Was the Lovie Smith Era that bad for the Chicago Bears?
When I ask some of my friends that are Bears fans about the Lovie Smith era, it is still a very divisive topic. Some fans feel like the firing was justified and that team had plateaued , while others feel like the firing was unjustified and he should have gotten the opportunity to be coach of the Bears being a competitive team. Let’s take a look at his tenure as Bears coach year by year to see how his tenure as Bears coach unfolded:
2004: Lovie inherited a team that went 7-9 in the previous season with Dick Jauron but that 2003 team was a disaster particularly on offense where a washed up Kordell Stewart and Chris Chandler combined for 13 starts and went 5-8 and 10 touchdowns and 19 interceptions however rookie Rex Grossman became the starter and won 2 out his 3 starts.
Coming into 2004, Grossman was named the starter however he sustained a knee injury in a week 3 game vs Vikings and missed the rest of the season. After his injury, the Bears turned to the motley crew of Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Johnathan Quinn at quarterback and the Bears proceed to lose 9 out of their next 13 games. The Bears were ranked dead last in offense.
The defense was a more positive story was ranked 13th in the league in points allowed per game and had to work miracles to keep the team in the games that year. The defense also had to withstand an injury to star linebacker Brian Urlacher who was limited to nine games The team got great performances from defensive end Alex Brown who lead the teams in sacks and tackles for loss.
Team Record: 5-11 (Finished 4th in the NFC North)
2005: After having the worst offense in the league, Bears fired offensive coordinator Terry Shea in the offseason and replaced him with Ron Turner. Also, the team signed running back Thomas Jones and wide receiver Mushin Muhammad in free agency and drafted running back Cedric Benson with the 4th overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. The thought going into the season with the return of Rex Grossman, the additions in the draft and free agency, with the hiring of Ron Turner as offensive coordinator it was time for the Bears to make a leap on the offensive side of the ball. However, (Lee Corso voice) Not so fast my friend!!
Grossman injured his knee in the preseason and missed 14 games and so rookie Kyle Orton became the starter at quarterback. The Bears started the season losing an ugly offensive game to Washington and only had 166 yards of offense. Next week, the Lions came to Chicago and what became a recurring theme was the defense causing turnovers which helped put the offense in ideal situations to score. The defense forced Joey Harrington into five turnovers (all interceptions) and Kyle Orton got his first win as an NFL starter. The defense forced turnovers in 13 of the 16 regular season games and in nine of those games they forced more than one turnover.
The Bears won the NFC North and finished earned a number 2 seed earning a first round bye in the playoffs which had not happened since 2001. The team would lose to Carolina Panthers when wide receiver Steve Smith had a career high 218 yards receiving and did one of my favorite touchdown celebrations. Linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher made first team All-Pro and Urlacher would win the Defensive player of the year. Lovie wins Coach of the Year for helping the Bears go from worst to first.
Team Record: 11-5 (Won NFC North; lost in the divisional round to Carolina Panthers)
2006: The team wins their first 7 games however each game the offense is struggling. Fans and the media are asking for Rex Grossman to be benched for Brian Griese who was signed in the offseason as a free agent because the offense was sputtering. The most memorable game of this season was a Monday Night game vs the Cardinals in which Rex Grossman had 57 yards passing and four turnovers and the Bears trailed 20-0.
In the second half, the Bears defense and special teams took over and scored all 24 points to help pull out a 24-23 win over the Cardinals. The deciding score came from rookie Devin Hester who returned a punt for a touchdown and gave the Bears the lead with just under three minutes left in the game. After the game, we got the famous “Crown their Asses” soundbite from head coach Dennis Green. The Bears would eventually lose to the Miami Dolphins (coached by Nick Saban) and would go on to a 13-3 regular season record and earn the number 1 seed in the NFC for the first time since 1985. In the postseason that year, the Bears would win an overtime thriller against the defending NFC Champion Seattle Seahawks and then get a blowout win over the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship game.
The Bears went back to the Superbowl for the first time since 1985 but would lose to the Indianapolis Colts 29-17. The Bears were leading 14-6 after the first quarter but would only score another 3 points for the rest of the game. Once again, the offense struggled only scoring one offensive touchdown and only having 11 first downs in the game. Between 2005 and 2006 seasons the Bears, won 26 out of 36 games (including the postseason), which is a mark that will never be touched again during Lovie Smith’s tenure as coach in Chicago.
Team Record: 13-3 (Lost Super Bowl XLI to the Indianapolis Colts)
2007: After having back to back playoff appearances, you would think the Bears are ready to become a perennial championship contender, right? As any long-suffering Bears fan knows that the organization always struggles to be competent for long stretches of time like their friendly green and yellow neighbors to the north. In the offseason, starting running back and leader rusher in 2006 Thomas Jones is traded to the New York Jets for draft picks, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera is fired by Lovie Smith and Lance Briggs and the front office are engaged in negotiations for a new contract and Briggs threatens to sit out the entire season if he contract demands are not met (he gets signed to the franchise tag and accepts the offer begrudgingly). In addition, general manager Jerry Angelo signs Lovie Smith signs a contract extension for 4 years and $22 million dollars.
Rex Grossman was benched after an ugly Week 3 loss to the Cowboys in which he was 15 for 32 for 195 yards and three interceptions. Brian Griese became the starter after the loss to the Cowboys but was inconsistent as a starter going 3-3 and throwing for 10 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. Grossman was then re-inserted as the starter after Griese got hurt in week 10 game vs the Raiders however sustained another injury to his knee in a game vs Washington and was replaced by Kyle Orton. Orton finished the season as the starter going 2-1 in his starts. The offensive line that stayed healthy and protected so well started to show signs of decline. The year before they allowed only 25 sacks in 2006 and then they allowed 43 sacks in 2007. Injuries to guard Reuben Brown and tackle Fred Miller factored in that decline.
The defense took a step back as well. In 2006, they were fifth in points allowed and in 2007 they were 28 in points allowed some of that was due to injuries of key contributors from the previous season such as defensive end Alex Brown, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs, safety Mike Brown and off-season addition Adam Archuleta who played strong safety.
The team was eliminated from playoff contention by Week 14.
Team Record: 7-9 (3rd Place in the NFC North)
2008: In the offseason, make some significant changes in personnel to help turnaround the previous season record. Brian Griese is traded to Tampa Bay, wide receiver Mushin Muhammad is released, guard Ruben Brown is not re-signed, wide receiver Bernard Berrian signs with the Vikings and starting running back Cedric Benson is released after two alcohol-related arrests in the offseason. The leaders in passing (Griese), rushing (Benson) and receiving (Berrian) were all gone from the team. Kyle Orton was named the starting quarterback, they replaced Benson with veteran running back Kevin Jones and drafted running back Matt Forte in the second round and Devin Hester converted to a wide receiver and lead team in receiving yards. The Bears finished 26th in yards that year and in nine games that year finished with less than 300 yards of total offense.
The front seven of the Bears played great and limited rushing yards but the secondary gave up a ton of yards and was ranked 25th in pass defense that year. The core players of that defense defensive end Alex Brown, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher and defensive end Adewale Ogunleye had bounce back seasons from the disastrous 2007 season.
The Bears needed a win in a Week 17 game vs Texans to secure a playoff bid but lost the game 31-24 and it became another season of not making the playoffs. Of their seven losses that year, five of them were by less than seven points and four of them were to non-playoff teams that year.
Team Record: 9-7 (2nd place in the NFC North)
2009: General Manger Jerry Angelo disgusted with bad quarterback play that has plagued the team since the beginning of his tenure as the general manager makes a trade with Broncos for quarterback Jay Cutler. In the trade, Kyle Orton, two first round picks and 3rd round pick are traded for Cutler. QB Rex Grossman is also not re-signed and signs with Washington. However, the Bears still did little to protect Cutler and signed washed up tackle Orlando Pace and journeymen guard Kevin Shaffer to bolster the offensive line. It did not work out (surprise face), Cutler was sacked 35 times which at that time was a career high for him.
When Jerry Angelo made the trade for Cutler, he envisioned a more explosive offense however with the abysmal performance of the offensive line and still lacking a dominant wide receiver the offense scored less points than in 2008. The offense also struggled with turnovers particularly against the Baltimore Ravens where they turned the ball over six times and finished the season with 34 turnovers.
Brian Urlacher dislocated his wrist in the week 1 game vs Packers and was put on injured reserve for the rest of the season. The defense gave up over 300 yards of offense in 11 of the 16 games and went 5-6 in those games. This season, was the 2nd time in three years that the Bears finished 3rd in the division with only the Lions and their 2-14 record was keeping the Bears out of last place.
Team Record: 7-9 (3rd in the NFC North)
2010: The Bears replaced both coordinators in the offseason with Mike Martz becoming the offensive coordinator and Rod Marinelli becoming the defensive coordinator. Both of these coordinators had were familiar with Lovie Smith and where brought in to bring some winning ways back to Chicago. By this time, fans and the media were starting to believe that Lovie should be fired and that if the Bears did not make the playoffs the McCaskey family would end the Lovie Smith era.
Also, in the off season they released aging defensive linemen Adewale Ogunyele, Alex Brown, running back Kevin Jones and future head coach of Notre Dame Marcus Freeman. The big free agent addition was defensive end Julius Peppers who came over from the Carolina Panthers and instantly he brought some playmaking to the defensive line. The defense ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2006. Both Peppers and Urlacher finished in the top five for Defensive Player of the year. The offense gained over 300 yards in offense in more games than the previous year and reduced the amount of turnovers. Despite the hiring of Martz and doing some tinkering with the offensive line, Cutler was sacked 52 times which was the most in the league that year. In a game vs the Giants on Sunday Night football, he was sacked 10 times.
Much like their season in 2006, the Bears used their defense to win games and made the playoffs as a number 2 seed which gave them a first round bye. They hosted the Seattle Seahawks and beat them 35-24 with 274 passing yards and two touchdowns (no turnovers) from Cutler which would be his one and only playoff win ever. The defense held the Seahawks to just 34 yards rushing and that set up a matchup with the Packers in the NFC Championship game.
The Bears offense was bad turning the ball over three times and the Packers got the deciding points with this pick six by BJ Raji of the Packers. This would be the last playoff win for the Bears and Lovie Smith.
Team Record: 11-5 (1st in the NFC North, lost to Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game)
2011: On July 29, the Bears traded Greg Olsen to Carolina Panthers for a third round pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. In Mike Martz’s offense, there is very little need for a tight end like Olsen and his production dipped in 2010. Olson would go to on make three Pro-Bowls with the Panthers and eclipse 1,000 yards in three consecutive years. Also, the Bears brought in wide receiver Roy Williams from Dallas to provide some depth to a wide receiver core that was not made to run the offense the Martz wanted (Williams would only play 9 games this year as he battled injuries throughout the year). The defense stayed mostly intact from the previous season only safety Chris Harris did not return to the team. The Bears still were not addressing the offensive line which let Cutler get sacked 52 times in the previous year. They used their first-round pick on tackle Gabe Carimi who hurt his knee in Week 2 and missed the rest of the season. Carimi would get traded in 2013 to the Buccaneers and would be out of the league by 2014. The Bears started out the season 2-3 and then would go on to win four straight games to bring their record to 6-3 and if the season ended at that time would have made the playoffs.
During their week 11 game vs the Chargers, Cutler would throw an interception and break his hand trying to make a tackle and would miss the rest of the season. The backup quarterback was Caleb Hanie who played decently in the NFC Championship game for an injured Cutler but Hanie was not equip to keep the Bears in playoff contention. The team would go 1-5 in their last six games and miss the playoffs. This year, the Bears had five players make the Pro Bowl (Forte, Urlacher, Briggs, Tillman and Peppers) and is definitely what-if season for Lovie Smith.
Team Record: 8-8 (3rd Place in the NFC North)
2012: General Manager Jerry Angelo was fired by Bears president Ted Phillips in the offseason which means the man that had hired Lovie and probably protected him was gone. The new general manager Phil Emery who was brought in from the Kansas City Chiefs was tasked with getting the Bears back to playoffs consistently. Immediately, Emery started working the phones and improving the team. He traded for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, he drafted wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey in the second round, and signed Matt Forte to an extension. Mike Martz resigned as the offensive coordinator and Mike Tice was promoted to offensive coordinator as he was on the staff as an offensive line coach. That season, the team started 7-1 after beating the Titans 51-20 however the team would lose 5 of their next 8 games. In those five losses, the offense scored an average of 10.2 points. All five losses were to teams that would make the playoffs that year.
In a loss to 49ers on Monday Night football, the Bears only gained a total of 143 yards on offense. Even after all of that, they still had a chance to make the playoffs if they beat the Lions in week 17 and if the Vikings lost to the Packers. As we know now the Vikings won, with running back Adrian Peterson would rush for 199 yards and the Vikings kicked a field goal to win the game 37-34 to end the Bears playoff hopes and end the Lovie Smith era in Chicago. Lovie Smith was fired as the head coach of the Bears on December 31, 2012 with a career record of 81-63.
Team Record: 8-8 (3rd in the NFC North)
Postscript: The whole reason that I wrote this was to truly determine if Bears management made a mistake 10 years ago in firing Lovie Smith. I think as time has went along some Bears fans have changed their mind about his tenure with the Bears and some have not.
While writing this story, I forgot about some of the things that happened that contributed to some of the bad seasons such as injuries and bad timing. You can argue that some was his fault while others was not. When he returns to Solider Field on Sunday as the Houston Texans head coach, it will be interesting to see what the reaction is to him and how fond Bears fans think about those years when roamed the sideline.
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