10 moves that changed the Bears
BY MARK POTASH | Commentary January 19, 2011 12:37PM
Sitting down Tommie Harris was one of the Bears' keys to success this season. He's come back rejuvenated. Check out 10 more key moves ...
Updated: January 19, 2011 5:12PM
Bears coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo resisted the temptation to gloat after the Bears went 11-5, won the NFC North title and the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs this season after most people thought both of them should have been fired last year.
They missed a golden opportunity to stick it to their critics. Maybe it’s because there were so many of them, they didn’t know where to start.
There were the critics who said the Bears needed a franchise quarterback and a Pro Bowl defensive end; The critics who said Lovie Smith didn’t have enough NFL experience on his coaching staff. The critics who said Bob Babich wasn’t an upgrade over Ron Rivera, or that Lovie was taking on too much by replacing Babich with himself.
The critics who said Rex wasn’t their quarterback; that Devin Hester is the best kick returner of all-time, not a No. 1 receiver; that Mark Anderson shouldn’t be starting over Alex Brown — or Israel Idonije; that Chris Williams isn’t cutting it at tackle; or that Jay Cutler is better when he moves the pocket.
Maybe Lovie and Jerry realized that a lot of their critics — all those fans, columnists, talk-show hosts. commentators and analysts who don’t know what they don’t know — were right.
Probably not. But even Angelo acknowledged that change was necessary after three successive seasons without a playoff berth. That’s not an easy thing for the Bears, an organization steeped in tradition and resistant to change — from Virginia McCaskey’s humble home to the upper-echelon offices at Halas Hall, where the motto seems to be, ‘‘The buck starts here.’’
The Bears, in the grand tradition of former Bulls GM Jerry Krause, seemed to not only ignore public opinion, but defy it. The more people criticized Rex Grossman, the more the Bears loved him. And the more they loved him, the longer it was going to take for them to realize those darn critics might have had a point.
But the desperation of a dire situation seems to have sparked Angelo and Smith into unprecedented action: Angelo’s bold moves in acquiring Jay Cutler and Julius Peppers; and Smith being less tolerant of subpar performance from his players and coaches — among other things. And getting results, too. Funny how after deactivating Tommie Harris against the Packers in Week 3 and playing him behind Matt Toeaina for 10 games, Harris is back in the starting lineup and more productive than he’s been since 2008.
And all along Lovie kept insisting to the critics there was nothing wrong with Harris.
That’s one of many moves the Bears have made that have made the difference between a 7-9 season in 2009 and the 11-5 NFC North championship season of 2010. Here are 10 others:
1. Trading for a ‘‘franchise’’ quarterback. Just replacing Grossman with Kyle Orton was considered a bold move for the Bears, but they outdid themselves when they responded quickly and traded for Jay Cutler. Former Bears director of pro personnel Bobby DePaul gets much of the credit for the deal.
2. Acquiring a Pro Bowl defensive end. The Bears have tried every avenue to get a difference-makimg defensive end and got as close as they could with Adewale Ogunleye. But they started making things worse when they moved
Mark Anderson ahead of Alex Brown, then jumped on another opportunity by signing Peppers as a free agent after last season.
3. Hiring Mike Martz, Mike Tice and Rod Marinelli over the past two seasons has given Smith more NFL experience on his staff than he’s ever had. His first staff of assistants with the Bears in 2004 included 10 coaches with no NFL experience at the position they were hired and two in their second year.
4. Moving Devin Hester back to his prominent role as a kick returner — and diminishing his role as a receiver — was tacit acknowledgement that they erred when they gave Hester a contract extension that paid him like a No. 1 receiver.
5. Hiring Mike Martz to replace Ron Turner as offensive coordinator was a risky move because the Bears didn’t have the time to spend a year learning Martz’s system. But it kicked in just enough and just in time to give the Bears the offensive push they needed to win the NFC North.
6. Lovie Smith replacing himself as defensive coordinator with Rod Marinelli ended a saga that began when Smith told us to trust him when he replaced Ron Rivera with linebackers coach Bob Babich after the 2006 season. Smith’s hands are obviously on this defense, but even Lovie acknowledged last week that having Marinelli in the coordinator’s role allowed him to concentrate on other head coaching responsibilities.
7. Replacing Mark Anderson at defensive end with Israel Idonije after one game was a sign that things were different this season. Anderson was cut three weeks later. Idonije tied Peppers for the team lead with eight sacks. Other quicker-than-normal moves followed: Earl Bennett for Devin Aromashodu at wide receiver; Tim Jennings for Zack Bowman at cornerback; J’Marcus Webb for Kevin Shaffer at right tackle; and Edwin Williams (and eventually Roberto Garza) for Lance Louis at right guard.
8. After insisting that former first-round pick Chris Williams was an NFL-ready tackle, the Bears moved Williams to left guard when he returned from an early season injury. He hasn’t been great, but he’s been better than he was at either tackle position.
9. Smith has spent entire seasons defending ‘‘coming off the bus running’’ when it was evident the Bears couldn’t and wouldn’t run the ball once they got on the field. But when the Bears’ run-pass ratio got out of whack near mid-season, it took one week to correct it.
10. A small, but not insignificant part of the improvement of the Bears running game is Greg Olsen’s improved blocking. The Bears always insisted Olsen was a true tight end when it was pretty clear that his ineffective blocking made him a wide receiver playing tight end. Tight ends coach Mike DeBord gets credit for improving Olsen’s blocking to passable for an NFL tight end.