By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) It’s time for a change in Chicago.
Thank Lovie Smith for bringing the Bears back to a level of respectability, but let him go for being unable to get the team a championship after nine years on the job.
Since Smith was hired, six different teams have won a Super Bowl, led by seven different coaches. Of those seven, only three were kept by their organizations for nine or more seasons, Bill Cowher, Bill Belichick, and Tom Coughlin (who was hired the same year as Smith). Certainly, the Bears organization would be better off with any of those three calling the shots.
Championships justify tenure.
What has been the hallmark of Smith’s tenure with the Bears? Creating turnovers on defense. Undeniably, the Bears have been the best in the NFL in this category, generating 369 turnovers since 2004. Interestingly enough, the next two teams in line are the New York Giants (330), and New England Patriots (319). Coincidentally, those two teams have represented their conferences the most in the Super Bowl since 2004 (Pittsburgh also has three appearances).
So what does this all mean? This ball hawking philosophy – it’s not a scheme – that’s been instilled has a place in the NFL, but the Bears haven’t capitalized on these extra opportunities and short fields. Their opportunistic defense and stellar special teams have been stifled by an anemic offense, another hallmark of the Smith era.
Nine years on the job, once the offense has ranked above No. 23 in total offense, and thrice the offense has ranked in the top half of the NFL in points. It’s no coincidence that the Bears best offensive season was also the year they went to the Super Bowl. Since 2004, the NFL has reshaped its rules, incentivizing teams to throw the football, yet Smith’s hollow mantra is “we get off the bus running.” Never mind the fact that last year’s Super Bowl champion ranked dead last in rushing.
Nine years on the job, one homegrown Pro Bowl player on offense, running back Matt Forte. Yes, the Bears personnel department neglected to procure enough offensive talent during Smith’s tenure, for which, Jerry Angelo was fired. However, it’s naive to think that the head coach and his staff had no say in those failed decisions.
Personnel departments solicit input from coordinators and coaches as a mechanism to slot prospects as they construct their draft boards. Angelo constantly referred to himself as a consensus builder, which means he sought approval and input from stakeholders before making big decisions.
Nine years on the job, four offensive coordinators, Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz, and Mike Tice. Still have doubts that the coaching staff influences personnel decisions? Trace back the chronology of Bears drafts and rosters. From drafting Cedric Benson (when they already had Thomas Jones) for Turner’s “smash mouth” West Coast offense, to the lumbering block-first tight ends that were brought in to block the five-technique for Martz, the thumbprints of fizzled offensive coordinators past are obvious.
While the NFL experienced a renaissance at the tight end position, the Bears traded away their only passing threat at the position (but did turn that pick into Brandon Marshall), and dedicated roster spots to tight ends that generate no offense, and require no extra defensive attention. Successful NFL offenses have at least three legitimate receiving options to work with, which assures some single coverage matchups, yet, it took the Bears nine years to acquire their first legitimate NFL receiver. Once again, the Bears stubborn dawdling put them years behind the curve.
Nine years on the job, three playoff appearances, three playoff wins, three playoff losses, two of which came at home. Making the playoffs once every three years proves it is the exception, rather than the rule. Smith’s players play hard for him, and he’s a good coach from Tuesday to Saturday, but when the lights shine brightest, he’s been outcoached, wasting rare playoff chances.
In 2005, Smith let the Panthers come into Soldier Field and execute the same game plan they did earlier in the season, as Steve Smith did as he pleased, dancing through the Bears secondary. In 2006, Smith inexplicably called a timeout with :02 seconds left in regulation of a tie game, giving the Seahawks an opportunity for a Hail Mary or pass interference call from the Bears 45-yard line. In the dreary, droning rain of the Super Bowl, Smith let Turner continually call deep drop backs in a one-possession game, when Grossman was clearly having issues gripping the ball.
Back in January of 2004, a fresh-faced Lovie Smith was introduced to the Chicago media as the 16th head coach in Bears history (13th if you don’t count Halas’ four separate stints). At his introductory press conference, Smith laid out his goals for the franchise, in order: 1) Beat the Green Bay Packers, 2) Win the Division, 3) Win the Super Bowl. Yes, the Packers line was an appeal to the McCaskey family, and the lowest common denominator fan, but the follow through hasn’t been there.
Nine years on the job, an 8-11 record against the Packers, three NFC North Championships, one NFC Championship, zero Super Bowl wins. Meanwhile, the Packers have beaten the Bears six straight times, won the division four times, and have a Super Bowl Championship. Using Smith’s own criteria for success, he’s failed as a head coach.
When Emery was hired, team president Ted Phillips stated Emery can “contractually hire and fire the head coach,” but had to retain Smith for 2012. With one year remaining on Lovie’s contract, will Emery conclude that with some roster tweaks, that Smith is the right man to get the Bears to the next level, and bring Lovie back in a “prove it” year?
With several head coaches set to receive their pink slips on “Black Monday”, there will be plenty of teams in the market for a new coach. Do the Bears want to eat $5 million in salary, and become a buyer in a seller’s market? History suggests the Bears will hire a first-time head coach, so is there any guarantee the person they hire as Smith’s successor will be better?
So many questions, so much speculation, but given all measurable criteria, the need for change is obvious.
I don’t envy Phil Emery’s job one bit. But be bold and brave, Phil. Enough of the endless cycle of slightly better than mediocre. Use this moment as an opportunity to reshape the foundation and future of the organization.
Dan Durkin joined The Score’s columnist community after finishing runner-up in the 2011 Pepsi Max Score Search. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois where he was a member of the men’s football team (despite his best efforts to join the women’s team). Dan is a longtime Scorehead, known as Dan in Wicker Park – even though he no longer resides in Wicker Park – who will be sharing NFL analysis and opinions. You can follow Dan on Twitter @djdurkin. To read more of Dan’s blogs click here.