Lovie Smith was a player’s coach. Rex Grossman was his quarterback. Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice were his offensive coordinators. Tony Dungy is his friend.
For nine seasons he coached the Chicago Bears. For nine seasons we waited. He didn’t even grow a mustache.
Now, as the Lovie Smith era seems to slowly wind to a close, and the Bears fail to make the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years, there appears to be change on the horizon. But, before he leaves this place it’s important to remember. It’s equally important to forget.
Somewhere in the humdrum of nearly a decade of boiled chicken press conferences and fretfully poor offenses are lessons to be learned. Lovie Smith may not have been a part of drafting Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Lance Briggs or Charles Tillman, but he knew how to get the most out of them. More importantly, he helped maximize the potential of lesser talents like Nate Vasher, Alex Brown, Hunter Hillenmeyer and Chris Harris.
As successful as he was in helping develop his defensive personnel, he was equally as unimpressive at tending to the needs of this football team offensively, opting instead to craft his offense to specifically fit the needs of HIS defense. That single-minded focus was more or less what did him in. The remnants of those mistakes will be what this organization is left to deal with as they rebuild.
And make no mistake, this will be a rebuild. With certain patchwork acquisitions in the offseason, you could potential jimmy the window open for another season, but with Jay Cutler likely dealing with his fifth system in as many years (McDaniels, Turner, Martz, Tice and whoever is next) and a defense that is seemingly sneaking up on ancient, there would be long-term ramifications.
The Bears have to restock their coffers defensively by making the kind of scouting decisions they made at the turn of this century. Offensively, they have to build upon their core skill players (Cutler, Forte, Marshall and Jeffery) by adding a blend of capable free agents and talented youngsters at tight end and on the offensive line.
They need to add speed at any and all junctions and craft themselves organizationally into the one thing they seemed to think they couldn’t be under Lovie Smith: well-rounded. In the salary cap era, you have to make sacrifices in one area or another, but it is possible.
Perhaps the era of dominant defense in Chicago goes by the wayside, but if you can continue to be disruptive and tenacious—like defenses in Green Bay and New England—along with actually fielding an offense capable of doing more than managing, you’ll win. And not the “sporting a winning record while only actually making the playoffs three times in nine years” kind of winning, but the kind of winning that ends in parades and trophies.
That all starts with the draft, and that’s where Phil Emery’s metal will be tested. It takes three years of solid talent evaluation before you can load a roster and make a run, but once you have, you’re a few crafty free agency pickups away from opening a four to six year window for success.
Of course, the burden will be heavy on Emery to supply the talent to win, but it will be even heavier to find someone to lead that talent. That will be Emery’s next step, finding someone who can come in and change the culture immediately, and then as Emery finally begins to provide him with the talent, seize the opportunity to win.
Lovie Smith unfortunately failed to seize the opportunity in 2005 and 2006 when the Bears were as talented as any team in the league. He failed again in 2010 when he had a chance to step on the heads of the Packers as they drowned in injuries. He failed once more this season when his reinvigorated defense and capable offense threw away a 7-1 start.
Now he’ll go, and we’ll all assume that it will be for the better with no true assurances that it will be. However, if you’re going to have championship aspirations, you have to have championship expectations. Lovie’s Bears never lived up.
For that, he’ll likely lose his job, sooner rather than later. With any luck, the Bears will learn from his successes and his mistakes.
Regardless, having spent over a third of my life with Lovie Smith as the head coach of my favorite football team, in the darkest corner of my heart, Rex Grossman will always be my quarterback. Although, I'd prefer that Terry Shea was never my offensive coordinator again.