Commentary

The more things change ...

Low-level firings fail to address fundamental issues

Updated: January 5, 2010, 11:58 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeTed Phillips
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenThe Bears talked a lot about making changes, but Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips said he was loathe to make changes at the top.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In a crowded auditorium in tony Halas Hall, Chicago Bears president and chief executive officer Ted Phillips, the guy with the biggest calculator in the building, said he couldn't compute another winter of our mutual discontent.

Phillips, the team's highest-paid accountant, really put his $300 loafer down this time.

"We've had three seasons of no playoffs, so status quo was not an option, and changes were necessary," Phillips said. "It's difficult to make changes, especially with coaches, who just three years ago helped carry us to the Super Bowl. But in the last three years, it's been clear that no one did a good enough job in this organization. Nobody did."

It's a bottom-line business, Phillips went on to say, but you know the old football saw: You can't fire the players and you apparently can't fire coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, but you sure can fire Charles London and Harry Hiestand.

The Bears talked a lot about making changes, but Phillips said he was wary of upsetting the continuity at the top. So while Smith and Angelo kept their respective jobs, a host of assistant coaches, and one glum coordinator, got the axe on Tuesday.

"I know some may disagree, but I feel the fastest way to improve is to keep the continuity that we have, and that is to keep Jerry Angelo, our general manager, and head coach Lovie Smith," Phillips said. "After discussions with Jerry, Lovie and ownership, the conclusion was made that Jerry and Lovie still know what it takes to win. They are aware of the mistakes that we made and they both welcome change."

The biggest move Tuesday was the wildly expected dismissal of the man behind all those wide receiver screen passes: Ron Turner, who rivals Larry Rothschild as a blame pinata.

Big shocker there. Even former Redskins coach Jim Zorn saw this one coming. The only question was whether Turner would outlast Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro.

The still-moribund Bears offense sputtered with the addition of Jay Cutler, and Turner, with his supposedly unimaginative playbook, was an easy scapegoat. He probably deserved to go, but then again, I can think of a couple of other guys who should probably look for work too.

Along with Turner went the remnants of a 7-9 season. Hiestand, the offensive line coach, was dismissed. After all, it was Hiestand, a Turner guy, who signed a can't-find-the-hill Orlando Pace at tackle and put Frank Omiyale at guard. It was Hiestand who spent a first-round pick on tackle Chris Williams. It's Hiestand's fault that center Olin Kreutz is past his prime.

But it wasn't just Hiestand who probably deserved to get axed. No, the Bears had the gall to fire Hall of Famer Dick Butkus too!

Oh wait, it was assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus who was fired. I guess it was his fault the line had so many drive-crippling false starts.

I guess London, the assistant receivers coach, was the one who told the coaches that Devin Aromashodu wasn't ready to contribute until the season was all but over.

[+] EnlargeRon Turner
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastEven former Redskins coach Jim Zorn could see Ron Turner's departure coming.

Phillips, Angelo and Smith, the only three who talked in the news conference, talked about bringing a new "energy" to the team. I guess quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton brought energy in name only. Tight end Desmond Clark praised his coach, Rob Boras, after Sunday's win over the Lions. Guess the Bears didn't take that into account, as Boras was fired too.

It's no surprise that the offensive coaches were wiped out, considering that Turner was fired, though running backs coach Tim Spencer was saved, and receivers coach Darryl Drake will presumably be signed to a new contract.

No defensive coaches were let go, and no, linebackers coach Bob Babich wasn't reassigned to the basement, a la Milton in "Office Space," and the guys responsible for the personnel and the scheme of a once-great defense, now soured like an old carton of milk, remain.

[+] EnlargeJerry Angelo
AP Photo/M. Spencer GreenBears GM Jerry Angelo admitted the team did not meet expectations this year.

Sorry Bears fans, you still have Smith and Angelo to kick around some more. While it was assumed that Angelo and Smith were on respective hot seats -- and there were so many leaks coming out of Halas Hall, Angelo probably felt like he was a sieve -- this news conference was memorable in that both of the Bears' principal leaders expressed contrition for what has gone wrong the past few years and happiness to still have their jobs.

"We lost, we did not meet expectations, so that comes with the territory," Angelo said. "They chose to retain me, gave me the vote of confidence, and I then gave Lovie the vote of confidence."

"I'm excited to remain in my position as head football coach of the Chicago Bears," Smith said. "I think I am remaining in this position because ownership and administration, the powers that be, have confidence we can get the Bears back on top."

That and that alone is why Smith is still the coach of the Bears, and it has nothing to do with the $11 million he is owed and the possible 2011 lockout and the fact that saintly matriarch Virginia McCaskey, the final word on everything Bears, is known to like the very nice, very polite Smith very much.

And then they mutually fired Turner, who got no votes of confidence outside his immediate family. When Smith was asked Sunday if Turner did enough to keep his job, he did not demur, noting that none of the coaches did a good enough job. Of course, Smith's defensive coaches are still gainfully employed.

"We're not blaming one side of the ball for our 7-9 record," Smith said. "I am moving out of my role that I handled this past year as defensive coordinator."

Smith and the Bears tried to spin it that his stepping down as defensive coordinator was a big change, but who really expected him to be the head coach and call the defensive plays for another season? Smith admitted it was a "chore" after the Lions game and no one can fault him. How many head coaches at his level, or even college, coordinate as well?

No, I believe Smith was going to give this up regardless. But his defensive assistants remain, and that begs the question: Where's the change on defense? Angelo wouldn't get into it.

"We talked through that," Angelo said of leaving the defensive coaches intact. "I'm not getting into the 'nitty grittys' of all the things we talked about. Obviously we decided that was the decision we made to give us the best chance to win next year."

Obviously.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Tony Medina/SMILovie Smith defended his Cover-2 defensive philosophy, but the defense has failed to live up to the hype over the past three years.

Smith was asked about and defended his Cover 2-based defensive philosophy, noting that every team uses some form of it. It's true. Heck, I learned the Cover 2 as a no-hit, no-cover defensive back at Harding Middle School in Steubenville, Ohio, in 1991. Basically, Smith said, the defense just had a bad year. Then again, Jerry Glanville would probably defend his run-and-shoot offense.

But in the three years since the Super Bowl, the Bears' defense has failed to live up to its hype. The aging "stars" aren't getting any better and there aren't too many young stars in waiting on the roster. Angelo admitted this is a problem. In other news, the sky is blue and McCaskey walked out of Halas Hall in a really warm fur coat.

"I'm concerned about there were games this year that were over at halftime," Angelo said. "Part of that, a big part of it, was our defense. We have issues we have to deal with on defense. You know, schemes, personnel, yes.

"We don't have as many dominating players on defense to do the things we did in past years. There are some things we could do from a scheme perspective to help the players we have. I'm sure Lovie and the staff are going to look at that real hard. "

Good thing you traded a second-round pick for dominating defensive end Gaines Adams, eh, Jerry?

This answer is a galling indictment of an organization unable, or unwilling, to make a big change for another year. Angelo himself said his main concerns on defense are the scheme and the players. Well, this is Smith's scheme and those are Angelo's players. So whose fault is it?

At least they didn't pin it on defensive backs assistant coach Gill Byrd. He kept his job.

Phillips made sure to mention that Smith, the Bears' coach since 2004, has never, ever had back-to-back losing seasons, which he also used as a cudgel in regard to Smith's future with the team -- as in, if it finally happens next year, Smith won't be at the final news conference.

If you go by Phillips' logic lesson, next year should be a winning one, as the previous time Smith had a losing season in 2007, he led the Bears to a winning one the next year, going 9-7 last year and, um, missing the playoffs. So what's the difference, exactly?

"There's a lot of difference," Phillips said. "He built a winning team; 2004 was his first year and in a short time he built a successful team."

And now that successful team is the one we saw in 2009. There's no mistaking this year for a simple fluke. This is a team that has far too few playmakers, too little talent and not enough depth. It was a 7-9 team, make no bones about it, and Phillips, Angelo and Smith all said they won't accept another year of it.

That's because two out of three won't be here if it happens again. Then again, maybe they will. There will be plenty of new low-level assistant coaches to fire first.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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