One of the more unfortunate moments in sports journalism occurred in June 1995, at a news conference featuring the surgeons who had performed a liver transplant on failing baseball great Mickey Mantle.
His original liver had been pulverized by years of hard living, leaving Mantle in desperate need of a new one, but his health, his habits and his history raised nettlesome questions about his suitability as a transplant recipient. A meteoric rise to the top of the waiting list had been ascribed to favoritism born of his iconic national stature as baseball great Mickey Mantle.
Thus the press briefing was predictably testy. One attendee might have been seeking to defuse the tension when he inquired about the health of the donor, apparently unaware that the availability of a liver meant its previous owner had passed from this world, no longer in need of this most vital organ.
A one-word answer — deceased — would have sufficed, but the surgeon manning the podium opted to embarrass the interrogator, perhaps as payback for those prickly questions about favoritism and medical ethics he’d been facing.
“You’re a sportswriter, aren’t you,” he asked with ill-concealed disdain.
As the chastened reporter shrank in his seat, many of those in the room empathized with his discomfort. We sports types run the risk of exposing our shallow grasp of real-life issues any time the subject matter ranges beyond the playing field.
This unfortunate exchange came to mind last week as reporters were peppering Bears boss Lovie Smith for a diagnosis/prognosis on concussed quarterback Jay Cutler. While none of the questioners feigned the medical savvy of, say, an afternoon sports-radio host, they were requesting surgeon-general-level expertise from Smith, a football coach, whose overriding concern is winning his next game.
That’s not cold or unfeeling on Smith’s part; that’s just the way it is in the next-man-up world of professional football. Smith’s Bears were going to play the 49ers in San Francisco on Monday night regardless of whether Cutler or Jason Campbell plays quarterback.
Turns out it’s Campbell.
Feel better, Jay; hope to see you soon. Meanwhile, let’s get this other guy ready to play if we hope to remain employed around here.
With Monday’s final whistle, the Bears will be 8-2 and a step closer to a job-solidifying playoff berth, or 7-3 and wobbly, with two consecutive losses and the Green Bay Packers looming ominously in the rear-view mirror.
That’s a pretty full plate for Smith. Sure, he’d prefer to have Cutler on the field to face the 49ers, especially after watching Caleb Hanie’s near-comic ineptitude sabotage a promising season just last year. But it’s out of his hands.
The quarterback carnage that claimed Cutler and three fellow starters last weekend drove home the point that pro football is a truly dangerous game. The NFL might have been late to that realization, or in denial for an unconscionably long while, but its efforts to play catch-up leave coaches in an almost untenable position: Keep on winning games, though we’ll be implementing rules that might preclude your knowing which players are available from week to week.
Has to be done.
Bears vs. 49ers was highly anticipated for weeks, breathlessly billed as a showdown between two of the NFC’s top teams. With the memory of Hanie taunting him, Smith has to play without his star quarterback, which is sort of like entering the family Taurus in the Daytona 500. And an asterisk noting Cutler’s absence will not accompany the verdict as it is entered on Smith’s record.
A loss makes his efforts to gain acceptance here increasingly futile. Taciturn, aloof and deliberately bland for the most part, Smith is not Mike Ditka, and that “failing” seems to matter more to star-struck legions of Bears fans than a credible track record or his players’ obvious respect, loyalty and love.
Smith has one year left on his contract, and his fate is in the hands of a general manager who didn’t hire him, a newly promoted scout who needs to do what he does and begin retooling an aging roster while shoring up a leaky offensive line. Those should be Phil Emery’s top priorities.
Besides, what are the sideline alternatives? How are Charlie Weis and Josh McDaniels and those other Bill Belichick disciples working out? Would you prefer a hot-shot college coach, a Nick Saban, say, or Steve Spurrier or Bobby Petrino.
There’s simply no compelling reason to make a change at this point, so extend Smith’s contract and keep him where he is.
Just don’t ask him to play doctor.