On Monday, football fans constantly refreshed their Twitter feeds to read the latest accounts from NFL insiders and local scribes. It was the morning after the final games of the 2012 regular season, and we all knew what was coming. I talked about it with my FOXSports.com colleagues as we prepped content for Sunday’s Week 17 wrap-up. How many coaches would lose their jobs? I set the line at 8 1/2.
As usual, there were several coaches whose offices were presumed to be vacated before the official announcements were made. The announcements regarding Andy Reid, Norv Turner, Pat Shurmur, Romeo Crennel and Chan Gailey were not surprises. The dismissals of Ken Whisenhunt and Lovie Smith by the Cardinals and the Bears, respectively, were not completely shocking, but there had been conflicting reports heading into the season’s final weekend that these former Super Bowl coaches were safe. They were not, and by the end of the day, a full seven coaches were terminated.
Now, there were a number of other coaches whose names were expected to be on the “cut” list. Chief among them was Rex Ryan, whose General Manager was ousted in New York. Ron Rivera, Mike Mularkey, Mike Munchak, Jim Schwartz and Jason Garrett all avoided being dismissed on Monday. Count me among those who believes that one or more coaches from this list will be employed in a different capacity come 2013.
Anyway, the dismissal of all but one of these coaches came with a general shrug by the media. The firing of Lovie Smith was the exception, drawing a hailstorm of commentary in the media from confused former coaches and players, emotional current players (Devin Hester’s response has been well-chronicled) and a Chicago legend (Mike Ditka’s rant has gone viral). Now, I appreciate that the concept of firing a coach that just won 10 games and narrowly missed the playoffs is a novel one. You can rant about Marty Schottenheimer at your leisure. I’ll bring him into the conversation later.
The question being asked most frequently is “Who are you going to hire that’s better?”
I appreciate that vague question, but it’s the wrong question to ask. The more appropriate question to pose in this case is “We’ve seen nine years of Smith’s leadership in Chicago. Can the Bears go from good to great AND beat the leaders in the division under him?” The former question is too easy. It allows you to start talking about a huge list of coaches and checking off the likelihood of their acceptance of the job or dismissing coaches/coordinators without “experience.” The latter forces a hard examination of Smith’s tenure with an eye toward the future.
So, let’s get inside the numbers.
- During his tenure in Chicago, Lovie Smith always referred to the season as having “four quarters.” He owned a career 17-19 record in Games 13-16 over nine years.
- The Chicago offense ranked 23rd or worse in eight of Smith’s nine seasons at the helm. The highest offensive ranking, as pointed out by GM Phil Emery, was 15th.
- Some dismiss the offensive issues by pointing out the yearly dominance and big-play ability of the defense and special teams. Chicago ranked inside the top 5 in terms of total defense (points allowed) in four of nine years and 16th or lower on three occasions.
- With the aforementioned Devin Hester’s play-making ability on special teams waning, that portion of the Chicago recipe is in flux. Hester’s transition to wide receiver has been anything but smooth.
- Many pundits pointed to health issues on the defense in the second half of the season as a reason to roll forward with Smith into 2013. How many teams go through a full season without injuries? The Bears were hit hard, with injuries claiming Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings and Henry Melton and, in the case of Urlacher, for the season. Urlacher’s tenure with the Bears appears to be over (barring a team-friendly deal being signed). The shelf life of the aging defense has been discussed quite a bit.
- The Bears owned a record of 51-15 against teams under .500 under Smith. They posted a record of 19-40 against teams with winning records. Dave Wischnowsky wrote about this for CBS Chicago as the fourth quarter of the season began.
- Smith talked about beating Green Bay as the No. 1 priority upon accepting the position. He finished his Chicago tenure with a record of 8-11 against the Packers, including a playoff loss. Smith lost eight of his final nine games against the Packers. By way of contrast, Smith did win two-thirds of his games against the Lions and Vikings (24-12).
- While we’re here, why isn’t there the same outcry in support for Norv Turner? His winning percentage as the coach of the Chargers over six years was higher than Smith’s nine-year tenure in Chicago. It’s a negligible difference (.579 to .562), but many fans and pundits have been calling for Turner’s departure for several years.
- The Chargers won as many playoff games (three) under Turner as the Bears did under Smith.
Here’s your summary statement.
The Bears missed the playoffs in five of the past six seasons.
The new GM Phil Emery is intent in putting his stamp on this squad. And, as we’ve talked about for years, General Managers want their own coaches. He cited that “work(ing) with the media … is very important.” Anybody who listened to a Lovie Smith interview or tried to conduct one (myself included), particularly during a slide, understood that he wanted no part of the process. He would routinely reference “looking at the tape” when a specific player or play within a game was raised in a press conference. Smith offered little to the fan base in terms of insight or clarification.
I know that this puts him in line with Bill Belichick on the scale of coaches’ press personas and folks will say, “Who cares?” Well, you can look at Belichick as the quirky, hooded guy who offers nothing in answers and point to his three Super Bowl wins. He answered on the field. When you fail to make the playoffs in 5-of-6 seasons, non-answers beget more questions.
That part of the in-season process doesn’t necessarily translate to wins and losses but, on some level, fans should receive more than a glib response. Reporters can paint a better picture of the situation and use print/airwaves to inform instead of inflame. Mike Ditka famously tossed out some “No comment. Next question.” responses during his Chicago tenure, but those served only as punchlines. Left without direction, clarity and progressions, writers and radio/tv host have to fill in the blanks. The mere appearance of transparency improves the relationship.
Emery also underlined the need for an upgrade on offense. Look around the division.
- The Packers aren’t going anywhere, and Aaron Rodgers lit up the scoreboard despite operating behind a terrible offensive line with an anemic running game and a banged-up defense.
- Even in a terrible season, the Lions still pushed the ball all over the field.
- The Vikings made the playoffs without any semblance of consistency in the passing game … and Adrian Peterson might be a cyborg.
The Bears have long been dependent on the defense and special teams scoring points. You merely need to rewind to the Bears’ appearance in the Super Bowl against the Colts to see the need for special teams impact. As we saw once again in 2012, the team was absolutely ordinary when those game-changing plays on defense disappeared. Even in the finale against Detroit, the Bears settled for Olindo Mare field goal after field goal despite being spotted great field position.
Now, the base of the wide receiver position appears set for a long while with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery on the edges. A third option working out of the slot could push Jay Cutler to another level. Emery spoke of getting more from Matt Forte in the passing game, something that anybody who watched five minutes of Chicago football understood clearly. The whole goal-line running attack remains an issue.
Of course, there are two glaring problems that need to be addressed. The offensive line continued to be a turnstile and, but for Cutler’s ability to move in the pocket, that sack number (already at 44) would have been much higher. Second, the Bears sure could have used Greg Olsen in the offense this season. The tight end position was vexing at best and downright maddening for those watching Chicago this year. Kellen Davis is, as many commentators added, “a physical specimen,” but he was grossly inconsistent in the passing game and struggled to keep his feet.
In summary, there was no question about the players’ feelings toward him. This was not a question about Lovie Smith the man. He was a beloved figure who protected his players from the media horde and unified a locker room.
Smith’s aptitude in building and helping (driving) a defense is well-documented (don’t dismiss Rod Marinelli’s impact). He will get another shot, most likely filling one of the current vacancies. This time, I suspect that Smith will pay more attention to the third phase and work to bring his offense up to par.
Let me revisit Marty Schottenheimer’s record for a moment to close this out and put the final punctuation mark on things. Schottenheimer went 101-58-1 in 10 seasons with the Chiefs. He posted a record of 3-7 in the playoffs with the Chiefs, and resigned following a 7-9 season. Schottenheinmer spent a short time in Bristol before spending a single season Washington. He then famously joined the Chargers, posting a record of 47-33 in five season in San Diego, including the oft-cited 14-2 regular season mark. Schottenheimer lost both playoff games he coached.
Smith may become another coach to bounce to another opportunity and claim a Super Bowl win, as his former boss Tony Dungy did with the Colts. The root of that coaching tree is Schottenheimer and you know what they say about things sometimes skipping a generation …