Monday, December 29, 2008

No More Love for Lovie

I’m not an extremist when it comes to firing coaches. It seems that the standard in sports today though, in the era of ESPN and non-stop talk radio and yes, message boards and blogs where every knuckle-dragging Neanderthal can spout off on any topic, that as soon as any team loses the talk begins about the removal of the coach. In most cases, it’s a foolish over-reaction by people who have no idea what they are talking about.

As someone who spent thirteen years as a coach, albeit on the very most amateur level, I know what a difficult and thankless job it can be. I’ve attended seminars given by some of the most respected coaching minds in sports today. I’ve put in the hours in the trenches as they may say, so when I speak out against a coach, it’s only after giving it a lot of thought and I assure you, it’s not an alarmist reaction.

That said, I think I may actually be in the minority in my opinion, which is this: The Chicago Bears need to fire head coach Lovie Smith post haste.

The reason is two-fold, one having to do with the fact that after having watched him for a few years now, I have come to the conclusion that he isn’t the right coach for this team. The second is because of the limited availability of a guy who would be. The second reason would be irrelevant without the first, of course, but because I believe it to be so, it’s something that comes into play.

Let’s start with why Lovie Smith isn’t the right guy for the job. And the answer is a simple one. There are two kinds of coaches in this world, real coaches and talent managers. I think that Lovie Smith is a fine talent manager, which means that when he has a team that is more talented than yours, he manages them in a way that keeps them from losing. He is player-friendly to the last, he never calls a specific player out in public, he never ruffles feathers, he is calm, collected, pensive and obtuse.

If the Bears did choose to fire him, which they most certainly will not, there wouldn’t be a single player who spoke a bad word about him. There would be outrage because just a couple years ago, he guided the Bears to an appearance in the Super Bowl, but I believe that to be a fallacy now. He didn’t guide them anywhere. He rode them to that Super Bowl. Simply put, his team was talented, so he was considered a good coach; it wasn’t a case where they were a good team because he was a good coach.

The sign of a good coach, a real coach, a coach worth keeping and paying is how his teams play and compete when they aren’t the most talented team. As the saying goes, he can take his’n and beat yours’n, and then take yours’n and beat his’n. A good coach’s team can overcome adversity, like injury to key players because he’s coached the backups to be ready to step in and fill the void. A good coach gets the most out his players. A well coached team will get better, not worse, as a year goes on. A good coach is all things—father, mother, brother, sister, friend, enemy, boss, peer, comrade, antagonist, psychologist and bus driver. A good coach is never universally liked, but is universally respected. A good coach is emotional, but never a slave to his emotions. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see it in Lovie. In him, I see a guy who is excellent with the wind at his back, and useless when walking into the wind.

The Bears players do not ever improve. They are good or bad. They are as is merchandise. If you draft, trade or sign a player, what you see is what you get. There is no growth curve. I cannot name a single player who has been a shining example of being coached up during the Lovie Smith era—a player who has made vast improvements. They are either good or bad when they get here. There is never any growth. That is the indictment. That is the proof in the pudding. That is the basis for labeling Lovie Smith a talent manager instead of a real coach. Sadly, the Chicago Bears will rarely be the team that pays for the most talent, so is a talent manager really the best choice for our coach?

The most common opinion now is that Lovie deserves one more year, that the Super Bowl appearance in 2006 earns him one more chance and therein lies the biggest problem. Coaches are going to start getting the axe left and right today, with the regular season over and done. Every one of those teams is going to being pursuing the best man for the job out there, a real coach who has always gotten the most from his teams, Bill Cowher.

IF, the Bears let Smith go, they would immediately become the most attractive option for a coach like Cowher, who would relish the chance to coach one of the original franchises, steeped in history and tradition and to be part of that tradition. If the money was right, there wouldn’t be a more attractive destination out there for him. The fact of the matter is that while the cupboard isn’t full of talent, it’s far from devoid of it. Chicago is a great sports town with a great fan base. Simply put, it’s one of the best places to coach in all of football, if not professional sports as a whole. If the money was right, Cowher could be the next coach of the Bears. But he won’t be.

Lovie Smith was given a contract extension based on the Super Bowl run. The Misers of the Midway won’t dump him until the stench of the corpse rot is definitive. They won’t take the chance that he may yet be a good coach. They won’t take the chance that they were wrong to have given him more money. Muster up your best West Texas drawl and say it with me: Lovie Smith is our football coach.

It’s a shame, because Cowher and Chicago would have been an amazing fit. But it’s a pipe dream, it’s as likely as the country banding together to ask Obama to step aside and have George Bush run things for four more years.

So, are the Bears doomed to mediocrity or worse until Lovie finally does get fired? No. The dynamic that football has that offers hope is the amount of responsibility that the coordinators have in the running of the team. A team manager like Lovie Smith can be successful if his Offensive and Defensive Coordinators are real coaches—and good ones. As the staff stands now, that’s not the case. If Lovie must stay, then Turner and Babich must go. It’s time to get some new blood in those jobs. A D-Coordinator with some fire is a must. The team obviously responds to that, as they did for Ron Rivera when he held the job. And both on offense and defense, our coordinators should be innovators. They should be ahead of the curve, not always trying to catch up to it. The era of the Cover-2 is over, it must evolve or die. And Ron Turner has had the same playbook since Jim Miller was our quarterback. He’s more predictable than the winter snow in Chicago. His biggest innovation of the year was being the last coordinator in the league to try the new-fangled “wildcat” formation. Gee. How exciting.

It’s been a long time since the Bears have had a real coach. They seem to be enamored with this prototype, poker-faced, ultra-calm, unflappable kind of coach. When it was time for Dick Jauron to go, they hired Dick Jauron with a tan. Meanwhile, when you say the words coach and Bears together in the same sentence, every and any football fan out there immediately thinks back to Mike Ditka. Great coaches become legends in this town. We haven’t had a legend in a long time. Cowher could have been a legend. Twenty years from now, I could have enjoyed a steak at his steakhouse downtown, but I won’t. I’ll still be going to Ditka’s and re-living ’85. Sad, isn’t it?

No comments: