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There has been a minor hullabaloo this week about rumors of contract talks opening between the Bears and head coach Lovie Smith. Some eye-rolling and and sighing have been heard throughout Bears fandom and the media (Rosendoom, I'm looking in your direction). I say, do it.
I like Lovie. The Bears brass like Lovie. Most importantly, the players like Lovie. So why shouldn't the Bears extend his contract?
I know: only one playoff appearance since 2006, only one playoff win since 2006. The biggest complaint about Lovie, other than that he is too stoic, is that he hasn't had sustained greatness. The Bears have never been a perennial playoff contender under him. Another knock is that his player development record isn't great.
I say, though, that you can't put player development all on Lovie. In fact, I think it would be unfair for Lovie to be fired after only one season with Phil Emery. To me, it is tough to judge a coach separate from his general manager. Of course they need to work together and the input from the coach is there, but at the end of the day, the GM makes the final call.
How many players that didn't work out in Chicago have worked out elsewhere? Mark Anderson comes to mind, but who else? Jarron Gilbert still hasn't made it in the NFL, neither has Marcus Harrison or Michael Okwo, Garrett Wolfe, Dan Bauzin, Juaquin Iglesias and I could go on.
My point is, if the player is a bad a player to begin with what can he be developed to? Sure Cedric Benson worked out for the Bengals but that was bigger than just the Bears coaching staff. The players that the Bears didn't develop, by and large, never got developed anywhere else.
Plus, I believe player development has gotten much better in recent seasons. Look no further than Major Wright, Corey Wootton, Lance Louis and Henry Melton. Some of that has to do with their health, but a lot of it has to do with the coaches making the players better.
Last season the Bears were 7-3 with their starters before the wheels fell off, and in his column yesterday, Rosenbloom points out that Lovie was unable to "coach up" his players to a better result. What players was he supposed to coach up to greatness? Caleb Hanie? Kahlil Bell? The Bears got the best they could out of the players they had, the players just couldn't play! Health is out of a coaches control. Saying a player shouldn't lose his starting job to injury should go for coaches too.
If the Bears do make the playoffs this year, that will be two playoff years out of the last three or 66%. That's darn good. Few people could complain about that.
The fact is, like it or not, Lovie is a good coach. Not great, but good. He's steady and he's above average. The players still play hard for Lovie, and he's not in danger of losing the locker room. That's huge.
What coach would you take over Lovie? I know I would take, in no particular order: Mike Tomlin, Bill Belichick, John Harbaugh, Jim Harbaugh and Sean Payton. That's it. Those are the best coaches in the league, in my opinion. There are so few great coaches, though, it's hard to say that Lovie needs to be replaced just for the sake of making the change.
This brings me to my next point; stability sustains winning. I believe it would be a huge mistake to let Lovie go after this season if the team misses the playoffs. It's my understanding that teams take a big step from year one to year two in a system. The Bears are in year one of their offense. It's improving, but I don't believe we'll see how great it can be until 2013 and I think that Cutler's progress will again go backwards if there is another coach brought it and yet another system. Cutler hasn't, in his career, had a chance to work, grow and thrive in one system. The closest he came was in Denver and that's when he put together his best season.
Another reason to want a Lovie extension is that it could affect how other players consider their contract extensions. Urlacher has said he doesn't want to play for another coach other than Lovie and Cutler has said he likes playing for Lovie. If they make a change, who knows what that does for those players or others when considering signing their own extensions.
Finally, who would the Bears replace Lovie with? The most-mentioned name when it comes to this is Bill Cowher. Well for one, Lovie is going to be cheaper than Cowher. Two, it's unknown if Cowher would even come here. Three, it could be at least one season before Cowher could make an impact because changing from 4-3 to 3-4 personnel takes time and more than one offseason.
Bill Cowher's winning percentage is .623, not bad and an improvement over Lovie's .564. Speaking of Lovie's winning percentage, would you believe that it's higher than Mike Ditka's? That's right, Ditka's is .560. Lovie's percentage is also higher than Tom Coughlin (.556 but he has two titles), Marv Levy (.561), Jimmy Johnson (.556) and Jeff Fisher (.543). He also beats out other title-less coaches who have a Super Bowl appearance; John Fox (.503) and Ken Whisenhunt (.518).
Perhaps you would rather reunite Cutler with his old Denver coach, Mike Shanahan? Shanahan has a career .566 winning percentage. Maybe you want a coach with more fire. Would you take Rex Ryan and his .566 winning percentage instead? I know I wouldn't.
My point is, the Bears have a perfectly good coach in Smith. It's easy to look at some hotshot assistant and say "that's the guy I want" but who knows if that guy will work out? Look at Jason Garrett in Dallas, Pat Shurmur in Cleveland or Joe Philbin in Miami. You just don't know how those guys will work out.
Lovie deserves a modest, two or three year extension for similar money to what he has now. He's not overpaid but he certainly doesn't deserve a huge pay raise either. By doing it now, the Bears can avoid his price jumping up if the Bears go on to win 10 or 12 games. He has to earn a pay raise. Give him another couple years, if he wins a title then he can come back to the negotiating table. The Bears are better with Smith than without him.