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NFC Coach of the Year? It's Lovie hands-down

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NFC Coach of the Year? It's Lovie hands-down

Friday, Dec. 24, 2010
9:32 AM

By John Mullin
CSNChicago.com

Lovie Smith is simply the hands-down NFC coach of the year. Period.

Its more than just the win-loss record. Its more than exceeding expectations. Its more than just what his players say about him or their endorsements of him for the honor.

Its how the Bears have gotten to the won-lost mark. And it really isnt a tough call.

The worthy others

First, with due respect to Smiths challengers, only two NFC field bosses rate inclusion on the debate.

One is Mike Smith in Atlanta, where the Falcons have won eight straight and lost only twice all year, both times on the road and against division leaders Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Smith finishes third here because the Falcons were gifted with a schedule that included the NFC Worst and because Matt Ryan makes any coach look very, very good.

Runner-up to Smith is Mike McCarthy, who has had the Green Bay Packers in the hunt for the NFC North title all year despite an injury list that would have crippled lesser-coached teams. And McCarthy took an Aaron Rodgers-less team up to New England and had the Patriots in trouble with Matt Flynn. Consider that a statement for McCarthy simply by itself.

But Smith has accomplished more and under arguably shakier circumstances. He already was NFL coach of the year for what he did in 2005 with a rookie Kyle Orton. What he has done in 2010 is even more impressive.

Management was everything

Smith didnt merely coach the Bears. He managed them.

Smith managed a coaching staff that includes three former NFL head coaches. One of them (Rod Marinelli) is his schematic soulmate but the other two (Mikes Martz and Tice) are divas, which isnt necessarily a bad thing or even especially unusual in coaches. But it can make managing people off-the-charts difficult.

And it was for Smith, who let Martz have his head in the early going of the 2010 season and then jerked the reins, hard.

Smith has defined consistency, sometimes maddeningly to some outsiders. He has always held players accountable and subject to near-immediate movement on the depth chart in every season. His demeanor has been the same throughout his tenure.

Interestingly, players see both a different Smith and at the same time the same one.

Hes the same, Brian Urlacher said. Hes the same all the time. Thats what we love about him, we like playing for him. He hasnt changed. He told us how good we were, the first day of whenever we do our junk in the spring. And he was right...

The thing you got to love about Lovie, as a player, hes the same all the time. He lets you know where you stand. I know the media doesnt like it very much, because he doesnt give you all the information. But as players, we like that. He doesnt sell us out, doesnt tell any information that needs to be out there. Keeps it in-house, for the most part. Sometimes, some guys got their little friends in the media that they talk to. But, for the most part, he keeps everything in house and we appreciate that. He keeps it in our family.

As far as Lance Briggs is concerned, the biggest change for Lovie is to not change and stay true to his beliefs and his coaching. When we think during training camp well have an extra practice or one less practice hes consistent. Hes very consistent. Thats the type of play he demands from his men --- consistent play. The biggest change is that theres no change.

But there was change

The combined assessments of his players are telling and reveal what kind of manager Smith has been in a year that has gone far better than most outside of his locker room and offices thought it might.

Jay Cutler spoke to one side of Smith, one that in fact involved Cutler quite directly.

Ive seen a different side of Lovie this year, you know, Cutler said. Last year, my first year here, I didnt really know him that well. This year, verymore assertive.

Cutler is right, though only in the respect that he really didnt know Smith well last year. Cutler is wrong about Smiths assertiveness.

Smith hasnt undergone a personality makeover. He suffered no shortage of assertiveness in the past when it came to things like staff (Ron Rivera, Terry Shea, Ron Turner) and players.

But the situation with Mike Martz, Cutler and the offense needed a dramatic in-season course correction or this year may have gone completely off the rails and taken Smith and likely others with it. GM Jerry Angelo may have played a firm hand as well in effecting the change in offensive direction but if Smith and Angelo were not in the same paragraph (this went beyond just being on the same page), forget 2010.

He knows what hes doing, Cutler said of Smith. Hes leading us. He set the goals at the beginning of the year, and he hasnt let us forget them.

Fine stuff

Last Mondays Bears-Vikings game is turning expensive for defensive backs assigned to blitz quarterbacks.

Safety Major Wright will have to pony up 15,000 for his rough treatment of Minnesota quarterback Joe Webb, an NFL official confirmed. And cornerback Antoine Winfield drew a 7,500 fine for his hit on Cutler Monday night that saw his helmet go up under Cutlers chin and cause a cut that required stitches to close. Winfield also was fined 10,000 for a uniform violation involving the height of his socks, according to a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Somehow something is amiss when the height of hit on a player remains less serious, financially speaking, than the height of socks.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive backs

2017 grade: B-

Level of need: High

Decisions to be made on: Kyle Fuller (free agent), Prince Amukamara (free agent), Marcus Cooper (contract), Sherrick McManis (free agent), Bryce Callahan (restricted free agent), Quintin Demps (contract)

Possible free agent targets: Trumaine Johnson, Malcolm Butler, Bashaud Breeland, E.J. Gaines, Rashaad Melvin, Robert McClain, Darrelle Revis

There’s a wide spectrum of scenarios for the Bears at cornerback, ranging from keeping the status quo to blowing the whole thing up, and everything in between. Safety is far more stable, with Adrian Amos and Eddie Jackson proving to be a reliable pairing, so that’s set for 2018.

Let’s start with one end of that cornerback spectrum: The Bears keep the top of this unit intact. That means, No. 1, retaining Kyle Fuller via the franchise tag and/or a long-term contract. No. 2, it means bringing back Prince Amukamara, who didn’t record an interception and committed a few too many penalties, but otherwise was a fine enough cover corner. No. 3, it means keeping restricted free agent Bryce Callahan as the team’s No. 1 slot corner.

On paper, this doesn’t seem like an altogether bad option. The Bears weren’t spectacular at cornerback in 2017, but the position was a little better than average, which isn’t the worst place to be for a single unit. Couple with solid play from the safeties and the Bears’ defensive backs were overall a decent enough group. Outside of Marcus Cooper -- who is a candidate to be cut for cap savings -- the Bears may not need to make wholesale changes to this group.

That, though, is a rosier look at this unit. The Bears can certainly improve the personnel in it with a healthy amount of cap space and a strong crop of free agent cornerbacks about to hit the market. Keeping Fuller and then signing a top-tier player like Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler would upgrade this group, as would bringing back Fuller and Amukamara but then using a high draft pick on a player like Ohio State’s Denzel Ward.

Unless the Bears sign two big-time cornerbacks -- i.e. Fuller and Johnson, or even a guy like Brashaud Breeland or E.J. Gaines -- it would seem reasonable for them to use a first or second-round pick on a cornerback in an effort to find a longer-term solution at the position. That doesn’t mean the Bears would absolutely have to go that route, especially with other needs at wide receiver, guard and outside linebacker.

But here’s another thought: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the Bears are able to sign a combination of two top cornerbacks in free agency. With plenty of cap space top-end free agents lacking at wide receiver and outside linebacker/edge rusher, could Pace allocate a good chunk of that money to, say, tagging Fuller and making runs at Johnson, Butler and/or Breeland? 2018 looks to be a good year to be aggressive in the free agent cornerback market, and that could play into the Bears’ strategy well.

Before we finish, we should carve out some space for Amos and Jackson. Pro Football Focus isn’t the only outlet that’s given Amos high marks -- Bleacher Report’s NFL1000 ranked him as the No. 1 free safety in the league, too. Jackson came in at No. 19 in B/R’s strong safety rankings, which is pretty solid for a fourth-round rookie.

But the larger point here isn’t exactly where Amos and Jackson are in outside evaluations -- it’s that, tangibly, the pair played well off each other on a consistent basis last year. Seeing as Amos didn’t enter the Bears’ starting lineup until Week 4 -- after Quintin Demps suffered a season-ending broken forearm against Pittsburgh -- how quickly and successfully he and Jackson meshed was one of the more impressive developments for the Bears’ 2017 defense. Amos needs to make more plays on the ball and Jackson has some things to clean up, but the Bears enter the 2018 league year not needing to address their safety position. That’s a good place to be for a team with other significant needs.

2017 Bears position grades: Inside linebacker

2017 Bears position grades: Inside linebacker

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Low

Decisions to be made on: Christian Jones (free agent), John Timu (free agent), Jonathan Anderson (free agent); Jerrell Freeman has reportedly been cut

Possible free agent targets: Demario Davis, Preston Brown, Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Navorro Bowman, Derrick Johnson

How the Bears rate Nick Kwiatkoski will be the key to figuring out what this unit will look like in 2018. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio thought Kwiatkoski finished last season strong, but strong enough to rely on him in 2018 as the starter next to Danny Trevathan?

The thing with the Bears’ inside linebackers, though: Trevathan makes whoever is playing next to him better. The problem is Trevathan hasn’t been able to stay on the field — he missed time in 2017 with a calf injury and a one-game suspension, and missed half of 2016 after rupturing his Achilles’. Trevathan hasn’t played a full 16-game season since 2013, so durability is an issue for the soon-to-be 28-year-old.

So that leads to this question: Do the Bears need to find someone in free agency, regardless of how they value Kwiatkoski, who’s also missed time due to injuries in his first two years in the league?

Free agency could provide a few options. Demario Davis had a career high 97 tackles for the New York Jets last year and has never missed a game as a pro. Preston Brown had some decent production in Buffalo and also hasn’t missed a game since being drafted in 2014. Avery Williamson may not be a world-beater but has only missed one game in his four years in the NFL.

The Bears could also opt for someone who fits more of a rotational mold, like Dallas’ Anthony Hitchens, or try to lure a veteran linebacker like Navorro Bowman (who played for Vic Fangio in San Francisco) or Derrick Johnson (who Matt Nagy knows from his Kansas City days) to play next to Trevathan and/or Kwiatkoski.

The Bears could opt to keep the status quo and re-sign Christian Jones and John Timu for depth, and enter 2018 with Kwiatkoski and Trevathan as the team’s starters (Jerrell Freeman, who suffered a season-ending injury and then was hit with his second PED suspension in as many years, was cut on Tuesday). Signing a starting-caliber free agent isn’t out of the question, either, but there is a third option for the Bears if they appear to stand pat in free agency: Draft an inside linebacker in April. If that’s the route they go, Georgia’s Roquan Smith could be the guy. But again, those more pressing needs at other positions could mean the Bears don’t burn a first-round pick on an inside linebacker.