Monday, December 31, 2012

Firing Lovie the Tough, but Right, Move

After months of speculation, it's finally official. As news trickled in this morning that the Bears had fired Lovie Smith, I couldn't help but think of the alternatives. What if they had fired Mike Tice instead? What if previous GM Jerry Angelo had put more on the field for Lovie to work with right away? What if the Bears hadn't sustained injuries to Jay Cutler against Green Bay in the NFC Championship game in 2010, or lost Cutler and Matt Forte last year? What if Lovie had a better QB in the Super Bowl in 2007 and had pulled out a victory? This, and endless other scenarios, played over in my head because I realized that I had respect for Lovie as a man, coach, and leader. I appreciated what he had done for this franchise and started to agonize over the decision, wondering if there wasn't something that could be done. Then I realized that Bears management was doing the same thing, but at the end of the day they had to make a cold business/football decision, one that was best for the franchise. It's hard to come to terms with it, but I believe they made the right choice.

Of course the players are going to be distraught. Hell, Devin Hester is even thinking about retiring. That shows you the kind of player's coach that Lovie was; they type of respect he commanded and mentality he instilled in his team was obviously significant. He created a culture here of tenacious, aggressive, and elite defenses. He commanded over a veteran locker room that, as Brandon Marshall put it, would run through a brick wall for him. He took the Bears to a Super Bowl and reignited the Monsters of the Midway reputation that had permeated through Chicago Bears football culture in better times prior. And he did this all with the class of a man, cut from the same cloth as Tony Dungy, who clearly cared about his job and the players under him. Just because he didn't yell or scream on the sidelines, or provide better news conference entertainment, or go into the locker room and flip tables over if his team wasn't performing, doesn't make any of that not true. And yet, none of that matters. It makes the decision to fire him more difficult, but none of that matters.

That's because he didn't win enough. There will be talk of him getting 10 wins, and all of the losses being sustained against good teams, and all that. But the bottom line is that Lovie missed the playoffs 5 out of the last 6 years. You can take all of the above and attribute the failures to a lot of other factors besides Lovie, but he presided over a franchise that was not cutting it. You look around the league, and you see other flagship teams, like Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco, not settle for anything less than sustained success. With the new football team in place under new CEO George McCaskey and new GM Phil Emery, the Bears are trying to show they mean business.

Lovie brought some good times
Lovie had 9 seasons here. That's more than the vast majority of NFL coaches get at their respective stops. In those 9 years, Lovie made the playoffs only 3 times. Sure, he fostered an amazing environment for defense, and we watched for the past decade as Bears' defenses held up the franchise. But for some reason, for 9 years, the Bears struggled horribly on offense. Lovie just never figured it out. And it's not just the offensive line, which is an easy fallback for Lovie supporters. No, it was even in the 2006 Super Bowl season, when we had a great offensive line, that the Bears struggled on offense. Lovie is not an offensive guy, meaning that he had to hand the reins to someone else. He never succeeded in finding the right guy. Even this year, he felt that elevating Mike Tice to offensive coordinator would help with some continuity with the offense and remove the impediments created by Mike Martz. Instead, it blew up in his face as Tice bombed miserably as a playcaller. Lovie, for all his efforts, just could not identify the right staff on offense.

Then there's the coaching aspect of it. Especially lately, the Bears felt like they came into games unprepared, or more accurately, less prepared than they should have been. How often did we rely on defense, or special teams, or some blind luck to get where we were going? Lovie mismanaged timeouts, didn't know when or how to challenge right, and all too often didn't adjust to the opponent. His miserable record when trailing at halftime (14-47 as Bears coach) shows that Lovie is not a game managing coach. He's great in developing a scheme that his smart, talented, and veteran players can play within, but when it comes down to managing a game, Lovie fell short. You just never felt that Lovie was going to come into a game and potentially outcoach the guy on the opposite sidelines. That's why I feel that Lovie is best suited for a situation where he has a strong offensive coordinator, or he's the defensive coordinator for a team. He'd succeed in a major way in that role. Really, he's been a great defensive coordinator all these years in Chicago. The offense has always been the problem. He had 9 years to solve it, and he just never got it done. For a flagship franchise like the Bears, missing the playoffs 6 out of your 9 seasons is just unacceptable. That's something for which the head coach will always take the blame, 10 wins or not.

Lovie had tremendous respect from his players
I'm sad to see Lovie go for personal reasons, much like I was with Bruce Weber and Illinois last year. They're both class acts, and the players loved them. But much like we've seen with the resurgence of the Illinois basketball program this year, and the response of the players there to someone new, sometimes a change is just needed. After 9 years, I understand it's hard to change. Things get stagnant and people get comfortable. But that's part of the problem. Before George McCaskey took over and fired Jerry Angelo, the impetus wasn't there to proceed far enough to make a change. Now, even though the Bears won 10 games and barely missed the playoffs, Phil Emery has the opportunity to embark on a new era of Bears football. Watching the Bears collapse this year, even if they had made the playoffs, might have been enough to make it happen. Regardless, the time is here for a new era.

What might that era look like? I think regardless of the new coach, there are going to be widespread changes at Halas Hall. The defense we've known for years could be changed drastically. Lovie ran a distinct, very particular style of defense that suits the current personnel. Could those guys be back next year under a new coach, who will bring a new style of play? You have to wonder what this means for Brian Urlacher's career, or guys like Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, who've succeeded so well in Lovie's system. What about on offense? This is Jay Cutler's contract year coming up. Might a new coach want to head in a different direction? It's going to be an interesting off season, that's for sure.

We've all grown comfortable this past decade. We're used to the Bears players we have, and we've grown to love this team. But the way things were going, and the comfort we've become accustomed to, have added up to nothing. There's been so much in the last 9 seasons that we've loved, and the Super Bowl run in the 2006 season was amazing. But in the end, this is a business decision, one that is geared towards making the Bears a perennial contender. With the right hire, the Bears can be put in that position. Nothing short of that should be acceptable. It's not like Lovie is hurting too bad; he was paid millions of dollars to coach the Bears these past 9 seasons. With that, we all thank Lovie for the good times, the entertaining style of defensive football, the run to the Super Bowl, the defensive mentality, the great veteran players that flourished under his style, and the general impact he made on the culture of Bears football that had eroded in the years between Mike Ditka's departure and Lovie's arrival. It's not all for naught, and his contributions will not be forgotten. He's left a great foundation for another coach to take it to another level, and he's represented the Bears organization proudly. For all of that, we thank him and wish him the best.