Commentary

A feat of flexibility

Rather than a raging disaster, Mike Martz's tenure has been a thrilling sensation

Updated: December 22, 2010, 8:03 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- With the exception of poor Dez Clark, the once productive Bears tight end who excitedly trumpeted the arrival of Mike Martz to Chicago in February on his twitter page, the reception to the team's new offensive coordinator was mostly skeptical.

"The coach that no one wanted finally has gotten the job that no one wanted," is how one blogger put it.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith and Mike Martz
Jerry Lai/US PresswireMike Martz has simplified his offense, and the Bears have benefited.
It took 27 days for the Bears to hire Martz, whom Lovie Smith and GM Jerry Angelo said was the only person offered the job. At one point, while the Bears flirted with but never got around to interviewing Jeremy Bates, Tom Clements and Frank Cignetti, Martz seemed annoyed by the wait, saying he just wanted to move on.

He ended up prevailing over Ken Zampese, Rob Chudzinski and Kevin Rogers, all of whom did get interviewed. But even after Martz was hired as Smith's third offensive coordinator in seven seasons, it was fair to wonder how the coach who came out of the womb passing, was going to work for the coach who got off the bus running.

Though it was a logical choice by Smith, who was hired to be Martz's defensive coordinator in St. Louis in 2001, there was certainly no guarantee for a guy who had developed a well-earned reputation for being unyielding.

"Flexible," Martz admitted Wednesday, "is probably never been a word associated with my name."

Martz smiled. This is a good week at Halas Hall. An I-told-you-so week for those who go for that. So despite the Bears' very legitimate concerns about the New York Jets coming into town Sunday, this week is one in which they can enjoy reflecting on decisions, like the Martz hire, that have worked out.

Despite worries that the new coordinator, who had been critical of Jay Cutler in his capacity as TV analyst, would get along with the Bears' moody quarterback, the two became a solid partnership and, many joked, a lovefest. More importantly, though both have gone through and continue to endure growing pains, it is easy to see the progress.

While Cutler talks about Martz's willingness to adjust, Martz raves about Cutler's growing confidence as his teammates have grasped the system and improved in it.

The Martz hire seemed destined to be either a raging disaster or an thrilling sensation and nothing in between, which it has been. Mostly, Martz simply realized, like not enough Bears offensive coordinators before him, that the best offense is a good defense.

It could not have been that easy for a coach who directed some of the most potent offenses in NFL history. But to his credit, and no doubt Smith's, he finally got it.

"I think we all mature," Martz said when asked how he has changed as a coach. "I've probably matured later in life than a lot of guys. I'm not there yet. I think we all change and grow with different situations. As you get older, there are things that don't upset you or you react to as quickly as maybe you did early in your career."

And then there is also the reality of approaching 60 and wondering if anyone is ever going to believe again in the abilities that once made you famous.

"I was excited about coaching again," Martz said, rejecting the notion that he wanted to "reinvent" himself. "I thought that maybe I might be done. I was enjoying the TV thing a little bit. And it was a great opportunity to get back together again with Lovie and [defensive coordinator] Rod [Marinelli], people you care about and respect, and be a part of the Bears organization."

The flexibility thing should not be underestimated. Faced with the challenge of teaching a complex offense to young players, some of whom were not getting it, Martzi scaled things back, simplified. And he seems to have gone a long way in convincing a gunslinging quarterback with a propensity for interceptions to be more patient.

It's funny, but to hear each one tell it, it is the other who has stopped being so stubborn.

"He's still doing what he does," Cutler said Wednesday of Martz. "It's hard to change 20, 30 years of coaching and offensive philosophy in six games but, to his credit, he has been very flexible. He understands in games, when things are going in a different direction that we need to make a change.

"We're still putting in everything we need to put in during game week but on game day is when he gets really flexible. If I come to the sideline and I see something, or if he sees something, he'll notify me. It's been a good relationship so far."

Martz's former student, Kurt Warner, has seen it as well.

"I am surprised a little bit about the way Mike has been able to pull back this year," Warner told ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy" show on Wednesday morning. "He's done a great job down the stretch of really catering their offense to what their defense is doing, and understanding that their defense can win games for them, that they need to be efficient, they need to commit to the running game.

"He doesn't have to put everything on Jay and I think he's done a good job of really balancing that out and staying committed to some of those things that maybe he hasn't been committed to in the past. And I think that's one of the reasons they're sitting where they are right now."

Martz said he enjoys being a coordinator because he can be more "hands-on" than a head coach can be, and says he works on Cutler's fundamentals and, more specifically his oft-criticized footwork, "every day."

"Very noticeably, his pocket presence is remarkably better than what it was at the end of [last] year," Martz said.

Of all the scenarios brought up when Martz was hired was one in which he would one day replace Smith as the Bears' head coach. Hard to envision that happening any time soon but it is no longer hard to envision someone giving Martz another shot at it.

Asked if he would like to be a head coach again, Martz responded, "Sure. If the opportunity would come up again, who knows? [But] I'm 59 years old. I'm very happy with what I'm doing right now, and if that's it for me, I'd be the happiest guy in the world too."

As he said himself, returning to coaching was "a quality-of-life issue." And this week, anyway, life has to be pretty good.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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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