Commentary

Lovie Smith sets tone for success

'Low-key' Bears coach's 9-3 record this season speaks loud and clear

Updated: December 7, 2010, 12:56 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- As a fire-spitting orator, Lovie Smith's reputation precedes him. He's somewhere between George Will and Jerry Manuel.

So when we got the news that he chewed out the defense for its lackluster effort in the first half Sunday, well, it became a story. A football coach yelling at players. Real breaking news there.

Next thing you know, we'll find out that football players lead with their helmets to make tackles.

So, just how mad was Smith at halftime in Detroit with the Bears trailing the Lions?

"Still mild-mannered, but maybe instead of talking at a 5, he was talking at a 9," safety Chris Harris said Monday at Halas Hall. "Lovie's not a guy who swears, he's still a mild-mannered guy, but when he's angry, you know he's angry and he gets his point across and it gets across to the players the way it should be."

Reporters were joking about what he must have said. Did he bust down the door and yell, "Jiminy Christmas"? Did he stop himself from throwing out more than one "gosh darn"? What's a Lovie tantrum like?

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireBears coach Lovie Smith tries to keep a level head, but isn't afraid to grab his team's attention.

"We weren't happy with how we played the first half, guys realize that," Smith said. "As far as a 9, you guys know me. I'm a 5 most of the time. Try to be."

But when he's not, watch out.

Through his occasionally pointed words and consistent actions, 9-to-5 Lovie Smith is working his low-key magic this year as the Bears' second-half effort proved against Detroit.

The defense came back out and held the sometimes-prolific Lions to 49 second-half yards and one field goal on a short field as the Bears scored a 24-20 comeback win over a feisty Detroit team.

As the axiom goes, the Lions are, ahem, better than their 2-10 record, but Chicago's defense knew it was in for an earful after giving up more than 250 yards in the first half -- 91 coming on consecutive plays, culminating in Calvin Johnson 's 46-yard touchdown just before the half ended.

"We deserved it," said Harris, who took a bad angle on the score. "Point blank, we deserved it. We were actually talking going into the locker room, 'Let's take our medicine,' because we definitely deserved it. Giving up a touchdown on two plays right before the half is very uncharacteristic of this defense."

Because Smith is most often a "5" in terms of emotion, the players respected his passionate showing.

"You know something's wrong when he's upset," nickelback D.J. Moore said.

Smith's equanimity makes Derrick Rose and President Barack Obama look like Mike Ditka, and that's what works for him. No need to tinker with it now. The Bears' defense never went south because Smith refused to blow his top. It was all about talent, and with Julius Peppers in the mix at the defensive line, the Monsters of the Midway are back.

While Peppers has invigorated the defense, Smith hasn't changed anything with his Bears career seemingly on the line. He's gotten mad before. He's benched players before. His stability is what inspires confidence among his players. And Lovie wouldn't be Lovie without telling us he breaks the season into quarters.

"We just finished up our third quarter," Smith said. "Next team up is New England and we'll be watching the game tonight, excited about playing the Patriots at home this week. Who else is on our schedule again?"

Ah, we see what you're doing there, Lovie. You're trying to play the reporters into thinking you're so focused on the next game, you don't even know who comes afterward. Even though a few sentences ago you said that of course you do.

But we play along. The Jets, Vikings and Packers, a reporter said, transposing the order of the next two games.

"Good," Smith said. "I'm sure they're thinking, 'Man, we've got the Bears coming up.'"

HarrisI think he's in running for coach of the year. We're 9-3. People had us picked to finish last in our division, if not third.

-- Bears safety Chris Harris

A few months ago, a statement like that would have been further evidence that Smith was lost inside his own head, a victim of his own bravado. But now he just sounds like a confident coach, a low-key Rex Ryan.

And I bet that's exactly what opposing offenses are thinking.

Smith's calmness may be reassuring, but so is his confidence. The Bears say he encourages the "us against them" mentality that permeates Halas Hall.

"We'll probably be getting doubted again, saying, 'They can't beat the Patriots or whatnot,'" said Moore, who leads the Bears with 5.6 "whatnots" per interview.

At the beginning of this season, I wondered if Smith was the most hated current figure in Chicago sports. He had to be, I figured, even more than Cubs general manager Jim Hendry, because every Chicagoan, it seems, follows the Bears. White Sox fans love Hendry when the Cubs are down.

Smith has rubbed fans the wrong way by missing the playoff the past three years, and lacking the public personality we desire from our coaches here in Ditka-go.

Parting ways with Ron Rivera while espousing the "Rex is our quarterback" mantra sure didn't help.

But even hard-core Lovie-haters have to admit he's done a fine job motivating this team, and the Bears' five-game win streak since the bye is further proof that he's not going anywhere when his current contract is up -- even if the team misses the playoffs, which is, of course, very possible in the nip-and-tuck NFC.

I'm not saying it's time to re-up Lovie, that's for after the season, but it's definitely time to appreciate this season for what it is, a major step forward from the post-Super Bowl malaise.

This is also about the time when we start talking about award winners, and Smith's unlikely candidacy for coach of the year.

"I think he's in running for coach of the year," Harris said. "We're 9-3. People had us picked to finish last in our division, if not third."

He won't win -- there are plenty of solid candidates, from Raheem Morris to Mike Tomlin to Todd Haley -- but he should get consideration.

Is there a comeback coach of the year award? If so, maybe Smith and his top two assistants, Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli, could all share it.

It's pretty amazing when you think about them. Marinelli coached the only 0-16 team in league history, Martz has been fired from some horrendous teams and Smith was seemingly "dead man coaching."

Now the Bears are probably two wins from making the playoffs, with a Super Bowl appearance on the horizon. Smith and Marinelli's defense is among the best in the NFL and the offense has evolved from its jumbled beginnings.

So Smith's pretty happy, right? Not quite. Not yet.

"The most disappointing thing we've done, the last couple of games we haven't taken the ball away enough," he said. "Zero takeaways yesterday won't get it."

The defense's newest challenge will be playing without linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, who missed the Lions game with a knee problem. Tinoisamoa had a knee scoped and will likely be out a couple weeks, though Smith was cagey with the details. Rod Wilson will join Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs as starters.

No takeaways, no Pisa. Smith's reassuring words will mean more than ever with the Patriots coming to town, because Chicago can't let up at all. Because as Smith reminded us, it's the fourth quarter of the Bears' season.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.