As Lovie Smith embarks on his 9th, and what could very well be final season as head coach of the Chicago Bears, a look back on his tenure in the Windy City is definitely worth examining.
After a forgettable rookie season in 2004 that saw the team go 5-11, Lovie Smith and his Bears shocked the League and went 11-5 in 2005, capturing the NFC North Division Title. This earned Lovie an AP NFL Coach of the Year award. He faced a ton of adversity during this season, losing his starting quarterback Rex Grossman in a meaningless preseason game. After a 1-3 start, the Bears rode with their rookie QB, Kyle Orton for a majority of the season, gaining a playoff berth in the process. Grossman was able to return later in the season, just in time to take the starting reigns heading into the postseason. The Bears would eventually fall to the eventual NFC Champion Carolina Panthers in the Divisional Round. Although this ending served as a disappointment, the League was on notice – Lovie and his squad were for real.
The Bears began the 2006 season with 7 consecutive victories on their way to posting a 13-3 record. This earned them the top seed in the NFC. After a close win over the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round, the Bears went on to stomp out the Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 39-14 in the NFC Title Game, earning them a trip to the Super Bowl. With this victory, Lovie Smith became the first African American NFL head coach to lead his team to the big game (Tony Dungy, head coach of the Indianapolis Colts would become the second later that same evening). Lovie’s Bears would fall to Dungy’s Colts in Super Bowl XLI 29-17. Lovie was panned after this outcome with critics pointing to conservative defensive playcalling, which led to Peyton Manning picking the Bears apart through the air (247yds, 1TD) and Dominic Rhodes running through them on the ground (113yds, 1TD). It was rumored that defensive coordinator at the time, Ron Rivera wanted a more aggressive scheme called. It would be his last game coached with the Bears.
The Rise of the mid-2000 Bears coincided with the rise of their dominant defense. Ron Rivera was widely hailed as the mastermind of this front. This led to Rivera being the rumored favorite for multiple head coaching gigs during the ’05-’07 offseasons. Anyone who has read Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power would recognize the mortal sin Rivera was guilty of committing. “Law #1: Never outshine the Master“. Lovie Smith, armed with a new lucrative contract extension and coming off a Super Bowl appearance, recognized the threat posed by Rivera. If things were to go down hill for Lovie and he was fired, Ron Rivera would be the top in-house candidate to replace him. Lovie had to make a move. He refused to renew Rivera’s expiring contract after the 2006 season, effectively dismissing him from the organization. That was definitely a Boss move. This act seemed to kill all momentum Rivera had been gaining towards landing a head coaching job. He would go on to become defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers for 4 seasons, from 2007-2010. He finally landed that head coaching spot with the Carolina Panthers during the 2011 offseason.
The 3 seasons following that Super Bowl appearance were thoroughly mediocre and forgettable, with the Bears going 7-9, 9-7, and 7-9, respectively, in the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. With his back up against the wall and his job likely on the line heading into the 2010 season, Lovie coached his team to a very surprising NFC Championship Game appearance, where they lost to their hated rivals, the Green Bay Packers. This earned him another contract extension and lessened all calls for his head. The Bears began their 2011 season with a 7-3 record and looked to be a more formidable squad than their 2010 version. However, disaster struck late in the year when both Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were lost for the season. The putrid performance of the Bears’ reserves put everyone on notice. Heads would definitely roll at the end of this disappointing season. When it was announced that General Manager Jerry Angelo had been relieved of his duties, insiders around the League guaranteed Lovie’s dismissal wouldn’t be far behind. Rarely, if ever, do coaches survive the firing of the GM that hired them. When word was released that newly hired GM Phil Emery would be retaining Lovie, the power that Lovie wielded within the Chicago Bears organization was put on full display. I like to imagine Lovie sitting in his coach’s office blasting Meek Mill’s/Rick Ross’ I’ma Boss as this announcement was made.
So, with his back once again up against the proverbial wall, what does Lovie have in store for us in 2012? Barring another disastrous set of injuries, I’m expecting nothing less than a playoff run this season. Lovie has spent his entire tenure in Chicago making chicken salad out of chicken sh!t . Jerry Angelo never really equipped him with a roster that was expected to succeed. Now, with a competent GM running the show in Phil Emery, Lovie is coaching the most talented set of players he has ever had here. After finding success with lesser parts over the last decade, it’s not a stretch to assume that the Bears will be back in the thick of things this upcoming Fall. Lovie Smith has shocked us all before. Reaching new heights of success this season and retaining his job is definitely within reach.