CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 23: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears looks on in the third quarter agianst the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23 2011 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
This post took on a life of it's own. I never intended it to get so big that I would need a three part posting schedule to touch on everything I wanted to. In part 1 (link will pop) I looked at the coaching styles used by coaches. Years ago, I was given some words of wisdom by a coach with nearly 20 years of high school and youth football coaching experience, he told me that if your team sees you losing control on he sidelines over a bad call then they are more apt to lose control themselves if things don't go their way. Lovie Smith and his calm demeanor is closer to the norm these days.
In part 2 (this link pops too) I looked at some past coaches and some of Lovie's contemporaries in the NFL today. The word mediocrity is often thrown around when discussing Smith's tenure, but he's had more success than most who are coaching today. His winning percentage is 7th best among current coaches, and he's had his team in the playoff hunt 4 of his 7 seasons.
If you want to talk about Smith's in game mistakes, you have to realize that every coach takes calculated risks, but as Bears fans that watch mostly Bears games, the questionable calls by Smith are amplified. In the local papers, on sports radio, through fan sites and message boards, we're bombarded with people dissecting his every move. Every coach in the NFL is criticized and every coach makes bad calls, but what about the numerous good decisions a coach makes in a game? It's kind of like an offensive lineman. He could be dominant for 30 straight plays, then if he gives up a sack, he's a bum. I seem to remember New England's Bill Belichick getting roasted for a 4th down call a couple years back, but if his team executes, it's another genius move on his part.
I do think the Bears should have tried the 49 yard field goal against the Packers in the 2nd quarter and I think they should have tried the 51 yarder they passed on their first possession. Hindsight is always 20/20 and had they attempted the kick and missed I wonder how many fans would have been upset with giving Green Bay such good field position. It's a lose/lose situation for head coaches, make a call that goes good and it usually gets no press. Make a call that goes bad and you're ripped at every turn. Do we ever hear, 'great call by Lovie in letting Gould try the 50 yard FG' when he hits it? But when Robbie Gould misses a 50 yarder, Lovie is often criticized because he gave up field position to his opponent.
And one more Packer thought, I live close enough to Wisconsin that I listen to their sports radio station on occasion (between commercials), and their fans criticize Mike McCarthy too. This year he's obviously been golden, but in years past I've heard his play calling questioned, his clock management, his use of challenges, and he's been accused of being much too conservative when leading.
Lovie makes some poor decisions regarding the challenge flag, but he's making many of those with his heart. He'll back his guy if they are adamant about a ref's call. Other times he's getting bad advice from whoever is in the booth reviewing the play. League-wide most challenged plays aren't overturned, it's a risk the head coach takes, so even though Lovie's percentage is bad, keep in perspective that most coaches' percentages are bad. His non-challenge against Washington earlier this season may have cost the Bears that game. The entire challenge process is an area Lovie and his staff could use improvement in.
The "Todd Collins as the backup" fiasco has seen Lovie hit with some criticism. I never thought Caleb Hanie should have lost the #2 job when he was promoted earlier this season, but I understand why he was. There is no way to practice at game speed. It's impossible. There's just an extra adrenalin boost on game day that can't be replicated on a Wednesday afternoon. Collins, from his past work with Mike Martz, just had a better grasp on the playbook, and I'm sure in practice he outplayed Hanie. And as a veteran, he was given the benefit of the doubt from his poor play in the Carolina game. I know Lovie was getting ripped for pulling Collins before the 3rd quarter ended, but I say kudos to him for taking out an ineffective player. I guarantee you, had Collins been left in the game, but threw a pick as the 3rd quarter expired, everyone would be asking whey Hanie wasn't inserted sooner, emergency QB rule be dammed.
As far as his other personnel decisions, you have to realize that just because he's asked to cook the dinner, someone else is doing most of the shopping. I know it's in his contract that he has a say so in personnel moves, but ultimately it's Jerry Angelo that makes the picks. Lovie has had to start Kevin Payne and Al Afalava at safety for numerous games prior to last season, Payne is out of the league and Afalava made 4 tackles for the Colts in 2010, but for Chicago they start. Do we see any former Bears tearing up the league? Did Lovie fail to get the most out of his team? If he failed to maximize his talent then where are the ex-Bears kicking butt? The Bears aren't very deep and when they suffer some injuries, there really isn't anyone waiting in the wings to step in. Could the Bears have overcome the amount of injuries the Packers did in 2010? I don't think so.
I've been a Bears fan long enough to remember that even Mike Ditka had his critics. I remember reading the Sun-Times and the Tribune sports pages back in high school while hiding out in the library, and more than one columnist questioned his dedication to his team. They thought he was more concerned with his endorsements. I wonder how it would have been if sports radio, cable TV, and the internet were as big back then? Would ESPN have questioned his decision to punt to Darell Green in the 1987 playoff game? Would WSCR have ripped him for starting Doug Flutie at QB in the 1986 playoffs? Would some of the more cynical members here at Windy City Gridiron have lambasted Da Coach for failing to win more than one Super Bowl?
Is Lovie Smith a great coach? No... Is he a bad coach? No... Is he a mediocre coach? I don't think it's fair considering his record and his accomplishments to paint him in that light either. If Lovie Smith is mediocre then what does that make the 25 head coaches coaching right now in the NFL that can't match his .563 winning percentage, bad? He's a solid NFL head coach, and the way this team is currently constructed a switch in coaching regimes would set the franchise back. But dare I ask the most pressing question of all; Does he bring the fire and the passion?