It is not often NFL teams fire head coaches after 10-win seasons, but it is even rarer for coaches to retain their jobs after failing to reach the playoffs five times in six years.
So it was not surprising Monday morning when the Bears fired Lovie Smith less than 24 hours after his team defeated the Lions to finish 10-6 but still missed the postseason, becoming just the second team since the 12-team playoff format was established in 1990 to miss the playoffs after a 7-1 start.
The epitaph for Smith's tenure as coach of the Bears could read, "He couldn't fix the offense."
Smith spoke to his team in a brief but emotional meeting, and many players, fiercely loyal to Smith, were hurt. Some were angry. Smith was 81-63 in the regular season with three NFC North titles, four 10-win seasons, a 3-3 playoff record and one Super Bowl trip. Only George Halas and Mike Ditka won more games as coach for the NFL cornerstone franchise.
"It's a tough situation to be in to see a great man and a great coach have to stand in front of the room and do that," center Roberto Garza said. "But this is the NFL. It happens. Unfortunately, we forced that situation."
Smith has one year remaining on his contract at $5 million. His staff remains under contract through 2013 and multiple assistants said they have not been released from their deals, although all or nearly all or expected to depart.
General manager Phil Emery will speak publicly about the move at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and NFL sources confirmed the team has scheduled interviews with Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and Falcons special teams coordinator Keith Armstrong, who held the same role for the Bears from 1997-2000.
Armstrong, who is expected to interview Tuesday, is African-American and the Bears must interview at least one minority candidate to satisfy the league's Rooney Rule. He also has interviews scheduled with the Eagles and Chiefs.
Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan is expected to interview with the Bears on Wednesday.
Surely, Emery's vision includes a dramatically reshaped offense. For all the good things Smith did in his nine years in Chicago, his undoing was his inability to take care of the side of the ball in which he had no background.
Since Smith took over in 2004, the Bears have ranked higher than 23rd in offense only once. They have ranked 28th or lower four times and finished 28th in 2012.
Smith tried four offensive coordinators during his Bears career. Smith's first thought was to run a similar offense to the one he was familiar with when he was defensive coordinator of the Rams, so he hired Terry Shea, despite not having worked with him. It was an unmitigated disaster. The Bears finished last in the league in offense behind quarterbacks Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Rex Grossman, and Shea was dismissed after one season.
Smith then turned to Ron Turner for his second stint as Bears offensive coordinator, although some insist that the Smith-Turner pairing was an arranged marriage. Turner lasted five years in what was the heyday for the Bears offense under Smith.
Those days Smith talked frequently about how the Bears "get off the bus running," and the team achieved its offensive identity by pounding the ball with Thomas Jones, then Cedric Benson and finally Matt Forte.
But after the Bears traded two first-round draft picks and a third-rounder for Jay Cutler in 2009 and still finished 23rd in offense and missed the playoffs, Turner was made the scapegoat and fired.
An extensive job search led the Bears back to Smith's old friend Mike Martz, for whom he had worked in St. Louis. Going from the conservative Turner to the aggressive Martz was quite a philosophical shift for Smith.
Martz's offense sputtered in 2010 even as the team reached the NFC championship game but started to flourish the next season. Then Cutler broke his thumb in the 10th game and the team unraveled. The Bears lost five straight, and Martz was fired along with general manager Jerry Angelo, the man who brought Smith to Chicago.
Team President Ted Phillips mandated that Emery work with Smith for at least 2012, lauding the coach for his consistency. Speculation is the Bears chose not to fire Smith because he had two years remaining on his contract.
Smith's next move was to go conservative again, this time by promoting offensive line coach Mike Tice. A first-time play caller, Tice made great use of new acquisition Brandon Marshall but struggled to find other reliable targets or to overcome protection issues.
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Author: Mattbroersma News
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