Lovie’s Last Stand

Lovie Smith's head coaching career with the Bears got off to a sterling start. Following a 5-11 rebuilding season in his rookie year of 2004, the Bears won the NFC North on the strength of Smith's defensive unit, and Lovie was named Coach of the Year. In 2006, the Bears went 13-3 and made it to the Super Bowl. Smith was on top of the world.

Since then, the Bears are 23-25 with no playoff appearances. They haven't been terrible, but there have been plenty of low moments, and many fans see little reason for optimism. Smith is on the hot seat, and it's time for drastic action if he and GM Jerry Angelo are going to keep their jobs. No one can say the Bears aren't giving him the resources he needs; drastic action is exactly what the team is taking.

No club has been more active this offseason. They've hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, signed coveted free agent Julius Peppers, and grabbed Chester Taylor from the division rival Minnesota Vikings. They're even getting Brian Urlacher back from a wrist injury. None of those moves are sure things, but all of them have the potential to make this team a lot better.

Martz, who was Smith's boss in St. Louis, where Lovie was defensive coordinator, will try to recapture the magic that has eluded him since 2003. Martz's mentor Norv Turner has been a head coach for three different teams, but has always excelled as an offensive coach. Martz did great things when he had Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt, and Orlando Pace from 1999-2001, but his erratic decision-making, combined with inconsistent success and a health problem, eventually cost Martz his job. He then oversaw mediocre offenses in Detroit, clashed with Mike Singletary in San Francisco, and didn't coach at all last year.

During his 38-year coaching career, Martz has actually held 18 different positions, meaning he switches jobs an average of once every two seasons. A few of those position changes were promotions, but Martz is hardly a steadying influence for a team dealing with turmoil. They don't call this guy "Mad Mike" for nothing.

Peppers is one of the great defensive players of this generation. He has double-digit sacks in five of the last six seasons and ranks first or second among active defensive ends in INTs (6), INT yards (177), INT TDs (2), and passes defended (46). He's a physical marvel and phenomenal athlete who probably still has room to improve. The questions about Peppers are his motivation and motor; he sometimes seems not to go 100%. He's also 30 years old and moving to a new defense. Will his productivity be the same?

Taylor, I think, is the one no-lose proposition. He rushed for 1,200 yards three years ago and has remained an effective third-down back and substitute for Adrian Peterson. In a perfect world, the Bears would like him to play a similar role with their team, but if Matt Forte struggles the way he did in 2009, Taylor should get an opportunity to be the primary ball-carrier. At the very least, Minnesota has to replace him, and the Bears get someone who's been inside the enemy's locker room.

It's not unusual for linebackers to be effective into their 30s, but Urlacher is a 10-year vet coming off an injury and a year away from the game. The supporting cast that once kept blockers away is a shadow of what he had in 2005, when Urlacher was named Defensive Player of the Year. Will a rejuvenated Urlacher recapture the form he had during Chicago's '06 Super Bowl run, or will he look old and beaten up, a timeworn warrior who refuses to admit that the team can't build around him any more?

Obviously, the Bears have more questions than answers right now. Will Martz help Jay Cutler justify the team's investment in him? Is Brandon Manumaleuna a perfect complement for Martz's offense, or does his acquisition translate to limited playing time for Greg Olsen? Will the team's young receiving corps continue to develop, or will the lack of a star wideout doom the air attack? Can Peppers help Mark Anderson and Tommie Harris recover their 2006 form? Does the team have two good options at RB, or a pair of guys who should be backups?

I have limited faith in Martz, who hasn't put together a really good offense in nearly a decade, and I don't think Cutler has ever been as good as the hype. Peppers is a powerful acquisition for any team, but I think the Bears need to concentrate more on the weakest link, solidifying their interior line and defensive backfield, than on superstars opponents can game-plan around. Offensive line remains an area of concern and should probably be the team's top priority in April's draft. Taylor and Manumaleuna are positive additions, but they aren't impact players.

We won't know until next season how this all plays out, but the team is obviously working hard to build a winner. Coach Smith knows that if the team doesn't show progress this year, he'll be looking for a new job next season, and if this is Lovie's last stand, he's going down fighting.

Comments and Conversation

March 11, 2010

Anthony Brancato:

If Lovie Smith’s continued employment beyond 2010 is contingent upon the Bears making the playoffs, then Smith’s fate is likely in Brett Favre’s hands: For unless Favre does decide to retire, the Bears are all but assured of another third-place finish in the NFC North - and with the NFC East very likely to snag one of the conference’s two wild-card berths, that means no room at The Playoff Inn for Chicago.

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