As a Chicago Bears fan, it is easy to blur the truth of what needs to happen to this team moving forward due to a deep-rooted passion for my team. As someone who lives in Denver, Colorado and casually follows the Denver Broncos, however, the truth becomes all the more clear.
There is one unifying trait to every championship team. There is always a player that you could interchange with a coach, a player that has softened, even completely overshadowed any coaching departures or changes with their personal greatness and understanding of their team's system.
Of the past 10 years of Super Bowl winners, you could only really make the case for 2 teams' sophisticated coaching and system being a larger influence than their star player.
Since 2002, here is the list of Super Bowl winners:
2002: New England 2003: Tampa Bay 2004: New England 2005: New England 2006: Pittsburgh Steelers 2007: Indianapolis Colts 2008: New York Giants 2009: Pittsburgh Steelers 2010: New Orleans Saints 2011: Green Bay Packers 2012: New York Giants.
Outside of Tampa Bay and New York, there was no more important figure on the entire team than the starting quarterback. In fact, you could have probably interchanged the coach with any other coach and still seen a Super Bowl victory.
I know I'll get a fair share of pushback, but let me explain. The New England Patriots are the most highly-regarded system in the NFL. Belichick has created a unique culture and has helped start numerous head coaching careers. Not a single one of those head coaches could be labeled an NFL success, however. In fact, most, if not all, have been failures. Romeo Crennel, Al Groh, Josh McDaniels, Eric Mangini, and Nick Saban all failed at the NFL level. The only success, and this is a stretch, has been Jim Schwartz up in Detroit.
Furthermore, the personnel between the 1997 Super Bowl Patriots, who lost to Green Bay, and the 2002 Patriots was much the same save one player. Tom Brady. It doesn't matter what coaches leave or join New England. As long as they have Tom Brady, they have an offensive coordinator and a chance to win the Super Bowl.
The Colts are easy -- just look at the team they had in Indy, and look at what Denver has done overnight with him at the helm. New Orleans, which has never had a top defense, won a Super Bowl thanks to their quarterback who owns the NFL record for most consecutive games with a touchdown, breaking Jonny Unitas' record.
Green Bay came close to getting another Super Bowl after 1997 with Brett Favre, a top 5 all-time QB, but never could get it done -- until they went with Aaron Rodgers. Now, in spite of a weak defense and suddenly a porous offensive line, they are still very much alive for a Super Bowl run again.
Pittsburgh has had one of the best organizations and defenses in the NFL for the past 20 years. But Bill Cowher was only able to win 1 Super Bowl in that time. He, and the entire organization, was able to win zero Super Bowls without Ben Roethlisberger. With a healthy Big Ben, Pittsburgh will always have a chance.
That brings us to Tampa Bay and New York.
Tampa Bay had one of the best defenses ever. They stopped the middle with Warren Sapp, ran down running backs with Derrick Brooks, and made plays on the ball with Ronde Barber. They ran a cover 2 scheme that the Bears now have adopted as their pride and joy on defense.
Their head coach? Offensive guru Jon Gruden, not exactly a Lovie Smith type. And wouldn't you know it, he spent time under Mike Holmgren in Green Bay before he became coach of the Raiders, right before jumping ship to Tampa to put them over the top of his old team in the 2004 Super Bowl.
Tom Coughlin is perhaps the only example of a defensive coordinator turned head coach who has created a system that can win, and perhaps regardless of its quarterback -- kinda. Everyone remembers Eli Manning's performances to win 2 Super Bowls, perhaps validating him as an all-time great. But is he an all-time great?
Eli Manning has never had a 100 qb rating in a season, not even a 95 rating. He is a career 82.7 rated quarterback (Jay Cutler is a career 84). He has, however, played with one of the greatest rushing attacks of the past 5 years, along with the greatest pass rush in the NFL over the past 5 years. For that, Tom Coughlin, who has created a system and helped, along with Perry Fewell, get the perfect personnel in to play that system, deserves the same praise as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and Peyton Manning. Eli does not.
So what does this all mean for Chicago? Its really pretty simple. The warning signs have been there for years. In 2007, Chicago was one of the best teams in the league, destined to win a Super Bowl until the most important position in the history of football shot them in the foot -- quarterback Rex Grossman.
They addressed that problem by bringing in Jay Cutler, but in his first year as quarterback more alarms went off. Cutler was sacked 35 times, followed by 52 the next year. The team addressed it by drafting more defensive players, and by bringing in big names like Brandon Marshall and Julius Peppers. They massaged us a little bit by getting rid of Mike Martz and letting Tice be the coordinator. He was to fix our O-line issues. The result? 38 sacks, and Cutler again missing games due to defense inflicted wounds. Compare that with Eli Manning, who's never been sacked more than 30 times in a season.
Say what you want about Lovie Smith, but data shows he had nothing to do with the Chicago Bears' problems over the last few years. Some of these are extremely fixable, and others are just the way it is.
Can the Chicago Bears protect Jay Cutler? Absolutely. It would take a couple draft picks and some free agent signings, and the Bears could protect Cutler like never before starting next year. Its the most obvious solution to problems with your quarterback because when you have a good quarterback the other team wants to hit him and get him on the ground. You can say what you want about Jay Cutler, but Chicago still has not given him a chance.
But, is Jay Cutler the type of player that can make any coordinator interchangeable? Create a culture of winning that transcends a general manager and head coaches responsibility to get the best personnel at every position? Well, sadly it may not be so, and there's really nothing we can do about it.
In all honesty, the next coach of the Chicago Bears will probably be here for a much shorter time than Lovie Smith was. With an aging defense and an identiy crisis, the next head coach may be here to break down the culture for the next head coach.
The next head coach of the Chicago Bears is not the question. The question is whether the Chicago Bears are smart enough to protect their quarterback and find out if, quickly, if he has what it takes to erase all of our coaching doubt. If they can protect Jay Cutler for just one season, they can help us answer all the questions we need answering.