While the Chicago Bears still hold their fate in their hands, currently the projected sixth seed in the NFC, losing four of their last five has done nothing to inspire optimism for a team once on the cusp of historic greatness defensively, while notching an impressive 7-1 start.
The downward trend has—as it invariably does here in Chicago—sparked the tinder under head coach Lovie Smith’s metaphorical seat. The Bears had championship aspirations this season, after all, and should they now fail to make the post-season, the fire (no pun intended) will be warranted.
Smith is in his ninth season as head coach of the Chicago Bears, tied for the second-longest tenured head coach in the NFC and tied for fourth-longest in the NFL. He’s 79-61 (.564) during that time (82-64 including the playoffs), while leading the Bears to three division titles, two NFC Championship game appearances, and the 2006 NFC crown, producing a Super Bowl XLI appearance.
After a dramatic flip in 2005 that saw a previously 5-11 Bears team to an 11-5 record, Smith was named A.P. Coach of the Year. But for all the division titles, post season appearances, and accolades, he has yet to win a championship. But what he has done is make us believe.
Smith’s staying power in Chicago can be correlated to a lot of things. For one example, since Smith took over as head coach in 2004, Chicago has recorded the most takeaways in the NFL with 299 (122 opponent fumble recoveries and 177 interceptions).
In a city that remembers the 46 defense of the mid-80s and evokes the legend of the Monsters of the Midway of the 40s, Lovie Smith has done well. His defense consistently ranks at the top of the pack, statistically. And that defense has kept this team in enough seasons to make sure fans have felt close enough to almost touch another tile.
Smith says the right things, he conducts himself the right way, and he’s beloved by Chicago Bears ownership. He is, in this writer’s humble opinion, a damn good football coach and a damn smart man. But the one part of the Chicago Bears that he has consistently failed to get right is the offense.
Since 2004, the Chicago Bears have averaged the 26th-ranked offense in terms of total yards and the 20th-ranked offense in terms of total passing yards. Those are bottom-of-the-pack numbers. And yet, the offensive woes have never quite been Lovie’s fault. And it’s why he’s handed three offensive coordinators their walking papers, and will take Mike Tice with him should he also fail this season.
(For those who’ve mentally blocked out the names of Smith’s coordinators since ’04: Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz, Mike Tice)
In a League that is seemingly shifting gears from defense + run game = championship to quarterback + passing game = championship, the Bears have missed the bus. Oh, they’ve taken steps toward the new age dynamic, acquiring Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall in League-rocking trade deals, but for a litany of reasons, it hasn’t been enough. One of those reasons, and probably the most current, has been the lack of an offensive line anywhere near worth its salt.
But another often overlooked and undervalued reason is, simply, change. Since Jay Cutler entered the League in 2006, he’s operated under four offensive coordinators in four different systems, three of them right here in Chicago.
The only time Cutler ever earned a Pro Bowl nod was after three seasons under former Broncos’ offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, currently of the 11-1, 29-point-per-game Houston Texans. If Lovie Smith were to be fired after this season, it would almost surely mark the era of a fifth offensive play-caller in Cutler's last six seasons.
Here they are: 2006-2008: Rick Dennison, 2009: Ron Turner, 2010-2011: Mike Martz, 2012: Mike Tice, 2013: ?
Who’s more important to your team’s success, Bears fans, Jay Cutler or Lovie Smith?
Oh, I know it’s not quite that simple, but the change factor is certainly one proven to be worth noting. For all the talk surrounding the Bears’ offensive line, I would argue that the change in scheme has been more detrimental to the development of a successful offense than anything.
For example, take our friends to the north in the Green Bay Packers, who won the Super Bowl in 2010 with a shoddy offensive line, relatively no running game, and missing a number of key players on defense. Certainly credit the brilliance of Aaron Rodgers as a quarterback, but that brilliance has to come from somewhere.
Most of it—the brilliance—comes from Rodgers just being a great player. But as the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and Rodgers had four years of practice in the same system before he brought the title home. He was a master at running his offense, despite all the other issues, in part, because he had an opportunity to master it.
Excuse it may be, but Cuter has never had that opportunity. If Smith goes, he’ll be starting over yet again at age 30. No, that’s not too late, but for a player who’s been hit as much as Cutler has, it could be pushing the envelope.
I’m not suggesting to you that it’s the right thing to do to reward mediocrity simply because you don’t have the guts to start over. I’m just making the point that patience is a virtue. And should Lovie Smith finally get the axe after this season, the rebuild phase will begin, and championships aren’t earned overnight.