TELANDER: Lovie’s lasting legacy: Likable but lacking
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com
When the Bears open with a victory under Lovie Smith--as they did Sunday against the Falcons--it usually portends good things for the rest of their season. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times Media
In retrospect, it might have been the first game of the season — a 41-21 rout of the Colts — that sealed Lovie Smith’s fate.
Wow, what an offense the Bears finally had put together! At last!
Jay Cutler threw for 333 yards and two touchdowns, Matt Forte and Michael Bush combined to run for 122 yards and three touchdowns, Brandon Marshall caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown and Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett combined to catch six passes for 130 yards and a touchdown.
The Bears laid 34 points on the Cowboys, 41 on the Jaguars and 51 on the Titans before — at 7-1 — the hood blew off and the pistons buckled. After averaging a little more than 30 points a game in the first half of the season, the Bears averaged a little less than 20 points in the second half.
Lovie knows defense. But offense? Nothing. And he had forgotten how to beat the Packers. He had given Bears fans a taste of glory, then yanked it away.
It was enough. Even with a 10-6 record this season and an 81-63 mark in nine seasons, you can’t start 7-1, have nobody of great magnitude injured for long and not make the playoffs.
General manager Phil Emery, who was forced to keep Smith for this season, rolled up his sleeves and said, as we knew he evenutally would, I’m in charge.
Coaches are important to winning football franchises, but GMs are the facilitators. Consider that the Bears have had a dozen head coaches in their history but only five GMs. GMs tend to last longer in their positions and often want to hire their own head coaches.
In a sense, Lovie was doomed the moment Jerry Angelo — his hirer and protector — was fired and replaced by Emery after last season. For comparison, think of a new restaurant manager who comes in but can’t hire his own chef. It’s only a matter of time before somebody’s face gets slammed into the sauce pot and knives are everywhere.
That didn’t happen with the Bears because, despite whatever failings he might have, Smith isn’t vulgar, crude, self-promoting or destructive.
‘‘He’s been great, a class act,’’ Cutler said when asked about Smith, shortly after word of his firing Monday made the rounds. ‘‘A player’s coach. A lot of character in that man.’’
It’s true that Smith was well-liked in the clubhouse, where his calm, evenhandedness and inability to rage were seen as balms in a profession filled with mayhem.
To the rest of us, who too often seethed with frustration at another blown scoring opportunity, another chance to skin a player to the bone for screwing up, Lovie’s passivity was almost maddening.
That’s him, though, folks. He is as he appears.
When he was learning to swim a couple of years ago in the Halas Hall pool — an activity of which he was (and is) mortally terrified but which he had promised his wife he would conquer — he wanted no one to know. Not of his failings. Not of his successes. Not of his joy at simply being able to make it across the narrow pool without drowning. Not at his frustration at being afraid to do things in the water that little kids relish.
The history with the Bears that Smith leaves behind is a nice one, but it’s one that petered out. Lovie didn’t handle his rotating cast of offensive coordinators well, and that helped undo him as much as anything. Football is such a complex game that it would have been wonderful if he could have found a bright offensive mind and handed the ‘‘O’’ to that man years ago. He then could have put his full attention into that which he loves: beating the snot out of the other team with an attacking, vicious defense.
Smith will have no problem getting a high-level coaching job soon — maybe even a head-coaching gig with a needy team such as the Eagles — because he didn’t act like a dunce, a buffoon or a wimp in Chicago. He has grace. He has dignity. He didn’t embarrass us. And didn’t he make everybody forget about that thorny thing known as race?
Yet the Bears might need more of a wild man, one of those quasi-narcissists who strut, command and holler. This is the place that idolizes Mike Ditka, remember.
It’s on Emery now. I just wonder if 10-6 is going to look real good real soon.