Evaluating Lovie Smith, not only as a coordinator, and but as a coach, and how responsibility for his product stacks between him and the rest of the NFL
The concept of Lovie Smith, head coach, as CEO isn't new. People look at teams and feel that, as a reductivist argument or not, the buck stops with Lovie because he's the one ultimately in charge. Of course, to an extent, it's true. He's in charge of making sure his organization is ready for game day, he's in charge of developing talent, and in charge of managing the locker room. But most importantly, he's in charge of the defense of the Chicago Bears.
What you get with Lovie Smith as a coach is a top 10 defense just about every year. How many teams would take that with the consistency that the Bears have had that defense? Because all it takes is a good defense and a good running game to make playoffs. San Francisco, Baltimore, Tampa Bay, Chicago, Houston, all have followed that model and had great success with it over the past few years. When we look at the inconsistency of the Bears though, every single shred of evidence since the 2005 was: 'Well, if the offense wasn't inconsistent' or 'Well, if the offense wasn't bad' or 'Well, if our offense wasn't completely injured'. Every year since 2005.
How many OC's have the Bears had in 8 years? 3. All under the same coach. Lovie, and to a lesser extent, Jerry Angelo and Phil Emery have thrown stuff at the wall when it hasn't worked on offense. When talent dried up on offense, primarily in the offensive line, and Ron Turner was unable to turn decent talent into anything offensive? He was shown the door. When Mike Martz couldn't turn a corner with the offense and protect the quarterback and show competency in controlling the offensive side of the ball with any sort of consistency? He was shown the door.
Recall back, three years ago, when Martz was hired. Often lauded as an offensive genius (and to a point, rightly so), he had a history with Lovie Smith, and had a positive track record at putting up points as an OC. I don't think you could have really faulted the organization for the pick, especially considering the position the organization was in. Lovie was on the hot seat, few OC's wanted to play for a team with a QB and few other gems on offense, and the one guy willing to pick up the reins on offense without qualms and hesitation that had decent qualifications. Yes, in hindsight, there was a lot lacking in Martz's game, but, it wasn't a move that you could not make a case was the right move at the right time.
This past year, we looked at Mike Tice as the next thing to try to stick to the wall. I see things that are great in his gameplanning, I see things that are bad in his gameplanning, but I see things that are talent issues as well. But, when we look hindsight, from here, 12 weeks into the season, we question ourselves with the choice of Mike Tice as OC, thinking, well, we should have picked someone else, we should have gone elsewhere. But it's the same argument as I proposed last week with J'Marcus Webb. The organization is the victim of circumstances. What guys, for sure, would have been better than Tice? What would be the value, knowing what you did at the beginning of the season, of any other particular candidate that was realistically available? What's realistically available is part of the issue. The coaching market is much less transparent than the players market, from an outsiders perspective. Tice was a logical choice from the Bears organization's point of view.
Why? It's the conservative choice. The Bears have been a conservative team for the better part of the last, oh, forever.
It's a concept I feel isn't talked about, but a pervasive tone that we forget when we talk about how the organization and the coaching is run.
Lovie Smith is a conservative coach. He runs a conservative defense, he wants a conservative offense. And you know what? He has it. It starts from the President downward. I believe Emery was a choice that espoused the conservative values of the team, and I think that's the direction the team is heading, regardless of where the wind blows in Smith's contract, the team is going to continue to be a conservative team.
He runs the team conservatively, as a head coach, and he runs his domain, on defense, very well. I believe he manages the offense how he wants to, but, the results aren't necessarily what is expected based on the parts. Sometimes that happens, there's variance, and as Ed Brown here on WCG pointed out yesterday, Inconsistency is Parity. Even if you have the right parts, sometimes it goes wrong.
As Mike Muller posted this past week, the Bears have conservative offensive goals. 1 or less turnovers, 8 explosive gains, 2 sacks or less, 7.2 yards per pass play, 1 rushing touchdown, 45% third down conversion, 60% red zones touchdowns, 52% Rush Efficiency, +5 first half scoring differential. As an defensive team with a new conservative offense that doesn't have to win with offense, it's a stretch to the Bears to reach these goals, the Bears don't have to do much more than the aforementioned to win games, with the defense they have. Convert third downs, make a few explosive plays and run the ball effectively. That's all you want on the offense, you don't need explosiveness, like Green Bay, New Orleans, New England, you just need effective. Don't turn the ball over, keep the point differential up, and win the game.
What many forget is, while Bill Belichick's a good manager of talent, a smart defensive coach, a 'schemer', a 'chess game' coach, he coaches a team who's defense sucks, not sugar coating it. Now, where we laud Belichick for his ability to find the right pieces on offense and evaluate coaching choices to install continuity with talent, his defense, his domain as a defensive minded head coach suffers. Granted, some of his issues can be articulated with the level of talent on the defense, but he's in charge of talent 'because he's the hc', and his oversight of talent on the defensive side of the ball really impacts his team's ability to win more games, especially the Super Bowl. Belichick puts all of his eggs offensively, and thinks defensive that he can outscheme teams as a 'chess player', being aggressive, being exploitive. They have the opposite issue of the Bears, but you could also look at the Saints or the Lions in the same manner. You have to be aggressive on defense when the majority of your talent is on offense, because you will have gaps in your roles on defense, playing aggressive, blitzing, and minimizing those role deficiencies is all part of being an aggressive coach. But, as we've seen, it's difficult to be consistent when you have to be that aggressive on defense. When you lack the raw talent, your need to play aggressively to get adequate results increases.
But you look at Lovie, Lovie has the talent on defense that Belichick does not (not to say Belichick doesn't have talent). Lovie is a conservative coach. He plays 'checkers not chess' in the sense that he controls the board state, he puts his pieces in positions to win, and letting the game happen to you. It's the old 'read and react' gameplan. You could make the argument that the model is outdated, that with the level of talent, playing aggressively, being an aggressive defensive coach is the only way to be effective with the talent you have on defense, and it's a waste of of Julius Peppers', Brian Urlacher's, Charles Tillman's and Henry Melton's talent to play in such a conservative scheme. But I disagree, you don't have to make the same gambits, you don't have to make the same sacrifices in defense, you don't have to constantly attack when you have better position. And the better position is what makes Lovie a great defensive coach. And the results are there. He plays conservative defensively, he plays a conservative scheme conservatively, has the talent to execute it, and puts up a top 10 defense year in year out. It's 'checkers'. You don't put as many options out there, but because you execute and react well, you win those defensive battles more often.
So, I give you this though: the more conservative you want to play, the more talent it requires to play at a high level, but the return is more consistency.
Being overly aggressive bites you in the butt sometimes, Vic Fangio's learned that a few times this year, but compared to last year? He's been less aggressive than he was the year before with Aldon and Justin Smith, he's just been throwing 3-4 stunts and letting his front 4 work, bringing less pressure and letting his personnel do the work. Of course against the Bears he was a bit more aggressive, but, that's more because of circumstance than habit. Dom Capers? Sometimes has defensive gems in his chess piece defense of trying to trap teams and exploit weaknesses, but, by virtue, their teams defense has holes, it has defects, it has strengths, and it's applied to those strengths. But overall, look at the past 4 years of Dom Capers, for his genius, and for his talent, he lacks a solid DL, his back 4 isn't anything special, and thus he plays aggressive.
Tuning a team, getting them to play more than their base talent, at a very high level, is something that Lovie has shown that he does, and does well. He turns teams with average 80 level talent into 90 level talent, whereas guys like Dom Capers do best turning teams with 60 level talent into 75 level talent. Now you look and say 'hey', guys like Dom Capers increases a defense by 15 points, whereas Lovie increase them by 10 points, why can't Dom Capers increase it by 10 points? Because it's not additive, it's a multiplicative percentages. When you get that high level talent, turning them into efficient, consistent monsters is something that Lovie has great experience with. Even on the less talented defensive years, with less talent on the line, with less talented corners and safeties, the Bears have still been able to put a great defensive team out there.
I suppose a fair question to ask is, which is the better coach? The one who works with less and gets more, but still fields a mediocre product, or the one who works with great talent and gets outstanding results? You can look at it from a coordinator standpoint as well. Lovie Smith as a coordinator works with great talent and gets outstanding results, not just from his defense, but for a while his special teams. He works with less on offense and fields a mediocre product. Bill Belichick as a coordinator works with lesser talent and gets mediocre results, but as a coach, he works with better talent overall, and gets a marginally better product on the field. But, do you look at how poor Belichick's defense is, something he, arguably, would have the most control over? Why would you put the same burden on Lovie for something he has arguably less control over in the offense? Food for thought.
No team wins without talent. No team is effective without talent, both in coaching and on the field. If the Bears are a defense-first team, we evaluate the team defensively first, and when you look at what Lovie has done, consistently with the product he puts on the defensive side of the ball. Yes, the results aren't exactly what you want, you have to look at the context, you have to look at the effort. The NFL is, unfairly, a results oriented league. In all teams outside of Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, your job is only as safe as your record, regardless of the circumstances around the team. I feel we can find a consensus that if the Bears had a solid OC gameplan, whether it's Tice or anyone really, and an offensive line that was well tended, and a running back, Lovie Smith wouldn't be questioned on his effectiveness. His defense isn't suspect, his scheme has talent, his defense keeps the team in every single game. If the Bears had a league average offense, they'd be a perennial Super Bowl contender, right?
Answer: Most likely.
Lovie Smith plays his ball of conservative coaching very well. Bears have been a ridiculously consistent team over .500 without any hits on offense. If Phil Emery has faith in Lovie, and by extension Mike Tice. I feel over the next 2 years the Bears will be a very good team. Whether or not it leads to a Super Bowl isn't the concern, but whether or not the team fields a good, playoff caliber team year in year out with the coaching at hand is the real concern. Is the team well coached? Is the team schematically sound? Is the team moving in the right direction with personnel?
Maybe it's overwhelming optimism, but I think the team's potential isn't there yet, not offensively, not defensively. Regardless of the age of the players on defense, I think there's a lot defensively left in the tank to tap. The needle is still pointing forward, and I for one am comfortable with Lovie Smith as the architect of the future, assuming that the progression that Mike Tice and Jeremy Bates are making on offense continues onto next year.