Bears-Packers preview: No time to address Lovie’s contract
MARK POTASH ON THE BEARS January 1, 2011 8:50PM
Bears coach Lovie Smith’s contract status doesn’t seem to be as hot an issue this season as it was in 2006. | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images
Updated: April 30, 2011 4:45AM
There’s something missing from the Bears’ surprising run to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. Where is all the angst about Lovie Smith’s contract?
In four years, Smith went from the coach the Bears couldn’t afford to lose to the coach the Bears can’t afford to keep. Now, with the Bears 11-4 and two playoff victories away from their second Super Bowl appearance in the last five seasons, Smith’s future finally is where it should be — on the back burner. No one’s campaigning for Smith this time. No one’s fearing we’ll lose him. Even the faction that pulled for the Bears to fail just so Smith would get fired has backed down.
But it’s not as hot an issue as it was in 2006. One benefit of the labor dispute between the NFL and NFL Players Association is that it puts issues such as Smith’s contract on hold. If it forces the Bears to let Smith get into the final year of his contract, it might be the best move they ever made. It is unlikely to be the worst.
Nearing the end of Smith’s seventh season as coach of the Bears, we have a more honest appreciation of him than ever — for better and worse. He was embarrassingly underpaid in 2005-06 and nearly as embarrassingly overpaid in 2007-09.
Could be worse, could be better
We know the Bears can do worse. The Cowboys have as many Pro Bowl players (five) as they have victories. Norv Turner’s chronically disappointing Chargers outdid themselves this season, ranking No. 1 in the NFL in total defense and No. 2 in total offense and not even making the playoffs.
That’s an unprecedented feat. While four other teams since the 1970 merger have led the NFL in total defense and not made the playoffs, only the 1983 Bengals ranked higher than 22nd in total offense, and they were mediocre — 14th in a 28-team league.
Poor special teams figured into the Chargers’ demise. Kudos to Smith for having as fine an appreciation for special teams as any coach in the NFL. And kudos to the Bears for keeping special-teams coach Dave Toub happy. Did you know that while the Chargers are No. 2 in total offense (392 yards per game) and the Bears are No. 30 (294), they’re virtually even in all-purpose yards (Chargers 426, Bears 423)? That’s one big reason the Bears are the No. 2 seed in the NFC and the Chargers are out of the playoffs.
At the same time, we know the Bears can do better. Would the Bears be playing for a playoff berth today if they had had the injuries the Packers’ have dealt with this season?
Seven of the Packers’ 22 opening-day starters are on injured reserve, including tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant, linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar and offensive tackle Mark Tauscher. And that doesn’t include veteran cornerback Al Harris, who never recovered from a 2009 injury.
That would be like the Bears losing Johnny Knox, Matt Forte, Lance Briggs, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Frank Omiyale.
Yet the Packers are 9-6 and will make the playoffs if they beat the Bears today at Lambeau Field. That’s a pretty neat trick— and one that would challenge Smith.
Smith might be the coach of the year in the NFC. But as well-deserved as that honor would be, let’s not forget it’s for 2010 only.
Can Bears sustain this?
It’s not like the Bears are Super Bowl contenders because of Smith’s grand plan. It’s not as though he has created a Bill Belichick-like system of interchangeable parts and plug-in replacements.
On the contrary, the Bears are winning this season because the organization finally made moves that corrected previous errors and oversights. The Bears traded for a difference-making quarterback, signed a difference-making defensive end, hired a more dynamic offensive coordinator who could maximize Jay Cutler’s abilities and hired an NFL-proven offensive line coach. Last but not least, they ostensibly fired Smith as defensive coordinator and replaced him with Rod Marinelli.
It’s to their credit they made those moves. But their success in 2010 comes with legitimate cynicism: Can they sustain it? Smith’s a great coach when everybody’s healthy and his stars are in their prime. But Brian Urlacher is 32. Lance Briggs is 30. Julius Peppers will turn 31 next month.
If the heat is on anybody at Halas Hall, it’s on general manager Jerry Angelo. This season has been more about the importance of playmakers than about the wizardry of Smith. If the Bears don’t draft difference-makers in addition to the complementary pieces Angelo has a knack for finding, this won’t last long.
And then we’ll be back where we started, bitching and moaning about Smith.
WHEN THE BEARS HAVE THE BALL
ON THE GROUND
With a solidified offensive line, the Bears’ running games has made huge strides since Matt Forte was held to 29 yards on 11 carries vs. the Packers in Week 3 at Soldier Field. In his last 6 games, Forte is averaging 85 rushing yards per game — 92 or more four times — and 5.2 yards per carry. And he’s doing it against top-10 rush defenses: the No. 5 Jets (19-113, 1 TD), No. 6 Dolphins (25-97, 1 TD) and No. 8 Vikings (17-92). The Packers rank 18th in rush defense, allowing 115 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry. Chester Taylor is still finding tough sledding wherever he goes — he has rushed for 96 yards on 65 carries (1.5 yards per carry) in his last 8 games, but he has scored 3 TDs.
Raji, a second-year pro out of Boston College, is one of the finest young NTs in the NFL — he leads all NTs with 61/2 sacks, including 3 in the last 2 weeks. Kreutz, relying more on guile in his 13th season, has been an invaluable leader of an improving line. But facing the the spry and quick Raji in Week 17 is a challenge that bears watching.
IN THE AIR
Jay Cutler had a 104.2 passer rating last week against a Jets defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL in passer-rating defense. Now he’ll get an even stiffer test on the road against the Packers’ pass defense, which is No. 1 in passer-rating defense (69.0) and has three Pro Bowl starters in CB Charles Woodson, S Nick Collins and LB Clay Matthews. Cutler was 16-for-27 for 221 yards, a TD and an INT (with another INT nullified by one of the Packers’ 18 penalties) for an 82.5 rating in the Bears’ win in Week 3 at Soldier Field. The Bears’ pass protection was pretty good in that game — Cutler was sacked only 3 times. The Bears’ protection is better, but it’s always a chess match with Packers DC Dom Capers.
WHEN THE PACKERS HAVE THE BALL
ON THE GROUND
The Packers’ run game has suffered since Ryan Grant had a season-ending injury in Week 1. In their last 8 games, Brandon Jackson (103-321) and John Kuhn (26-75) have combined for 49.5 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. The Bears, though, still will have to key on the Packers’ most dangerous runner — QB Aaron Rodgers, who has rushed for 203 yards on 28 carries (7.3 per carry) in his last 6 games. Rodgers scored on a 3-yard run and had a 17-yard, fourth-quarter scramble vs. the Bears at Soldier Field. The Bears still rank third in the NFL in rush defense (92.1 yards per game) but have allowed 124 yards per game and 4.3 yards per carry over the last six games.
The Bears held Jennings to 2 catches for 18 yards in Week 3 at Soldier Field. But with Jermichael Finley out for the season, Jennings is an even bigger threat. Tillman is having a solid season (4 INTs, 3 FFs, 1 FR and 11 pass breakups), but he’s susceptible to the big play when trying to make a big play.
IN THE AIR
The Bears can’t catch a break with opposing QBs this season — after facing red-hot Michael Vick and Tom Brady, now they get Rodgers, who has thrown 15 TDs and 1 INT in his last 6 games, with an average rating of 132.5 in complete games. After sitting out with a concussion, Rodgers was 25-for-37 for 404 yards, 4 TDs and 0 INTs in a rout of the Giants. For a team that can’t run well, the Packers have a knack for using play-action, as Rodgers did on an 80-yard TD to Jordy Nelson last week. The Bears won’t have to contend with the injured Finley, who was unstoppable in Week 3 (9-115). But Jennings has picked up the slack (33-617, 18.7, 6 TDs in last 6 games).
The Packers need a victory to make the playoffs, while the Bears are pretty much locked into the No. 2 seed. There’s no telling how Lovie Smith is going to play this one. In 2005 and 2006, the Bears were smoked in Week 17 and struggled in their playoff opener. On the other hand, the Patriots lost Wes Welker to injury in a meaningless Week 17 game last season and lost their playoff opener. Pressure will be on the Packers.
The Bears have Devin Hester. The Packers don’t. Hester’s renaissance as a returner began with a 62-yard punt return for a TD vs. the Pack in Week 3. Hester leads the NFL in punt-return average (17.1 yards), with 3 TDs and 9 returns of 20 or more yards. Hester also is averaging 35.6 yards on 12 kickoff returns — without a TD. Bears kickoff coverage has been relatively spotty. But the Packers are a below-average return team.