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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.

The Bears are embracing an underdog mentality as playoff push continues

The Bears are embracing an underdog mentality as playoff push continues

After the final horn sounded on the Bears' signature win of the season so far — a 31-24 trouncing of the Cowboys that wasn't as close as the final score — and all the patented 'Club Dub' celebrations had concluded, a subdued, resolute and focused locker room remained.

These aren't the 2018 Bears — no matter how decisive and dynamic Mitch Trubisky was tonight; no matter the fits the team's depleted front seven gave one of the most talented offensive lines in the league; no matter the balanced plan of attack deployed by Matt Nagy, or that they're now one game closer to an improbable run to the playoffs.

Three weeks ago, this team had been all but dismissed by the greater Chicago faithful. And perhaps that was fair. In year two of the Nagy-Trubisky coach-quarterback pairing, the team was on pace to regress in just about every category you could conjure — most importantly wins. Now, they're 7-6, above .500, and only 1.5 games behind the Vikings for the No. 6 seed in the NFC (with a matchup against them looming in Week 17). 

Tonight, the process may have been even more encouraging than the result, especially looking forward to a challenging three-game close to the season.

"When you win, your confidence goes up. Players, they play different in regard to when you're winning," Matt Nagy said postgame. "You play looser. You don't press as much. I think right now the identity between the defense, the offense, it doesn't feel like one of those deals where if we don't hold them to under 14 points, we don't have a chance to win."

Trubisky was as sharp as he's ever been in one of the bigger games of his career, tossing for 244 yards and amassing four total touchdowns — three through the air, one on the ground. And talk about loose: He also put together his most impressive rushing performance in over a calendar year, breaking out for 63 yards on 10 attempts, including a late-game 23-yard touchdown (to put the Bears ahead 31-14) that ignited Soldier Field around him.

His resurgence has come in lockstep with the Bears' season turning. Perhaps that's no coincidence.

"I think it says we're resilient, stick together, believe in each other even when nobody else believes in us," Trubisky said. "That's a special group in that locker room. We want to keep this feeling going, focusing on the little things, focusing hard, sticking together, doing our jobs."

Allen Robinson said that the team's confidence has "never wavered." Charles Leno said the offense is firing on all cylinders. The defense, missing four starters, didn't miss a beat until the Cowboys tacked on some garbage-time fluff late in the game.

A crucial, yet challenging, stretch looms. First, the Bears travel to Lambeau Field to face the Packers for the second time this season. Then, back home for Kansas City — though mortal, still one of the more potent offensive attacks in football. And finally, to Minnesota for a potential postseason play-in game. The Bears probably need all three of those games to be wins, save for late-season collapses from the Rams and Vikings (not impossible), to pull off a playoff berth. As it stands currently, they project as underdogs in both those road contests, and possibly even against the Chiefs (though a win in Green Bay would go a long way, there). 

As far as Nagy is concerned... Good. 

"I'm okay with that. For our guys, it's different," Nagy said of assuming the underdog role for the stretch run. "Last year, there was a different type of mentality because we didn't know, there were no expectations. This year, a lot of expectations. So now here we are at 7-6. Who knows really what we're going to be at. We know we have some really good teams coming up. Our guys, as you can see, they're just focused on winning each week. That's what they're doing."

The Bears still face long playoff odds, but they're clicking at just the right time

The Bears still face long playoff odds, but they're clicking at just the right time

If you wanted to throw water on the Bears’ playoff chances, the hardest part would be deciding what well to draw it from. The data overwhelmingly agrees: the Bears, even after a reassuring 31-24 win over Dallas, are longshots to make the playoffs. FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictor gives them a 5% chance. The Cowboys, with their 6-7 record and three-game losing streak, have a 59% chance. 

“If we don't win, none of those percentages matter,” Matt Nagy said after the game. “The percentages part, [I don’t know]. I know we’ve got to win.” 

And not only that, but the Bears will have to win while playing the hardest remaining schedule of any team in football. Next Sunday they go to Green Bay, where they haven’t won since 2015. Then all that stands between them and a potential play-in Week 17 game in Minnesota is Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. It’s brutal, but it doesn’t seem as impossible as it did this time yesterday. 

“I think we said that a few weeks back,” Allen Robinson said. “We’ve been saying one game at a time, and I think for us, we’re definitely on the verge of going up right now. So we just want to keep it that way. We’ve been saying it now for the past few weeks. We just want to keep stringing good practices together, good weeks together, and some good runs together.” 

Games like Thursday night’s show you what the Matt Nagy Bears are capable of when things click. It starts with Nagy, who’s finally come around on running the offense that works, even if it is the diluted version. Against Dallas the Bears ran the ball 34 times and threw 31 passes; they’re now 7-2 when running 20 times or more. 

“It’s being able to create chemistry with my O-line,” David Montgomery said. “Those guys have been doing good. I credit them with the little bit of success I’ve had towards the end of the season.”

The passing game has been opened up, ironically enough, with the emergence of three different undrafted tight ends. Ben Braunecker, Jesper Horsted, and JP Holtz have become legitimate cogs in the offense, which is again a testament to how critical the position is to Nagy and the Bears’ success.

“That's nice to have that,” Nagy said, grinning. “It definitely helps out.” 

“I mean, there were a few things we had in this game plan that were going to give more opportunities. He happened to be that guy on some of the plays. Those guys have stepped up. They've helped us out in that role. You can see when you have that tight end, that presence there, it helps out.”

Holtz joked after the game about being caught off guard by how much open field was in front of him on his 30-yard screen play. It was a well drawn-up and executed play – a good example of a more rigorous attention to detail that Bears coaches and players were finally happy with. 

“Guys are stepping up,” Anthony Miller said. “We’ve got some guys hurt, but we don’t miss a beat. Everybody knows what’s at stake. Everybody knows that we have to win. It’s like every game we’re playing with our backs against the wall. So, every game is a must-win, and we’ve got to get (the Green Bay Packers) in Lambeau next week.”

The injuries are a real concern. Getting Akiem Hicks is taking a step forward but losing Roquan Smith is taking two back. Playoff talk is probably still premature, but like Nagy said, all the Bears can do is win the games in front of them. They’ll play a second straight week of meaningful December football, which is two more than anybody would have guessed before Thanksgiving. 

“We are clicking on all cylinders, with all three phases,” Charles Leno added.  “Even four phases, thanks to the fans out there in Chicago that are always bringing it. 

“It was a really good performance by everybody.”