When it comes to football in Chicago, there is one name that stands above the rest when you think of coaching: Ditka.
Often referred to as "Da Coach" or "God," Mike Ditka is nothing short of a legend in the Windy City, since he led a 1985 Bears team to the franchise's only Super Bowl title.
Every coach who has roamed the sidelines at Soldier Field since Ditka departed has been in his shadow, and current coach Lovie Smith is no exception.
While it is impossible to fill Da Coach's shoes, Smith has done a decent job with the Bears. In his first NFL head coaching position, he has posted a 45-35 career record over five seasons reaching the playoffs twice and making one Super Bowl appearance.
However, the 2006 Super Bowl appearance now feels like ages ago for Bears fans. The Bears have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, largely as a result of the defense's decline in performance.
In response to this, Smith has decided to take a more hands-on approach this season, taking over play calling from defensive coordinator Bob Babich. In all likelihood, it is a last ditch effort to save his job.
Why does Smith feel the need to call the plays himself? Because current defensive coordinator Bob Babich has been at the helm while a Super Bowl caliber defense has turned into a joke in just two years.
The relationship between these two dates back over twenty years, when both were coaches on the Tulsa staff in the 1980s. They met again when Babich was the linebackers coach for the St. Louis Rams in 2003, working under Smith who was the defensive coordinator at the time. When Smith was named coach of the Bears in 2004, he brought along his buddy Babich, naming him linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
In 2005, the Bears' first postseason appearance under Smith, the Bears were second in the league in yards allowed (281.8 per game) and first in points allowed (12.6 per game). In 2006, the Super Bowl season, the Bears were fifth in yards allowed (294.1 per game) and third in points allowed (15.9 per game).
Then, despite the defense carrying the offense with them to the Super Bowl, the Bears let go of Rivera and promoted Babich to defensive coordinator—the first time in his career he held the position at any level.
This did not work.
With nearly the same personnel on the field, the Bears defense was 28th in yards allowed in 2007 (354.7 per game) and 21st this past year (334.7 per game) under Babich. Points allowed were no better, allowing just under 22 per game and finishing 16th in the league in 2007 and 2008.
Injuries to key players including Nathan Vasher, Tommie Harris, Dusty Dvoracek and Mike Brown contributed to the decline, but even when healthy the defense did not play up to the caliber seen under Rivera.
Most defensive coordinators would have been fired, but since Smith and Babich are buddies, Babich retains the title while in reality he has been demoted back to linebackers coach for the 2009 season.
Over the past two seasons, the Bears have won games in spite of their defensive coaching staff, but improvement must occur for the Bears to succeed in 2009. Smith taking over play calling is a step in the right direction, but if this experiment does not go well it will ultimately lead to the end of the Smith and Babich era in Chicago.