field. But he doesn’t let those mistakes go and his players always respond to him.
Sean Payton, New Orleans – Some coaches are just better than others when it comes to calling plays and hitting their opponent where it hurts. That’s what Payton was able to do in Super Bowl XLIV when the Saints upset Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Payton had previously served as the Giants offensive coordinator under Tom Coughlin, and the irascible Coughlin had once stripped him of his play-calling duties.
Payton was never bothered outwardly. He was just spurred on to be better than his teacher. Payton excels at the matchup game. He has an uncanny ability to get his top receivers in winning situations. They can get the edge over opposing cornerbacks in 1-on-1 situations. That is due in large part to their talent, but it is also due to the way Payton positions them.
Don’t forget about his willingness to roll the dice. In Super Bowl XLIV, he had rookie punter Thomas Morstead attempt the first onside kick of his career to open the second half when his team was trailing 10-6. If the move had failed, The Colts and Manning would have had the ball inside the 50 with an excellent chance to extend the lead to double digits. Instead, the Saints recovered, eventually scored and dictated the pace of the Super Bowl the rest of the way.
Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh – Tomlin won a Super Bowl in his second season as head coach of the Steelers and brought them back to the championship game two years later where they were outlasted by the Packers. The Steelers were beaten by the better team and they did not give the game away with errors.
Tomlin learned much of his coaching technique from Tony Dungy. He was on Dungy’s Tampa Bay staff where he served as the defensive backs coach from 2001 through 2005. He observed how Dungy did everything he could to put his players in a position to succeed and Tomlin did the same. Whether that meant he spent extra time with individuals in practice, giving them assignments they could handle easily or picking them up after mistakes, Tomlin did it. The Steelers have been remarkably consistent and Tomlin’s leadership is a big key to that productivity.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.