Well, it’s now or never. It turns out that losing a Super Bowl only buys a few years of confidence from ownership and a desperate general manager. Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith has a date with destiny in 2010, and enters training camp as the coach with the hottest seat underneath him.
There are other coaches that have a tenuous grip on their job, but only Smith’s is truly precarious. While Jeff Fisher and Wade Phillips and Andy Reid – among others – are certainly not without their problems this Fall, only Lovie Smith saw his seat begin to heat up last October.
Some claim that Lovie Smith’s seat first warmed last October when the team fell to 3-3 after a brutally honest 45-10 loss to a still undefined Cincinnati team. The loss was devastating, the new quarterback the city wanted to love, Jay Cutler, was playing recklessly, and mistakes were compounding as quickly as injuries. The slow drumbeat of mediocrity began picking up pace as the season ended disappointingly for Chicago, and Smith shouldered the brunt of criticism.
Interestingly, perhaps only to me, some of the same questions that plague stolid politicians also plague Smith. Many critics decry his ability to withhold emotion on the sidelines (or in the White House). Smith is customarily a cool character, much like his mentor Tony Dungy… who heard the same criticisms up until the moment he defeated Smith for the Super Bowl. The truth is, the critics who argue that Smith’s inability to reflect emotionally on the sidelines is a detriment to his coaching are superficial. It is very easy to call decisions into question from an outsiders’ perspective. The level-headedness that many laud Dungy for using when he won a Super Bowl is also the very characteristic some believe prevents Smith from winning. The circular logic is hypocritical, and any attempt at criticism with it rings hollow.
But, do not mistake my admonishment of Smith’s critics as an endorsement for his coaching. Smith has been part of several key decisions that in retrospect (of course) seem to haunt him. His willingness to cut bait with running back Cedric Benson was noted, even applauded, by many of the same critics. While that decision was somewhat understandable given Benson’s lack of maturity when he was with the Bears, the decision to let former defensive coordinator Ron Rivera leave after building a defense that led the team to the Super Bowl is still a head-scratcher. Smith is still answering questions about that decision – and rightfully so. Rivera, a former Chicago Bear, had his personality all over that great Bears defense from 2006. In many ways that unit played above their capabilities, yet Smith was ready to release Rivera at season’s end. Rivera has since seen the chip on his shoulder grow and has taken that burden with him to San Diego, where he has architected several outstanding defenses in a normally offense-only franchise.
The NFL is notorious for failing to forget past mistakes, and Smith is no exception from that rule. But, the dire situation Lovie Smith finds himself in entering the 2010 season is not entirely of his own doing. If Smith is let go at season’s end it is highly likely that ownership would seek another general manager, as well. Jerry Angelo has stocked the roster with some great players, and others that are duds – especially on offense. Also, it is fair to say that Lovie Smith’s Bears teams have encountered more than a fair share of injuries over the past several seasons. Losing Brian Urlacher in the third quarter of the first game last season was devastating, and the team took weeks to recover – if it ever did.
Nevertheless, the NFL does not stand around and wait for coaches to bust out of slumps, or allow for any excuses for losing. Lovie Smith now finds himself deep within the pressure cooker of the NFL coaching world and must spur his players to help him fight out of it.