Congratulations to the Bucs On Hiring Lovie Smith. Maybe.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers has hired former Bears coach Lovie Smith as their new head coach. Smith is a good head coach with a solid defensive mind who got the most out of his players on on that side of the ball. But a few other fleeting thoughts also crossed my mind:

  1. Who will Smith hire as his offensive coordinator? Smith never got this right with the Bears. Rumor has it that he has Jeff Tedford in mind for the job – indeed his Wikipedia page already indicates that he has it. Tedford would be a potential improvement over Smith’s Bears hires in that he has experience coaching quarterbacks and the Bucs have a young one to bring along in Mike Glennon. But Tedford is typical in other ways that are not as positive. I always had the feeling that Smith was afraid of hiring his own replacement with the Bears. Tedford has never played or coached in the NFL. His major qualification might not be so much that he is the best available guy but that he was a guy who won’t overshadow Smith.
  2. Who will be the general manager? It is, in my opinion, always, always, always a bad idea to hire a coach before a GM. Especially when it comes to Smith. Rumor has it that forder Bears general manager Jerry Angelo believed that his drafts were not successful partly because of compromises he made with the head coach. He couldn’t take a guy that Smith didn’t agree to and apparently Smith wasn’t shy about disagreeing. In any case it is evident that it was a constant struggle. Now, to make matters worse, Smith was hired first with the Buccaneers. That limits their choice of GM to men who agree with the Smith hire. It also give Smith and the public the impression that he was the more important hire and therefore that he holds the upper hand in the relationship. This could be very bad.

There’s good reason why Bears general manger Phil Emery fired Smith after a 10-6 season. Those reasons aren’t evident to those outside of Chicago where many are praising this hire. Buccaneer fans are excited and to an extent they should be. Smith will get the most out of the defensive talent on the Buccaneers and they might have some short term success with the guys they have. But long term, in a league where offense is king and the ability to draft young talent determines sustained success, I don’t like their chances.

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Erin Henderson Makes a Good Impression

The Vikings’ Erin Henderson was arrested for a second DWI in two months. Good luck with the new coach, buddy.

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Picture of a Dysfunctional Franchise

As it’s the off-season and Bears news is slowing down, I’m starting to get around to catching up on the news on other teams. In this respect, the conflict within the organization that is developing over what to do about Dolphins assistants in the wake of a late season collapse has caught my eye. The Dolphins lost to two non-playoff teams in the last two games, the Bills and the Jets, scoring only seven points over 8 quarters. Had they won either game, they would have made the playoffs. Steven Wine at the Miami Herald reports:

“[Owner Stephen] Ross has been meeting with his top advisers before deciding whether to fire anyone, two people familiar with the situation said.

“One of the people said the meetings began Sunday night and will resume Thursday, and a decision could come then. That person said that during the Dolphins’ loss Sunday to the New York Jets, Ross became so upset he turned away at one point because he could no longer watch.”

Ross’s interference puts head coach Joe Philbin in a rough position. Armando Salguero comments for the “Miami Dolphins In Depth” blog at the Herald:

“The lack of production for the Dolphins rests with players, of course, but also with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, offensive line coach Jim Turner and others. That’s the reason Ross is pushing for staff changes.

“But Philbin can stand in the way of change because while Ross is the owner, Philbin’s contract grants him the authority on hiring and firing assistants.

“Philbin became very uncomfortable and even combative about the idea of possibly firing assistants beginning with Sherman. He was asked if he was capable of such of move if that was required of him …

“’I’m beginning the evaluation of the 2013 season, and we haven’t made any decisions on who’s coming back and who isn’t,’ Philbin said. ‘We’ll have all of those discussions at the appropriate time.’

“Obviously Philbin offered a response to some question but not the one he was asked. So he was asked a second time if he is capable of firing Sherman, who has been a mentor, friend and confidant during his career?

“’That’s my answer,’ Philbin said, again dodging the question.

“All this suggests Phibin wants to attempt filling the ‘room for improvement’ by improving players and their execution and not by changing assistants.

“So we are at a crossroads.

“When Ross asks Philbin to make changes to that offensive staff — which will absolutely happen — does the head coach resist to a point that he himself is in danger of being fired? Or does Philbin cave and let the owner have his way?

“Or does the owner, who likes Philbin and doesn’t want to fire him, cave?

“Moreover, in suggesting that the issue is with players and not necessarily coaches, would Philbin be effectively telling Ross that general manager Jeff Ireland did not give him enough talent on offense, thereby hurting Ireland’s already tenuous job status?

“The dynamic is complex.”

No kidding.

What we have here is a complete picture of a dysfunctional franchise. The owner interferes with football operations, he meets behind the coach’s back with “advisers”. As a result, determinations are made about what to do without his knowledge and the franchise, instead of presenting one, unified face to the public, appears fractured and disoriented about the direction it is going to take.

You can say all you want about the Bears ownership but you should be very, very grateful that the franchise has been as well run as it has been the last decade. Even at 8-8 it’s a good day to be a Bear fan.

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The Age Old Question

With the season over, so begins the discussion of the central off=season event: The NFL Draft. And its never too early to debate the age-old question – “best available” or “position of need”. Hub Arkush at hubarkush.com comments:

“What I absolutely know about where Emery and the Bears are at now is there isn’t a spot on the roster they can’t stand to get better at, so they must draft the best football player available and not get distracted by ‘greatest needs’ and reach for a pass rusher or safety if the best player available is a linebacker or running back.”

“Here’s the problem. Let’s say the Bears are picking 14th, it’s their turn and still available are the seventh-best, 11th-best and 14th-, 15th- and 16th-best players, but they all play offense. The 17th-best is a linebacker, and then the next two are offensive guys as well. Do you want the seventh- or 11th-best player available, or do you want another linebacker who’s the 17th-best player according to your own rankings? Or do you take the guy you think is the 20th-best player at 14 because he happens to be a pass rusher or a safety?”

“How would C.J. Mosely look in navy and orange, or what if somehow Anthony Barr miraculously slipped to the Bears at 14? Can you pass on a linebacker because you used two picks on ‘backers last year?”

Like Arkush, I too lean towards the “best available” philosophy. But with me there are almost always limits. This year I’d draw the line at running back where Matt Forte is coming off of a spectacular year with Michael Bush as his backup. With both under contract, the Bears would have no use for another one. The odds are good they’d never get their worth in a trade and, really, what are the odds that you’ll ever find one comparable to Forte, anyway.

But other than running back I wouldn’t hesitate to draft the best available player at any round in 2014 for the Bears.

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Biggest Disappointment of 2013

When the writers at the Chicago Sun-Times reviewed the 2013 season, they broke it down into categories. Most Valuable Player (Adam L. JahnsJosh McCown, Patrick FinleyMatt Forte, Mark PotashBrandon Marshall), Biggest surprise (Janhs – rookie offensive linemen, Finley – health of the offense, Potash – McCown), etc… But no one, when addressing Biggest Disappointment, mentioned mine. The fact that linebacker Lance Briggs snuck out of the locker room after both the loss to the Philedelphia Eagles and the loss to the Green Bay Packers at the end of the season without saying a word, leaving players like rookie linebacker Jonathan Bostic to explain the loss.

Never have a been so disappointed at such a lack of discipline, a lack of guts and courage in my life.

I’ve been asking myself why Briggs acted this way for two weeks now. I haven’t come up with a good answer but I think this morning’s article by Janhs addressing the fact that not everyone bought into the coaching change at the end of the 2012 season gives a clue:

“As much as [head coach Marc] Trestman tried, whether it was reorganizing the locker room or his life-lessons approach to football, it always was on the players to get on board with his new way of life at Halas Hall after he replaced longtime coach Lovie Smith, who was beloved by many Bears players who were held over.

In the end, some players may have never been able to adjust and find contentment in all the changes going on. It was the first story of training camp when quarterback Jay Cutler said, ‘Not everybody’s bought in,’ and remains one at season’s end.”

It’s just guess work. But if you’re thinking that Cutler and others are talking about Briggs, I’d say you’re on the right track. The combination of the coaching change and Brian Urlacher’s abandonment of the team as he pridefully turned down a contract worth double his value on the open market probably hurt Briggs more than most. And then he had what can only be termed a disappointing season where his physical hurts were added. To call the situation unhealthy in all aspects would probably not be an understatement.

Many theories have been proposed about what was lacking in 2013 and what needs to be done to fix it (including my own). But to my knowledge, no one mentioned the lack of veteran leadership. Virtually every veteran from past Bears defenses who could have provided such was on the sidelines injured. Julius Peppers was, perhaps, the only one of note to stay healthy but he’s never been very vocal.

To Briggs’s credit, unlike players like Henry Melton, he was on the sidelines trying his best to help the defense along while injured. But as, the saying goes, fortune does not change men. It unmasks them. Briggs let the team down when it counted off the field. And that means that, perhaps, he’s not the leader that they need. At least he’s not acting like it.

Jahns hits upon an ominous note about the off-season near the end of his article:

“Rooting out dissent and determining players commitment to the Bears’ new approach will be as important as signing the best, most capable players.”

Will Briggs be rooted out? That would be a shame.

Winston Churchill once said, “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” It’s been a full year now and Smith is long gone. Briggs may not have agreed with the direction the organization took and he probably never will. But it’s time to move on to solving the problems at hand.

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The Moment that Stood Out about the Lions in 2013

Michael Rothstein at espn.com describes the 10 moments that stood out about the Lions in 2013:

“4. Schwartz and the fans. Maybe this is too high because it is fresh in the mind, but Schwartz yelling at the Lions fans for booing after taking a knee to go to overtime was a standout moment this season. You don't see a coach scream at fans in the middle of a game too many times. Schwartz lost his cool and then it took question upon question for him to admit anything the next day talking to the media. If anything locked up his fate no matter how the season ended, that episode was it.”

No. It wasn't too high. It was too low.

This is the last time I'm going to get a chance to take a shot at Schwartz so I'm going to make it count. His team was defined by a lack of discipline that emanated from the head coach and worked its way down. That lack of discipline was exemplified by this incident. It encapsulated what was wrong with Schwartz's teams during his tenure from poor self-control on the field to poor handling of the public pressures that came with that.

Never have I seen a head coach who so deserved the blame for failure of his team to perform.

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Everyone Sees the Problem. The Question Is How to Solve It.

The Bears problems on defense are complex. But almost everyone agrees that what made them the worst defense in the NFL this season really boils down to one play from the last game. Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune comments:

“Coach Marc Trestman had no explanation because, really, there is no explaining it.

“Why did the Bears let a fumble, a live ball, sit on the turf without pursuing it late in the first half of their 33-28 loss to the Packers on Sunday? This is the Chicago Bearsdefense, a unit with a proud history of forcing turnovers, for cryin’ out loud.

“How could they let a Packers receiver pick up a fumble and jog into the end zone? In the de facto NFC North championship game, no less?

“’There has never been a time this whole year where I’ve blown the whistle in practice and the ball was on the ground that we didn’t pick it up and scoop and score with it,’ Trestman said. ‘For me to try to explain why that happened, I really can’t at this time because we’ve never allowed the ball to sit on the ground like that at any time in practice.’”

David Haugh, also at the Chicago Tribune, seems to think that defensive coordinator Mel Tucker should pay the price for this incompetence:

Jarrett Boykin‘s bizarre 15-yard fumble recovery return for a TD for the Packers exposed the defense’s lack of instincts and awareness. It doesn’t matter if Bears players swore they worked on picking up loose balls in practice the way they did under Lovie Smith. They didn’t when it mattered. The effects of good coaching show up on Sundays. That the Bears watched as Boykin scored indicted Tucker most of all.”

The essence of good play is not just practicing hard, as the Bears have done by all accounts, but having the fruits of that practice show up on Sunday. There were stories of former Bears offensive coordinator John Shoop staying up to all hours of the night watching film. But Shoop was a lousy offensive coordinator because all that film watching never showed up in the results on Sunday. The same is true here.

Firing Tucker would be one potential solution to this problem. And it’s not as unlikely as I once thought it was. Brad Biggs at the Tribune comments:

“It will be interesting to see if there is any fallout and potential changes to Trestman’s coaching staff as the week moves on. Trestman remained very supportive of defensive coordinator Mel Tucker throughout the season. He used three defensive coordinator in five seasons with the Montreal Alouettes.”

But, really, that’s just an easy change that may or may not solve the problem. After all, if that was Trestman’s ultimate solution, why did he have to do it three times? Why did former Bears head coach Lovie Smith run through offensive coordinator after offensive coordinator with little apparent change in the results?

its easy for a guy like Haugh (or most fans) to call for Tucker’s head. The real question is how do you fire Tucker without identifying what, specifically, he lacked that someone else will bring to the table? What, exactly, did he do wrong? How do you induce players to translate the work which they were doing right in practice to the field on Sunday? When you can tell me that, then I’ll listen.

Most people will tell you that the key to solving problems like those the Bears face may lie in accountability. How do you hold a player accountable of his actions?

One suggestion is to create competition. Adding players who can take your position from you can cause you to concentrate a lot more on what you are doing when it all counts. That is something general manager Phil Emery will undoubtedly strive mightily to do this offseason. On the other hand, there wasn’t a lot of competition for positions on the offensive side of the ball where the Beas played extremely well.

Could the difference between the offense and the defense come down to the man in charge? After all, Tucker is just an assistant. Is it possible that the Bears played better offensively under Trestman because playing for the head coach, the man who ultimately determines their fate, made them more accountable for their actions than playing for an assistant? Even if that’s not it, Trestman is the man who successfully coached the offense so its obvious that he has the potential to provide something that the defense lacks.

If so, then the performance of the defense might come down to Trestman’s failure and not Tucker’s. Trestman is the man responsible for the whole team, not just the offense, and he should be held responsible for the performance on both sides of the ball. Trestman may need to bear this in mind as he enters his second season. His deeper involvement on the defensive side of the ball may be what leads to the team’s overall success.

In any case, it’s fairly obvious that we all understand the problem. What will be interesting in the months and years ahead is looking to see how the Bears go about solving it.

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Getting the Calls

Patrick Finley at the Chicago Sun-Times quotes quarterback Jay Cutler on defensive end Shea McClellin’s unnecessary-roughness penalty in the second quarter Sunday:

“Cutler was asked whether a flag would have been thrown if he had been the victim of the same hit.

“’Wouldn’t have been close to a flag,’ he said.”

I’m not surprised to hear this complaint from many fans. But I am surprised that Cutler, who with his mobility outside the pocket benefits from such calls more than most quarterbacks, doesn’t get it. I note that Troy Aikman doesn’t quite understand the situation, yet, either based upon his on air comments.

Any hit on a quarterback which is deemed to be not necessary is a personal foul. Period. It doesn’t matter if you use your helmet. It doesn’t matter how clean it is. It doesn’t matter if its soft as a baby’s bottom. If you didn’t need to do it and you did it anyway, its a penalty. Rogers was down. McClellin could have avoided the hit and didn’t. That’s all there is to it.

Cutler gets the same calls as everyone else.

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A Man to Keep an Eye On

Rich Campbell at the Chicago Tribune profiles Bears head coach Marc Trestman as he reaches the end of his first regular season:

“Trestman addressed his team [after a devastating loss to Minnesota on Dec. 1], lauding players’ effort and preparation before acknowledging they did not deserve to win. He blamed himself for their mistakes.

“And in that moment, the Bears’ two-game resurgence began. There was, after all, something serendipitous about that crushing defeat.

“’You cannot fight adversity,’ Trestman told the Tribune in a recent interview. ‘You have to embrace it. You have to smile in the face of it and know that it’s just temporary and it will pass, and we have to keep doing what we’re doing.’”

This article describes Trestman in impressive terms. He is a man who tries to create an environment around the team where players perform for each other. It’s a nice, touchy feely approach to the game and, though it’s not always the one that gets the best results in my experience, its genuine and its probably the best approach for him, personally to take.

The problem is that players who are capable of driving themselves towards excellence without a fair bit of pushing along the way are rare. Admittedly, they’re the ones who turn out to be truly great. But if you are going to win a Super Bowl, it’s the other guys who have to be shoved along who will need to help carry you there. But as long as he can get tough with players when its called for, I’m confident that the team will be OK in Trestman’s hands with this approach.

As much as I liked what the article said about Trestman, I liked what it said about the writer even more. This was an insightful look into the way Trestman approaches the game and the life that surrounds it.

Most of my posts start with a quote from a newspaper article. There’s a reason for that. Like it or not, reporters are the source of every piece of information most fans get about the Bears. This means that you have to pay attention not only to the information conveyed, but also to who is conveying it. Everyone has biases and much though we may try to avoid them, they always come out when we express ourselves. Is the group “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”? Like it or not, the term you choose tells the reader what you think.

With that in mind, it will surprise no one that I’ve noticed the absence of former Tribune writer Dan Pompei more than most. Fellow writer Brad Biggs not withstanding, Pompei was just about the best football writer I’d ever read on a weekly basis. I still miss him but I’m glad to see young writers like Campbell, who has impressed me more than once with his observations, stepping in. Campbell is a different kind of writer from Pompei. But if he can consistently write quality articles while pointing out subtle things that the average football fan wouldn’t notice, I’m sure we’ll all continue to enjoy the game that much more.

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No Pressure, Jay

David Haugh at the Chicago Tribune quotes former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman on current Bears quarterback Jay Cutler:

“The better [Green Bay quarterback Aaron] Rodgers plays Sunday, the smarter Cutler must. Yet after visiting a “relaxed” Cutler on Friday at Halas Hall, Aikman sensed no additional pressure — even if it is palpable around Chicago.

“’As you get older in this league or remove yourself from the game and look back at games that really shaped who you were as a player or what you achieved as a team, this is one of those games,’ Aikman said. ‘These are the types of games that, as a quarterback, really help establish whatever legacy you have. I’m looking forward to seeing how Jay responds.’”

Aren’t we all.

Just an FYI to Aikman, the more “relaxed” Cutler looks, the more nervous he is inside. His press conference late last week where he reverted to the bratty child we all have come to know is the result of that pressure. The more he feels it, the more he reacts in a way that’s designed to make you think he doesn’t care about you or what you think about the game.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he won’t play well. What you need to do is take a good look at him warming up right before the game. His body language should tell you all you need to know. If he looks pale, stiff and expressionless, the Bears will be done before they even start. If he doesn’t, the Packers might have a game to play.

There are a lot of things to look for in this game. For me it’s mostly its about whether the Bears can bounce back and show some drive and determination when it counts. But those who put how Cutler responds at the end of a contract year with the division title on the line above that will, indeed, have a good argument.

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