Blackhawks

For Lovie Smith, accountability looms

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For Lovie Smith, accountability looms

The light at the end of the tunnel may indeed be an oncoming freight for Lovie Smith.

The Bears are playing Smith into job jeopardy, with obvious complicity of Smith and his staff. Coaches do matter; how much is another discussion.

None of this may matter if the Bears beat the Green Bay Packers, make the playoffs, win the last three games, pick your scenario. And even a 9-7 finish out of the playoffs may not be fatal.

But the problem bearing down on Smith is that he simply has no wiggle room if the 2012 season continues its death spiral. Less than zero wiggle room, actually.

Heres why:

Throughout this offseason, GM Phil Emery has emphasized that the coaching and personnel staffs have worked in a close relationship. That means that Smith carries significant accountability for the talent level as well as the performances of that talent.

Jerry Angelo was fired chiefly for failing to develop a talent base competitive with the Green Bay Packers. Ironically, Smith will be held to some of the same standard now. Not that he would expect any, but he has no excuses open to him.

Smith and his staff always have borne a share of responsibility for the roster stocking. The past year has ramped that up, however.

It was Smith who strongly endorsed JMarcus Webb last offseason. It was Smith who declared that Kellen Davis was an answer at tight end. When the Bears completely passed on investing a draft choice on the offensive line, it was not Emery shoving the existing group (plus Chilo Rachal) down the coaching staffs throat.

The team needed an elite wide receiver? A top-shelf No. 2 quarterback and running back? They were all supplied. Now whats the problem?

The contract catch

Smith has one year remaining on his contract at about 5.5 million. The fact that the organization would have owed the better portion of two years at that price if it had fired Smith along with Angelo worked in Smiths short-term favor; no business likes eating 11 million (minus whatever Smiths new employer would have paid him).

But the Bears dont have to do anything contract-wise with Smith after this season, regardless of outcome.

The Carolina Panthers gave John Fox a five-year extension in 2006, in the 5 million range. As fortunes in Carolina faded, the Panthers simply let Fox coach out the 2010 season, the last under his contract, and then just moved on to Ron Rivera.

Fox went to Denver and had the Broncos in the playoffs last year with Tim Tebow as his rescue quarterback.

No coach or player likes being a lame duck, and they arent, if they rebound and win. Smith comes back in 2013 and winsnew paper happens.

Business-wise, why would the Bears be pressured into anything?

Sunk by offense

No two seasons are identical but the current one has begun to carry ominous echoes of 2011. That one was 7-3 and the Bears collapsed with injuries at quarterback and running back.

Now there has been a collapse from 7-1 to 8-5 and that is largely with the quarterback and running back healthy, just not playing very well. The offense had very little to do with the Bears reaching 7-1 this year.

The problem for Smith is that he simply cannot make a change at the top of the offense. He went one year with Terry Shea, five with Ron Turner, two with Mike Martz and now one with Mike Tice. Youre only allowed so many tries.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit first-place Lightning

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos.

There hasn't been a more dynamic duo in the NHL so far this season than Kucherov and Stamkos, who have combined for 68 points (27 goals, 41 assists) through 20 games, and sit first and second in the scoring race.

They've each recorded a point in every game except three — which coincidentally have been the same games — and they've lost all three of those contests. Kucherov has also scored a goal in 15 of 20 games this season. That's absurd when you consider he's scoring on a consistent basis; it's not like they're coming in spurts.

To put all that into perspective, he reached the 17-goal mark in his 36th game last year and still finished second in the league with 40 goals. He hit the 17-goal mark in 16 fewer games this season. How many can he realistically finish with? 60?

2. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.

Tampa Bay knows how dangerous Chicago's dynamic duo can be as well, as evidenced in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final. The Blackhawks' superstars know how to get up for a big game.

In 13 career regular-season games against the Lightning, Kane has 18 points (six goals, 12 assists). Toews has 14 points (eight goals, six assists) in 14 games.

They're both producing at or above a point-per-game pace, and they're going to need more of that against this powerhouse Lightning team.

3. Something's gotta give.

Tampa Bay's offensive prowess is off the charts up and down the lineup. It has four lines that can come at you at waves, and a strong, active blue line led by potential Norris Trophy finalist Viktor Hedman and Calder Trophy candidate Mikhail Sergachev.

Although Chicago allows the fourth-most shots per game (34.0), it actually hasn't been bad at preventing goals — a large reason for that is Corey Crawford. 

The Lightning rank first in goals per game (3.95) and first in power play percentage (28.0) while the Blackhawks rank sixth in goals against per game (2.65) and four in penalty kill percentage (84.9).

Who's going to crack first?

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

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USA TODAY

For one writer, Hall of Fame semifinalist selection of Brian Urlacher closes a career circle

The news on Tuesday wasn’t really any sort of surprise: Brian Urlacher being selected as a semifinalist for the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. Some of the immediate thoughts were, however, for one writer who covered Brian from the day he was drafted on through the unpleasant end of his 13-year career as a Bear.

Good thoughts, though. Definitely good.

The first was a flashback, to a Tuesday in late August 2000 when the ninth-overall pick of the draft, who’d been anointed the starting strong-side linebacker by coach Dick Jauron on draft day, was benched.

It happened up at Halas Hall when Urlacher all of a sudden wasn’t running with the 1’s. Rosie Colvin was in Urlacher’s spot with the starters and would be for a few games into the 2000 season. I caught up with Brian before he walked, in a daze, into Halas Hall after practice and asked about what I’d just seen.

"I'm unhappy with the way I'm playing and I'm sure they are, too," Urlacher said. "I don't think I've been playing very well so that's probably the cause for it right there. I just don't have any technique. I need to work on my technique, hands and feet mostly. I've got to get those down, figure out what I'm doing. I know the defense pretty good now, just don't know how to use my hands and feet."

Urlacher, an All-American safety at New Mexico but MVP of the Senior Bowl in his first game at middle linebacker, had been starting at strong side, over the tight end, because coaches considered it a simpler position for Urlacher to master. But he was not always correctly aligned before the snap, did not use his hands against blockers effectively and occasionally led with his head on tackles. His benching cost him the chance to be the first Bears rookie linebacker since Dick Butkus to start an Opening Day.

It also was the first time in his football life that Urlacher could remember being demoted.

"It's not a good feeling," he said. "I definitely don't like getting demoted but I know why I am. I just have to get better."

Coaches understood what they were really attempting, subsequently acknowledged privately that the SLB experiment was a mistake. While the strong-side slot may have been simpler than the other two principally because of coverage duties, "we're trying to force-feed the kid an elephant," then-defensive coordinator Greg Blache said.

"So you see him gag and what do you do? You give him the Heimlich maneuver, you take some of it out of his mouth, try to chop it up into smaller pieces. He's going to devour it and be a great football player. But he wouldn't be if we choked him to death."

Urlacher didn’t choke and eventually became the starter, not outside, but at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured week two at Tampa Bay.

We sometimes don’t fully know the import or significance at the time we’re witnessing something. Urlacher stepping in at middle linebacker was not one of those times – you knew, watching him pick up four tackles in basically just the fourth quarter of a 41-0 blowout by the Bucs.

That was the beginning. Over the years came moments like Urlacher scooping up a Michael Vick fumble in the 2001 Atlanta game and going 90 yards with Vick giving chase but not catching him. Lots of those kinds of moments.

And then cutting to the ending, in 2013, when he and the organization came to an acrimonious parting after GM Phil Emery managed to alienate the face of the franchise both with the one-year contract offer and the way it was handled. Butkus had a nasty separation at the end of his Bears years, too, and Bill George finished his career as a Los Angeles Ram after creating the middle linebacker position as a Bear. Maybe that’s just how Bears and some of their linebackers wind up their relationships.

In any case, while there is no cheering in the pressbox, the hope here is that Brian goes into the Hall in a class with Ray Lewis in their first years of eligibility. Somehow that just seems like it all should close out for that confused kid from New Mexico who lost his first job out of college, but responded to that by becoming one of the all-time greats in his sport.