After nearly nine years, 79 regular-season wins, one trip to the Super Bowl, a 35 percent success rate on red-flag challenges, an abysmal record against teams with winning records, and back-to-back late-season collapses, it’s time for the Bears to part ways with head coach Lovie Smith. Yes, there are still two regular season games left. And yes, there is still a chance the 8-6 Bears make the playoffs. But barring a miraculous run to the Lombardi Trophy, we’ve likely seen the last of Smith on the western sideline of Soldier Field.
Everything’s falling apart for the coach (not to be confused with Da Coach). The man who said at his introductory press conference back in 2004 that his number one goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers has now lost six straight games to the Cheeseheads, including the NFC Championship game in January 2011. His baby, the beloved Cover-2 defense, is both bending and breaking without its spine, 34-year old injured linebacker Brian Urlacher. And his offense is problematic as ever. Given that Smith’s contract with the Bears expires after the 2013 season, and general manager Phil Emery has no longstanding allegiance to him, chances are good the GM will look for a new head coach when the season’s over.
According to NFL insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, here are four likely candidates—and one long shot—to replace Smith and become the 15th overall head coach in Bears history.
1) NFL coordinator: Mike McCoy
Emery’s last two teams hired NFL assistants (Mike Smith in Atlanta, Todd Haley in Kansas City) when they had head coaching vacancies. Given all the money the Bears have spent rebuilding their offense and given that Super Bowls these days are won with offense more than defense, it would make sense to bring in a coach with expertise on that side of the ball. Enter McCoy, the 40-year old up-and-coming offensive coordinator of the Broncos who is regarded in NFL circles as a bright guy with a knack for getting the most out of his players. He changed the Denver attack from traditional to whatever the hell it was Tim Tebow was running last year, then changed it completely again for Peyton Manning this fall. The biggest problem in hiring him may be that the Bears want to act quickly, and McCoy may be part of a long postseason run for Denver this coming January.
2) In-house: Dave Toub
For a variety of reasons, it hasn’t been the best year for the Bears’ special teams. Still, there are few coaches around the league held in higher regard than their special teams coordinator, Toub, who interviewed for the Dolphins head coaching job last year and is likely in line for a big-time gig soon. If the front office feels they want to maintain familiarity on the sideline, Toub would be an easy choice. Given the success of other former special teams coordinators turned head coaches (see: John Harbaugh in Baltimore), a case can be made. It also helps that Toub used to be a strength and conditioning coach, just like Emery.
3) College coach: David Shaw
Two years ago, it was Pete Carroll. Last season, it was Jim Harbaugh. This year, it’s Greg Schiano. There’s no longer truth to the notion college coaches can’t adapt to the NFL. Get the right guy, and it can be done. The hot name for many NFL teams will be Oregon’s Chip Kelly, but I don’t think the Bears have the offensive personnel to fit his scheme nor the interest in paying him his desired salary. The better choice would be Shaw, Harbaugh’s replacement at Stanford. Shaw is a former NFL assistant, has experience grooming offensive stars, and is just 40. If he’s willing to leave the Bay Area, expect the Bears and other teams to take a long look.
4) NFL retread: Brian Billick
Currently a broadcaster for Fox and the NFL Network, Billick has a Super Bowl trophy and four playoff appearances on his resume from a nine-year run as the Ravens head coach. However, though celebrated as an offensive genius, his teams never were able to move the ball as well as expected, a bit of a stain on his reputation. Billick never had a quarterback as talented as Jay Cutler, however, and the Cutler-to-Brandon Marshall combo could intrigue the coach enough to leave the booth and return to the sideline. The biggest-name former Super Bowl winner turned announcer, Jon Gruden, is going to be out of the McCaskeys’ price range.
5) Wild card: Sean Payton
A lot of strange things would have to take place for this to happen. The first one already did, as Payton’s contract extension with the Saints was voided by the NFL following his year-long suspension. Still, Payton would have to consider leaving New Orleans, which is unlikely. Second, the Bears would have to fend off teams like the Cowboys and Eagles, both of whom may have coaching openings this offseason. And last, but certainly not least, an expected salary of nearly $7 million a year would have to be shelled out to get Payton to sign on the dotted line. But wouldn’t it be great if it actually did happen? Put Payton in charge of calling the plays for Cutler, Marshall and Forte, and look out. The Bears could suddenly have one of the most exciting offenses on the planet, assuming the offensive line gets a boost. Payton has Chicago roots too. He was raised in Naperville, went to Eastern Illinois and even played QB for the “Spare Bears” in the 1987 strike season. Is it a long shot? Yes. Would it be controversial? Yes. But it would also be the biggest and boldest statement the Bears could make.