Living Life with Lovie: Chicago Looks For More Success Under Lovie Smith

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Living Life with Lovie: Chicago Looks For More Success Under Lovie Smith
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

There is a calm demeanor about Lovie Smith that is infectious, a constant look of coolness on his face that is almost impossible to disrupt.

But behind that calmness is a competitive fire that burns bright on the gridiron, and the flames have created more than just a spark in the Chicago Bears organization. Smith rekindled a sense of pride in a team that’s moral was sinking deeper and deeper after nearly a decade of ineptitude under head coaches Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron

Smith became head coach of the Bears in January 2004 and had three well-publicized goals: put an end to the dominance of the Green Bay Packers, win the NFC North, and bring Chicago home its first Super Bowl title since 1985. In just five seasons Smith has well-eclipsed two of those goals — the Bears won division titles in 2005 and 2006 and are 7-3 against the Packers during Smith’s tenure — and got the team back to the Super Bowl in 2006, something his two predecessors were far from ever accomplishing.

Smith arrived in Chicago as a defensive guru, a wizard who turned the NFL’s 23rd-ranked St. Louis Rams defense from 2000 into the third-best defense in his first year as defensive coordinator with the organization in 2001. Before that Smith worked as linebacker coach under the tutelage of Tony Dungy to help transform a struggling Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense.

Smith brought that defensive prowess to Chicago, an organization with a rich history in defensive success but one with little success on that side of the football at the time.

Smith changed that in a hurry.

The Bears defense was the NFL’s best in 2005 and 2006, and used a ferocity on the defensive line and hard hitting in the secondary to become one of the most imposing defenses in the league. The team’s 172 takeaways since Smith became head coach leads the NFL, and the 18.6 points per game opponents are averaging against the Bears in those years is fourth best in the league.

The Bears are 47-37 overall under Smith, who has the third most wins as a coach in franchise history. That record includes Chicago’s 13-3 regular season in 2006 that saw the Bears lose 29-17 to Dungy and the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI. The team is .500 since that loss and has not made it back to the playoffs since, which has some Bears fans calling for Smith’s job. That should change in 2009, though, because of two significant personnel changes.

The first change is the obvious one: Chicago’s acquisition of quarterback Jay Cutler. In Smith’s five years, he’s had to choose from Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman and Brian Griese to lead his offense. All three were OK, but in Cutler the Bears now have a proven, Pro Bowl signal caller who should revitalize Chicago’s offense just like Smith revamped the defense.

Cutler will be under the guidance of offensive coordinator Ron Turner, who enters his sixth year in that position with the team. Turner worked under Wannstedt, then returned to Chicago in 2005 after eight years as head coach at the University of Illinois, where in 2001 he was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

Six of the top 24 offenses in Chicago Bears history have come under the watchful eyes of Turner, whose success is based on his ability to adapt to his personnel. When Orton burst onto the scene as the team’s rookie quarterback in 2005, Turner was able to develop a system that was more focused on protecting the young passer from contact and allowing him to develop his own comfort in the pocket.

In 2008, once it was clear the talent the organization had in rookie running back Matt Forte, Turner found new ways to get him the ball — be it on more screen passes, lining the 6-foot-2 back up as receiver, or giving him direct snaps in the Wildcat formation — and the 22-year-old responded by gaining more than 1,700 all-purpose yards. 

Under Turner, Cutler should flourish.

The second change Smith made was not as publicized, but it could play an even bigger role in Chicago’s resurgence, while at the same time showing his own strength as a coach. The Bears defense was not its intimidating self the last two seasons under defensive coordinator Bob Babich, who was promoted from linebacker coach in 2007 after the team decided not to retain then-defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. So in an effort to instill another spark in Chicago’s defense, Smith announced that he will take responsibility for calling defensive plays in 2009. Babich will still keep his title, but it will be Smith leading the team on Sunday’s.

Adding defensive responsibilities to his already full plate as head coach could be catastrophic for Smith, or it could be one of the biggest reasons the Bears cap off the regular season with an NFC North title.

Critics have begun calling for Smith’s job since the Bears have not been able to replicate their run to the Super Bowl in either of the last two years, but those same pundits should be patient. Smith brought success to Chicago the likes of which Bears fans hadn’t experienced in 20 years, and he can do it again. One of Smith’s best qualities is his loyalty (see: “Rex is our quarterback”). Bears fans should show him the same respect in return.

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