Lovie Smith was the third-longest tenured Chicago Bears
coach in their 93-year history. Here he addresses the press, undoubtedly
with condescending and belittling comments.
An air of change, perhaps never before seen in the 93-year
existence of the Chicago Bears organization, settled into Halas Hall in January
2012. Perhaps the major change in 2012 would have been limited to one, had the
Bears continued the prosperity they enjoyed during a 7-1 start to the season.
But they didn't. After the 7-1 start, when the Bears led the
NFC North Division and seemed to be an absolute playoff lock, the team finished
3-5 down the stretch. On December 31st it was announced that ninth-year coach
Lovie Smith, who had reportedly turned down a two-year contract extension
earlier in the season, was fired.
Certainly no Bears fans expected major changes to occur in
January 2012. Clearly the Bears had finished the 2011 season on a disappointing
note, dropping five of their final six games in embarrassing fashion after
having started the season 7-3. Absent were any calls for the head coach's head,
which is a common theme in Chicago after bad Bears seasons. After all, the poor
finish came only after quarterback Jay Cutler and later running back Matt Forte
were lost for the year.
But Bears management had stunning news for the public on
January 3rd, when they announced that General Manager Jerry Angelo was being
fired after 11 years running football operations for the team. A series of
failed top draft picks, the incompetent play of Cutler's backup Caleb Hanie,
and the continued strength of Green Bay (and the resurgence of Detroit) were
cited as reasons for the dismissal. Thankfully there would be no hiring of an
executive search firm to select the new GM
as there had been in 2001, but Bears President Ted Phillips did announce
that a thorough search would take place.
Candidates that would be discussed to replace Angelo included
Jason Licht from New England, former Bears scout Phil Emery from Kansas City,
Baltimore's Eric DeCosta, the New York Giant's Marc Ross, and (curiously) for a
time, incumbent Bears VP of Pro Personnel Tim Ruskell. After what turned out to
be a 27-day search, the Bears introduced Emery as only their third General
Manager since George Halas ran the team from his deathbed in 1983.
At the same time Angelo's firing was announced, Lovie Smith
took the podium to explain that offensive coordinator Mike Martz had "retired."
It was immediately speculated that the simple departure of Martz would improve
the Bears' offense in 2012. Shortly thereafter, Bears offensive line coach and
former Vikings head coach Mike Tice was promoted to the role. Tice stated
that his offense would create a moving pocket for quarterback Jay Cutler and
feature downfield throws.
After just six weeks with the Bears, Emery made the first news
of NFL's free agent period when he boldly traded two third-round draft picks to
the Miami Dolphins for talented but sometimes troubled receiver Brandon
Marshall. Just days later, it was revealed that Marshall had been involved in
an altercation in New York, having been accused of striking a woman in a bar.
Marshall ultimately was not charged in the incident, but after troubles
involving Bears such as Cedric Benson and Tank Johnson, Bears fans had the
right to be nervous.
The trade for Marshall was made possible because of the extra
third-round pick they had acquired from the Carolina Panthers for tight end
Greg Olsen in 2011. Olsen's absence was not conspicuous in 2011 as the Bears
were still running Mike Martz' offense, which neglected to utilize the tight
end. But in 2012 they were expected to involve the position more under Mike
Tice, and were left with the extremely inconsistent Kellen Davis. It was hoped
that Davis with his perfect tight end body would finally flourish.
Emery had immediately signaled that he was serious about
filling some of the glaring holes on the Bears roster-Chicago had lacked a bona
fide threat at wide receiver for years. Perhaps decades. And obviously Emery
would take the unconventional approach when necessary. After the Marshall
splash, the Bears were fairly conservative in free agency. Their biggest moves
were in signing more competent backups at quarterback and running back in Jason
Campbell and Michael Bush from Oakland.
In the 2012 college draft, the first time Emery would be in
control of the selection process, all bets were on the Bears selecting a pass
rusher. And plenty of pass rushers would be available in this draft. By the
time the Bears were on the board with the 19th overall pick, just two of the
five that would be picked in the first round had been selected. The Bears had
their choice of several quality players, including Illinois DE Whitney
Mercilus, Syracuse's Chandler Jones, another DE, or offensive linemen such as
Stanford's David DeCastro or Iowa's Riley Reiff. But Emery stunned a bit by
selecting Boise State DE Shea McClellin. In the second round, Emery traded up
to select tall wide receiver Alshon Jeffery from South Carolina. Safety Brandon
Hardin was the third-round pick but spent the season on injured reserve, and
Temple fullback Evan Rodriguez rounded out picks that would contribute as the
Two main stories emerged as training camp opened. The first
was the battle at left tackle, along with the overall state of the
much-maligned offensive line. Third-year incumbent J'Marcus Webb was given
competition at LT from 2008 first-round pick Chris Williams. Webb won the job,
and Williams would be released outright just into the season. Incumbent left
guard Chris Spencer also battled free agent signee Chilo Rachal, with Spencer
initially winning. Center was to be handled ably by 12-year vet Roberto Garza,
and the right side was set with Lance Louis at guard and Gabe Carimi at tackle.
Another feeling at training camp, with the additions of
Marshall and Jeffery at receiver and the subtraction of Martz, was that the
Bears defense's play would slip while the offense carried the team. There was
concern over the health of MLB Brian Urlacher's knee, which he had injured in
the final game of 2011. If the aging defense could just play competently while
the offense broke out, perhaps the 2012 Bears would have a chance at greatness.
Or so it was thought.
On opening day, the Bears faced the Indianapolis Colts with
budding star quarterback Andrew Luck, the first pick in the 2012 draft. In the
team's finest overall performance of the season, they pasted Luck and the Colts
by the score of 41-21. The win featured five Bears takeaways-three
interceptions of the rookie along with two fumble recoveries. The game was
capped by a 42-yard touchdown strike from Cutler to Jeffery, the first of many
long touchdowns that would be scored by the offense. Or so it was thought.
The season's second week sent the Bears to Green Bay on a
nationally-televised Thursday night, where the Bears were roundly embarrassed.
Marshall, who had caught nine passes for 119 yards and a touchdown, was shut
out in the 23-10 loss. Green Bay's pass rush seemed unstoppable. The Packers'
Clay Matthews Jr. led the charge with 3.5 sacks, and the Bears gave up seven
total. On a night when the Bears defense kept Aaron Rodgers largely in check,
Chicago could only muster 168 yards of offense.
The Bears recovered nicely from the terrible effort at Green
Bay by playing their best stretch of football of the season-perhaps their best
stretch since 2006. Chicago won their next six games to lead the NFC North by a
game with a 7-1 record. The stretch included impressive wins over Tennessee
(51-20) and gritty victories at Dallas (34-18) and against Detroit (13-7), both
on Monday Night Football. The Bears aging defense dominated during the stretch,
scoring five touchdowns on their own. Cornerback Tim Jennings became the NFL
leader in interceptions, a lead he would not relinquish. The Bears were 7-1,
and it was assumed that with just three more victories in the final eight weeks
the Bears would make the playoffs. Four or five would certainly give them the
division title and a bye. Or so it was thought.
In the season's ninth game, the Bears began playing the more
elite teams in the NFL, including Houston, San Francisco, Minnesota twice, and
the rematch with Green Bay. Once the good teams started arriving on the
schedule regularly, the bottom fell out.
The first loss at home to Houston, in which Cutler was lost to
a concussion, was not alarming, being to an AFC team. The Bears then went to
San Francisco and were embarrassed by quarterback Colin Kapernick in his first
start. The Bears rebounded to beat Minnesota at home, but then lost three
critical games in a row to NFC contenders Seattle, Minnesota and Green Bay.
During this stretch the Bears also lost key players for the year in Urlacher,
kicker Robbie Gould, and right guard Louis.
Following the 21-13 loss at home to Green Bay, while the Bears
were not officially eliminated, their destiny was taken out of their hands. The
Packer loss was the sixth straight to their hated rivals, and the eighth of the
last 11 matchups for Lovie Smith, who committed to beating Green Bay as his
first priority when he was hired. Or so he promised.
The Bears did all they could to make the playoffs in the
season's final two weeks by beating bad Arizona and Detroit teams. But after
the Bears' tenth win at Detroit, they learned several hours later that a Viking
win over the Packers had eliminated them from playoff contention.
In the end, despite the hope for an offensive breakout, the
unit finished ranked 16th overall and 29th in passing. They were frequently
forced to burn timeouts due to problems getting plays in and looked generally
disorganized much of the time. While Marshall had a record year for a Bears
receiver, no other players were consistent threats. Thus if opposing defenses
took Marshall out of the game and shut down the run, they had nothing to fear.
Clearly a change to this offensively-challenged team was in the works.
It is not often that a head coach is fired following a ten-win
season, especially a coach that had led his team to winning records in five of
nine seasons, hosted two NFC Championship games, and played in one Super Bowl.
But early in the morning following the Viking win over the Packers, it was
announced that Smith had been terminated. Not possible, so I thought.