Out with the old
If they want to improve, Bears need to part ways with Smith and mediocrity
The Chicago Bears are stuck between a rock and a Lovie. They are so mind-numbingly mediocre that it's almost impossible to figure out who's to blame for this latest in a trilogy of lost Bears seasons.
Is it their charisma-challenged coach, Lovie Smith, who has been living off that 2006 Super Bowl appearance (and loss) for years? Smith did the impossible: He reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman and missed the playoffs with Jay Cutler. Smith's Bears wouldn't recognize the postseason if you had it in a one-person police lineup.
Is it their general manager, Jerry Angelo, who conspicuously distanced himself from all things Lovie by recently saying the Bears' roster -- his roster -- was good enough to win? Translation: It must be the coaching.
Is it the wildly inconsistent Cutler, who now has taken the playoff oh-fer with two franchises? Or defensive tackle Tommie Harris, who phoned it in enough that AT&T ought to pair him with Luke Wilson?
Is it something as simple as injuries, which cost the Bears the likes of Brian Urlacher?
Sometimes you just know a guy is history. Jim Zorn of the Washington Redskins ... gone. Raheem Morris of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers ... gone. Perry Fewell of the Buffalo Bills ... gone. Eric Mangini of the Cleveland Browns ... all but gone.
Smith? If you go by his past three playoff-less seasons (22-25 overall, 15-20 in the conference, 8-9 in the division, 7-16 on the road, four blowout losses in 2009), he's dead coach walking. But if you go by his total record (46-33), that Super Bowl cameo and the conventional wisdom (however ridiculous) that the Bears won't spend the $11 million to make Smith's contract go away, he's back in 2010.
I've seen enough of this Bears movie to know it's time for a cast change. Doesn't mean Smith is a bad guy or even a bad coach; he isn't. But to go from the Super Bowl to sub-.500 in three years' time is unacceptable -- or at least, it should be.
Smith has played the defensive coordinator card. He got rid of Ron Rivera and then neutered whatever real responsibilities Bob Babich had. Babich kept the D-coordinator title, but if you dust the Bears' defense for prints, you find Smith's thumbmarks everywhere.
OK, so if you deep-six your coordinator and take over the defense -- because that's how you made your rep in this league -- you better deliver the goods. Smith didn't deliver. The Bears are 17th in total defense and 21st in scoring defense. Injuries were a factor. But so was Smith's inability to press the right buttons. Example A: Harris.
If Smith stays, offensive coordinator Ron Turner goes. Someone has to take the fall, right?
But blaming Turner for this mess is like blaming closets and sheds for Mike Leach. This is Smith's staff, Smith's record and Smith's watch. I mean, how many coordinators can Smith go through before something is his fault?
I can live with the Smith monotone, the say-nothing comments and the seemingly total indifference to revealing any part of his personality (or maybe that is his personality). Smith doesn't need to be Jon Stewart.
But coaching in denial is another thing. Only Smith, when assessing his 6-9 team, could say, "We've been disappointed in our play this year, but we've been a good football team for a long time. We're doing things the right way. Better days will be ahead of us.''
Disappointed? That's it?
A good football team for a long time? Or did he mean a long time ago?
Better days ahead? Why? Because Smith says so?
That's what this all comes down to. Bears management can hide behind its historic cheapness, but the tipping point isn't money; it's trust. Angelo (if he doesn't get whacked himself), team president Ted Phillips and owner Virginia McCaskey have to decide whether Smith is the problem or the solution.
Sorry, but I can't find an obvious reason why a Year 6 of Lovie would be any different than Year 5 or 4 or 3. And if you can't come up with an obvious reason, the other little reasons don't matter.
The Bears are going to suffer injuries next season. It happens to every team. They couldn't overcome them under Smith in 2009, so why would it be any different in 2010?
Of the Bears' six wins this season, four of them came against bottom-feeders Seattle, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis. Only one win came against a team with a guaranteed playoff spot -- Minnesota. The Bears were swept by Green Bay, humiliated by Cincinnati, and embarrassed by Arizona, Baltimore and the Vikings.
And it isn't as if Smith has the Bears making a late-season recovery. They've lost two of their past three games, six of their past eight. Yes, they beat the Vikings this past Monday night, but it means nothing if they don't crush the two-win Detroit Lions on Sunday at Ford Field.
Bears management and Bears fans have been more than patient with Smith. Loyalty isn't an issue, either. Smith has received every benefit of the doubt -- and there's been plenty of it.
Smith's 2006 Super Bowl coupon has officially expired. Despite what Smith says, the Bears aren't a good football team. Worse yet, they're getting worse under Smith.
Angelo, Phillips and McCaskey -- or some combination of the three -- have a choice to make. They can choose fiscally convenient, safe and familiar (Smith), or they can choose costly and bold (Bill Cowher?). You tell me which one would energize that franchise.
Smith has had his moments, just not enough of them. Time for mediocrity to find a new mailing address.
Gene Wojciechowski is a columnist for ESPN.com.