Scenes from a Doomed Marriage: Lovie Smith Returns to Chicago

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterNovember 21, 2014

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We all know a couple that divorced, loudly and endlessly, searing a scorched path across their personal lives like a meteor entering the atmosphere, their sadness and rage suddenly turning to manic bliss when the papers are signed. They are starting fresh, their Facebook timelines read, feeling better already, according to their girls'/boys' night out proclamations, eager to move on, happy to be free.

They had a lovely house and a stable family before the separation, plus hopes and aspirations they had worked together to achieve for years. But familiarity became complacency, they fell short of each other's expectations, and both suddenly got that itch to go in two different directions.

A few months later, he's eating baked beans over an apartment sink, and she's dropping the kids off to after-school soccer practice in her pajamas. Happiness is not as easy as just "moving on" to the next chapter.

The Bears and Lovie Smith are one of those couples: effective (if a little discontent) together, tragic apart. Their relationship had Super Bowl highs and bitter lows. They had success and stability, but eventually the 10-6 seasons could not satisfy either of them anymore.

They parted on New Year's Eve two years ago. When Marc Trestman revitalized the Bears offense and Lovie was named Archduke of Tampa, both sides looked like they were better off. But the last few months of Bears and Buccaneers football prove that appearances can be deceiving.

CHICAGO - JANUARY 21:  Quarterback Rex Grossman #8 of the Chicago Bears hugs head coach Lovie Smith after the Bears 39-14 win against the New Orleans Saints during the NFC Championship Game January 21, 2007 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo b
Al Bello/Getty Images

On Sunday, they will meet in the ice cream aisle, unshaven and shirttail untucked, no makeup and hair in curlers. Lovie's Buccaneers rebuild has been a ton of work for little payoff. Trestman went out for a pack of smokes and took the Bears' desire to win with him. What could have been a triumphant reunion will be a very awkward one.

"How are you holding up?"

"Fine. Fine. You look…good."

"…You too."



How did it come to this?

They met when Lovie was on the rise and the Bears were on the rebound. After three seasons as the Rams defensive coordinator, riding shotgun for the Greatest Show on Turf during a Super Bowl run in 2001 and coaching a defense that led the NFL in takeaways in 2003, Lovie finally bubbled to the top of the short list of NFL coaching candidates. He spent a playoff bye week speed-dating the Falcons, Bills and Giants, with Bears general manager Jerry Angelo batting cleanup on his busy dance card.

Angelo was fresh from getting spurned by Nick Saban, who decided to remain in the friend zone with a general manager he had known for years. Angelo coveted the LSU coach. So did fans and writers. "Any appointee whose name isn't Nick Saban will be a letdown," wrote Jay Mariotti in the Chicago Sun-Times, noting that if Lovie or some other defensive coordinator got the Bears job, he would "see you outside Soldier Field for the mass burning of Personal Seat Licenses."

Angelo interviewed other candidates, a mix of NFL defensive coordinators (Romeo Crennel, Jim Mora) and collegiate offensive innovators (Jeff Tedford, Kirk Ferentz). The college coaches, like Saban, turned the Bears down. After Lovie's Rams were eliminated from the playoffs in one of the wildest games in history (a 29-23 Panthers win in the second overtime quarter), Angelo brought Lovie back to Chicago for a second interview. Keeping his options open, Angelo also declared Steelers assistant coach Russ Grimm as a job finalist.

It was a classic romantic triangle. The Bears needed an offense-oriented head coach, preferably a firebrand, after eight disappointing years under soft-spoken defensive gurus Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron. Grimm was a former Redskins Hog, his name and pedigree making him a viable Saban surrogate. "He's Mike Ditka 20 years ago, and that can't be bad," former Bears player and Redskins coach Richie Petitbon told the Sun-Times' Mike Mulligan.

Lovie was an even-keeled disciple of the Cover 2 defense, and he had a funny name that might not fly with the beer-and-brats crowd. "How are you going to have a coach named Lovie in Chicago?" Petitbon said. "A Chicago Bear named Lovie—you have to be kidding me. That ought to knock him out right away, and that is the truth."

Angelo was not swayed by Petitbon's reasoning. He was familiar with Lovie from a mutual stop in Tampa. He was impressed by Lovie's plan to transplant a Rams-style offense, as well as his signature defense, to Chicago. Angelo signed Lovie to a four-year contract.

LIBERTYVILLE, IL - JANUARY 15:  Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo (R) congratulates former defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, Lovie Smith (L), on his four year contract as head coach of the Chicago Bears at a media conference on Januar
Aynsley Floyd/Getty Images

Observers were certain it would never work: a marriage of convenience between a too-thrifty franchise and a coach with far too much in common with his predecessors. There was no media honeymoon; even in the receiving line of new-coach opinion columns, comments were catty to the point of cruelty. "This is where I'm supposed to be the voice of reason and encourage fans to give the new guy a shot," wrote syndicated columnist Mike Nadel. "Might as well, folks, because Smith is all you've got for the next several years."

It was a rocky start to a relationship, though it would have been a lot rockier with Saban.

The Bears live in a crumbling old house where the clocks don't even work. They are embarrassed when company comes over. They bicker publicly. Neighbors can hear the fighting through the walls. They are a fractured, dysfunctional family.

Lovie Smith watches home movies of the Bears. Sometimes, he shows them to his new team. This is how Peanut Tillman stripped a football, guys. Why can't you strip it like Peanut did? The Buccaneers take it well right now, but they will only stomach so many comparisons to the ex. Those good old days—Lovie and Peanut, Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, Devin Hester and the offense that always lagged behind like a toddler brother in too-heavy winter clothes—should be fading into the past, not encroaching on the present.

Outsiders may have howled and heckled the whole way, but Lovie and the Bears needed each other. For a while, they worked in perfect harmony. But like so many doomed movie romances, their love began to crumble just as the hard rain began to fall.

The Bears stood behind Lovie Smith in 2006. Smith stood behind Rex Grossman. Bears teammates took their coach's lead and stood behind their quarterback. It was a mutual support system that led to a 13-3 record and a trip to the Super Bowl.

Those were the days of Rexyll-and-Hyde: four passing touchdowns in one game and four interceptions the next, the kind of roller-coaster season that can tear a team apart. But the Bears stuck together.

If Grossman threw four picks against the Cardinals, Devin Hester and the defense provided three return touchdowns and a 24-23 win. If Grossman threw three interceptions and completed just six passes in another game, Hester and the defense contributed 14 more points to a 23-13 win. There were even games, like a 34-31 win over the Buccaneers, where Grossman helped the defense out.

Few remember that Grossman threw 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in the five games before the famous Cardinals "Crown Their Ass" comeback and was being touted as an MVP candidate early in the 2006 season. The outside world turned against Grossman almost vindictively as he endured miserable midseason slumps. Yet neither Lovie nor the Bears wavered.

Reporters challenged Lovie to reaffirm his faith in Grossman after each turnover jag. Lovie always renewed his vows. "Smith would blow up the life raft on the Titanic one breath at a time if it meant he thought he could save his quarterback," Eric Edholm wrote in Pro Football Weekly before Super Bowl XLI.

Bears teammates followed their coach's lead. "There is really no need for us to stand behind him," center Olin Kreutz said after Grossman's three-interception afternoon in a loss to the Patriots. "He's our quarterback."

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and quarterback Rex Grossman in the snow during the NFC Championship game at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois on January 21, 2007.  (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Grossman rewarded Lovie's faith with a handful of turnover-free games down the stretch. He did just enough to lead an overtime playoff win against the Seahawks. He started the NFC Championship Game completing just five of 20 passes, but there was no panicking or finger-pointing. The Bears kicked field goals, forced turnovers and ran the ball until Grossman delivered a deep touchdown to put the game out of reach.

The unified Bears were heading to the Super Bowl. Lovie hugged his beleaguered quarterback at midfield after the game. "You don't have a lot to say in these types of situations. I just kind of hugged him and told him I loved him."

The mutual admiration was contagious. Bears president Ted Phillips announced his intention to extend Lovie's contract after the NFC championship victory. That initial deal Lovie signed when the Bears still had Saban stars in their eyes would soon expire, and Jerry Jones was rumored to have eyes for the underpaid, seemingly unappreciated coach.

Phillips sounded like a jealous husband when he heard the rumors. "He's our coach, he's under contract to us and whether it's Dallas or any other club that comes sniffing around, that's not right and we're not going to let it happen."

Super Bowl XLI was not as lopsided as you remember. Hester returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Grossman tossed a short touchdown after a Bears interception. The Bears trailed just 16-14 at halftime and 22-17 to start the fourth quarter. Grossman's two interceptions came late. He fumbled, but a lot of players on both sides fumbled on that rainforest evening. Lovie and the Bears lost the way they won: as a team.

Smith affirmed his faith in the Bears again after the loss. "I talked to our team about the steps we have taken in our program over the last three years," he said. "We are making progress. We have one more step to go." The feeling among players was mutual. "We have a good team," Muhsin Muhammad said. "I don't think that anyone has heard the last of the Chicago Bears."

Phillips and Lovie soon agreed to a four-year, $22 million extension, though the haggling was often contentious: Even the happiest couples bicker over the big expenses.

Lovie and the Bears never took that next step. But after the events of the last six weeks, it's hard to remember a time when the Bears stood determined and unified, even when some members of the family weren't pulling their weight.

They fought over the kids, as couples often do. Lovie took reliable Josh McCown with him to help start over. The Bears spoiled brash-and-talented Jay Cutler with money and unconditional love.

TAMPA, FL - NOVEMBER 09: Josh McCown #12 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is hit by Osi Umenyiora #50 of the Atlanta Falcons during the first quarter of the game at Raymond James Stadium on November 9, 2014 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Cliff McBride/Getty Imag
Cliff McBride/Getty Images

But Josh could never hope to meet Lovie's expectations, and Jay succumbed to his worst instincts. The Bears are already talking about kicking Jay out of the nest, and Lovie and Josh can only do so much for each other.

Lovie's loyalty was always his greatest strength and his biggest weakness. His patience and firm hand on the rudder kept the Bears from falling apart in the worst of times, but those virtues may also have kept a team that needed occasional prodding and daring from reaching its full potential.

Seasons of 7-9 and 9-7 ran together, a bored couple growing old and bitter together across the changing seasons. No wonder Trestman's fresh interpretation of an 8-8 season (all offense, zero defense) felt vibrant and new, while Lovie's whirlwind of Buccaneers transactions looked like a movie-makeover montage. Forget that dumpy old Lovie Smith! Anything goes with this wheeler-dealer!

That thrill of discovery has faded. Reality is sinking in. Lovie and the Bears must remember that when they parted, just hours before the ball dropped on 2013, they were on the brink of the playoffs and, despite the catcalls all around them, were still somewhat happy together.

Quarterbacks have always been Lovie Smith's prodigal sons. Few are more prodigal than Jay Cutler, more talented and headstrong than Rex Grossman by a mile, more likely to squander his father's wealth with wild passing. Lovie doted on Cutler as much as he doted on Grossman, but Cutler is not the kind of guy who publicly reciprocates.

LAKE FOREST, IL - APRIL 3:  Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith looks on as new quarterback Jay Cutler talks to the media  during a press conference on April 3, 2009 at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Illinois. (Photo by Jim Prisching/Getty Images)
Jim Prisching/Getty Images

So on the day Lovie Smith was fired, we expected Peanut Tillman to say he was "shocked." We expected Devin Hester to contemplate retirement: "I'm going to go home and get away from football right now," Hester told reporters. "I don't even know if I want to play again, man."

But we did not expect the emotion—or the contrition—we got from Smokin' Jay. "I think it's gonna be a sad day at Halas Hall," Cutler said on a Chicago radio show on the day his coach was fired, adding that he was "very, very lucky" to have played for Lovie.

"Sorry offensively, we couldn't do better for you," Cutler said. "I blame a lot of this on the offense and our inability to perform week in and week out. Defensively, they've been carrying us for a while."

The Bears were one lucky break away from the playoffs. They won their season finale to finish 10-6, but the Vikings beat the Packers 37-34 to slip past the Bears for a wild-card berth. The Bears had started 7-1 but crashed back to earth under the weight of injuries and that always inconsistent offense. But they were not a bad team, simply one that could no longer take satisfaction in 10-6 records.

Players did not want Lovie to go. "If it was up to me, I don't want another coach," Brandon Marshall told reporters after the Bears' final game. "I'd run through a brick wall for him, and that's the same way with every other guy in the locker room."

But fans were fed up with years of near-misses, as fans so often are. And columnists who decried Lovie's hiring and hounded him during every step of the Super Bowl run were not about to start granting benefit of the doubt.

"For some reason, Bears management and ownership have had a tough time breaking up with Smith," Mike Imrem wrote for Daily Herald (Illinois). "Sad to say, I have a lot of experience as someone who dated a lot of women who wanted to break up with me but didn't have the heart to do it. What happens is they stay in the relationship but make life so miserable that you can't take it anymore and slink off."

Lovie addressed his team, making sure the kids knew the parting wasn't their fault. "Smith didn't point any fingers, didn't raise his voice, and he didn't get overly emotional. For five minutes, he thanked his players for their effort and professionalism, he highlighted their relationships and noted that it was God's will that he would no longer coach the Bears," Sean Jensen reported in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Just like that, everyone hit the dating scene. The Bears, swearing off the typical coaching meat market, found the offensive guru of their dreams in Canada. Lovie, hitting the dance floor at the same time as Andy Reid and Chip Kelly, chose not to settle for a coordinator or announcer gig and went on sabbatical instead. Everyone looked so much happier in January, when the Buccaneers handed a refreshed Lovie the keys to their franchise, and Trestman and Cutler smiled about the quarterback's new contract.

But even amicable separations are never that easy.

It's a bad idea to take sides after a divorce.

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 2: Head coach Lovie Smith of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looks to the score board during the first half against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 2, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Bears fans must dig deep to get behind their team and work up some of that old froth they had against Lovie. "Lovie had a chance to make the Bears regret dumping him, but regardless of the results Sunday there will be no remorse," Mike Mulligan wrote for the Chicago Tribune this week.

Don't be so sure: Another blowout loss, another defensive performance like Bears fans have seen too often in the last two seasons, another public postgame sniping session, and only the hardest hearts will regret taking those stout, professional, unified Bears teams for granted.

In Tampa, there are glimmers of hope. Last Sunday's win looked like a Lovie Smith win: lots of defense, some return touchdowns, just enough offense and a Buccaneers team sticking together to beat a Redskins team falling apart. "If nothing else, it's a sneak preview of the type of team Smith wants the Bucs to be," Tom Jones wrote for the Tampa Bay Times. Yet it was only the Buccaneers' second win of the season.

Maybe there will be no remorse. Maybe the best days are yet to come. But the Bears have never been worse than they have looked in the last month. Lovie has never worked so hard to attain so little. Perhaps everyone took their relationship for granted. Perhaps Lovie deserved one more chance. Perhaps both sides could have compromised a little bit and given that relationship more time.

No one will admit it when they meet Sunday. These couples reunions, sadly, are often more about making the other party feel bad than making yourself feel good. But if everyone is being honest, it's clear that Lovie misses the Bears, the Bears miss Lovie, and anyone who prefers competitive football to football-themed soap operas has to miss the Lovie Smith Bears.

Some quotes in this story gathered using News Library.

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.