EDITOR’S NOTE: This report also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
Lovie Smith is in his ninth season as Bears’ head man and I’d guess most fans have burned into their memory banks a Lovie moment that had them tearing their hair out.
Maybe it was the decision to have Todd Collins replace an injured Jay Cutler with the Super Bowl on the line. Or perhaps it was one of his botched replay challenges. Or simply listening to him say, for the umpteenth time in his inexpressive drawl: “Rex is our quarterback.”
Mine is a little more obscure but no less baffling. It involves a beautiful fake punt the Bears ran during a meaningless, season-ending game against the Packers at Soldier Field, on New Year’s Eve, 2006. The Bears, you’ll recall, had sewn up the division title and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, and they mailed it in that night. It was the game Rex Grossman posted his 0 quarterback rating in one half of play, and they would go on to lose 26-7.
First, who runs a wonderfully designed fake punt in a meaningless game heading into the playoffs? But it was Lovie’s reaction to it that really got me. The eternally placid man from Big Sandy, Texas, chose this of all moments to get amped. He went nuts, cheering and running down the sideline. At the time, the Bears trailed 23-0 in the third quarter with most of their starters long pulled.
So, after eight up-and-down seasons, what to make of the Lovester? There have been three division titles but also seasons of 5-11, 7-9 and 7-9. He took the Bears to the Super Bowl, but lost. He has a winning record (72-57), but even the high moments have been coupled with the mind boggling, as well as lingering questions about play-calling and his ability to make in-game adjustments.
The “Rex is our quarterback” mantra is infamous, but remember when Chester Taylor walked out of a meeting with Lovie thinking he’d been cut and left Halas Hall? Lovie said no, he didn’t cut him, it was a misunderstanding. Taylor was brought back and, you guessed it, cut a few days later.
I’d call Lovie an enigma but I can already hear the scoffing from Bears fans because that would imply some complexity. Many fans can’t stand him, and at the beginning of the 2010 season, after three straight non-playoff years, plenty openly rooted for a rotten season so they could be rid of him and then-General Manager Jerry Angelo. Instead, the Bears won the division and came within a game of the Super Bowl.
That’s the way it’s been with Lovie. When the team’s gelling you want to think it’s because of his calming presence over the course of the long NFL season. At my most optimistic, maybe after a big win and a few beers at Soldier Field, I remind myself that many of the coaching greats – Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bud Grant, Bill Walsh – weren’t screamers. If you caught Landry smiling it must have been a really good day.
But when things go bad, as they too often have, that same mask of indifference is maddening. When the franchise quarterback nearly gets decapitated and Lovie tells reporters nothing’s wrong, when he reacts to a bad play by staring doe-eyed up at the replay board, he looks more like Forrest Gump than Landry.
And besides, it’s really hard to rally around a coach who, ya know, doesn’t appear to do any coaching (at least during the games). Sun-Times columnist Rick Morrissey calls him a “statue” for his staid sideline act, and it’s probably not true that beat reporters have to stab themselves with their pens to stay awake during press conferences.
“You talk to Lovie Smith more than five minutes, you want to kill yourself,” says Doug Buffone, the former Bear great who provides commentary on The Score during the season. But Buffone directs more of his criticism at team management.
“Lovie never had a quarterback until the last few years! He did pretty good with what he had,” he said, pointing to the Super Bowl team led by Grossman. Even after the Bears went out and got Jay Cutler, they gave him few weapons and left him scrambling behind a weak offensive line. “They put four bald tires on a Mercedes Benz,” Buffone said in an interview with ChicagoSide.
In the end Buffone, like me, had a more nuanced view of Lovie. “When the smoke clears, he’s definitely got more positives than negatives,” he said. “What he brings to the table is these damn players play for him.”
Lovie is one of the NFL’s longest-tenured coaches, trailing only Andy Reid (Eagles), Bill Belichick (Patriots) and Marvin Lewis (Bengals). But Buffone and I agree on one other point: If the Bears don’t make the playoffs this year, with the talent they’ve assembled around Cutler, Smith will be gone.
Lovie is signed through 2013 and has survived other near-death experiences. Perhaps the only reason he wasn’t fired ahead of the 2010 season was the McCaskeys’ umbrage at paying him and a new coach at the same time. But another 8-8 or 7-9, and new GM Phil Emery will go out and find his own man.
But here’s the thing: for all his faults, Lovie could be right for this team, a veteran squad with a defensive nucleus intact, potent special teams weapons, and an offense that might be the Bears best in a half century. This team needs a steady hand with the ability to inspire.
In other words, a statue might do the trick.
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STORY ART: Main image made in-house; photo courtesy of Jamie DiVecchio Ramsay.