Commentary

How a Bears coach gets fired

Lovie Smith has plenty in common with his predecessors

Updated: December 14, 2009, 11:38 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

There is no blueprint for firing a head coach. If there were, it would make it a lot easier to predict what will happen to Lovie Smith and a lot less complicated for those doing the firing.

But then, what fun would that be?

Holding Smith up to former Bears' coaches before they were terminated, though not necessarily predictive, does indicate how tolerant the current administration and fans are with a coach who brought the team to just its second Super Bowl in 21 years.

Here are a few of the criteria given in the wake of the Mike Ditka, Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron firings, and how Smith compares:

[+] EnlargeDick Jauron
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesDick Jauron, who was recently fired from his job as the Bills' coach, had a strained relationship with Bears GM Jerry Angelo during his time in Chicago.

Relationship with management

Years after Ditka was fired, Da Coach referred to Michael McCaskey's jealousy of Ditka's powerful identity with the Bears as being at the root of his ouster.

One thing that unquestionably hurt Jauron was his relationship with general manager Jerry Angelo, which unraveled during Jauron's contract talks in 2000 and 2001 and was arguably doomed from the start, given that Angelo was hired two and a half years into Jauron's reign.

In contrast, Wannstedt's firing was said to be extremely hard for the McCaskeys -- particularly for family matriarch, Virginia -- in part because Wannstedt shared similar religious and moral beliefs, and it could very well be similarly difficult with Smith.

Personnel

One of the harbingers of Ditka's exit was the 1991 NFL draft in which he was overruled (by McCaskey, Ditka believed) for the first-round pick of Stan Thomas (Ditka wanted Chris Zorich, whom the Bears took in the second round).

After the Bears lost that next season to Dallas at home in the playoffs, Ditka said he could only coach the players he was given, which didn't go over well.

Wannstedt, ultimately mocked for his infamous "the pieces are in place" comment, graciously took partial responsibility for wasted draft choices such as John Thierry, Marcus Spears, Rashaan Salaam and Curtis Enis, poor decisions on free agents such as Bryan Cox, trades such as Rick Mirer for a first-round pick, and misjudgments on supposed impact players such as Alonzo Spellman, all of which ultimately doomed him.

[+] EnlargeMike Ditka
AP Photo/Phil SandlinMike Ditka's Bears won the Super Bowl after going 15-1 in the 1985 season.

Jauron felt sucker punched when Angelo traded Ted Washington for a fourth-round pick, and he was saddled with first-round draft picks Cade McNown, David Terrell and Michael Haynes.

But Jauron also was the beneficiary of Brian Urlacher, Mike Brown, Alex Brown and Lance Briggs. And he did benefit from the drafting of Charles Tillman, although it was Jauron, according to sources, who fought for Tillman.

Smith's clunker was Cedric Benson, but it's debatable whether the entire organization could have handled that situation better. He did benefit from Tommie Harris and Devin Hester early on, as well as Thomas Jones. But Dusty Dvoracek never paid off, Tank Johnson was more bad luck and Mark Bradley was just bad.

Quarterbacks

This position, as it often does, led to the downfall of all three previous Bears' coaching regimes and might be responsible for the collapse of the Smith era, ironic as that would be.

It wasn't Jim Harbaugh's quarterbacking skills that doomed Ditka. But when Ditka unloaded on Harbaugh after an interception in Minneapolis in the '92 season, some believed that was the start of a rocky relationship between players and coach and the beginning of the end for Ditka.

Erik Kramer's neck injury torpedoed Wannstedt, who had eight different starting quarterbacks, and Jim Miller's injuries left Jauron with a cupboard that was bare.

Rex Grossman took the Bears to the Super Bowl, but few would argue with the statement that Smith was overly stubborn in sticking with Grossman when the quarterback went south. Now he has a signal-caller with unquestionable talent in Jay Cutler, but the disappointment accompanying Cutler's first season may well contribute to the end for Smith in Chicago.

Record

Ditka was fired after a 5-11 season, but the two years before that, the Bears were 11-5. In all, the Bears were 106-62 (.631) under his command, with a 6-6 postseason record and, of course, one Super Bowl title.

Two consecutive 4-12 seasons preceded Wannstedt's firing. He was 40-56 (.417) with the Bears, 1-1 in the playoffs. Jauron went 4-12 and 7-9 before he was let go and finished 35-45 (.438) as the Bears' head coach, 1-0 in the postseason.

With 50 regular-season victories, Smith ranks behind only George Halas and Ditka in franchise history. His team, which went 9-7 last season and will be .500 or below this season, is currently 53-44 (.546) and 2-2 in the playoffs.

Coaching

Ditka's greatest strengths as a coach were his skill as a motivator and his ability to keep his team loose. It was Ditka who inserted fun along with William Perry as a running back on short-yardage plays.

He was the ultimate players' coach in his early years with the Bears, but was said to have lost his team at the end. Bears' coaches seemingly will forever have to measure up to Ditka's fierce persona, an unfair and silly standard.

Wannstedt, brought in to replace Ditka based on his reputation as one of the most innovative defensive coordinators in the game, was criticized for his poor game management. But like most coaches on their way out, he blamed injuries and organizational failure and, like most coaches, he was right.

Jauron's personality, or lack thereof, largely was mentioned among his shortcomings. But Angelo said it was the "bottom line" that led to the firing, and four losing seasons in five years does not portend a long coaching tenure.

Smith's head is being called for because of poor coaching decisions that even he seems to be having a hard time defending. But if he is fired, whether this year or next, it won't be because of those two burned timeouts against the Packers on Sunday. It will be because, in the end, his team looked horrible and the decision was obvious.

"This year, [we had a] great start, we just haven't been able to finish," Smith said Wednesday. "If we knew all the reasons why, we wouldn't be in this situation."

That's why coaches get fired.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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