Lovie Smith bears brunt of another disappointing season in Chicago

Publish date:

A foul mood has enveloped Chicago for several weeks now. As for a cause, the usual suspects -- weather, traffic, weather, parking, weather, political shenanigans -- are blameless.

The weather, come to think of it, has been downright pleasant, for November. But not nearly nice enough to override the citywide grouchiness the Chicago Bears have touched off with another aimless march to mediocrity.

They've slogged their way to a 4-5 record after four bad losses in five bad games, with the Eagles and Vikings looming in the next two weeks and the playoffs becoming a smaller speck on a distant horizon. Clearly it's not going to be 1985 again, not this season or any time soon, and Chicago sulks.

Why the Bears, moreso than any other local franchise, retain such a death grip on the city's psyche is directly attributable to that season and the team that produced it. The '85 Bears went 15-1 and outscored their opponents 456-198, including 91-10 in three playoff games, capped by a 46-10 annihilation of thoroughly cowed New England in the most dominant Super Bowl performance ever.

They were the NFL's best team, by a lot. And they were clearly the No Fun League's most extroverted squad, a throwback collection of free-wheeling characters led by a snarling, exposed nerve of a coach who stomped around on bad knees and ravaged hips, his battered body and fire-breathing persona a symbol of how he wanted the game played. There's nothing soft or pretty about Mike Ditka, down to the pinch-lipped, consonant-driven pronunciation of his name. Chicago loved him, then and now.

His act had a shelf life, at least among the players; Ditka's Bears collapsed under the weight of self-interest and never made another Super Bowl appearance. But they still show up on any short list of the NFL's all-time teams, and the failure to win again hardly diminishes them in the eyes of their worshipful public. If anything, it solidifies their stature.

Asking, say, a 49ers fan to pick a favorite from among five Super Bowl winners is like asking him to pick a favorite among his children. A Bears fan is not as conflicted. The '85 team played (and lived) with a kick-ass swagger that defines how a tough, football-obsessed city likes to think of itself. Chest-painted 20-somethings in the Soldier Field stands might not have lived it, but they've seen the tapes and heard he stories. Warts and all, Ditka remains Chicago's most visible, popular public figure. Mayor Daley would kill for his Q rating. So would Oprah.

So would Lovie Smith, maybe, if more were known about the current Bears coach's likes and dislikes. What is obvious 5½ years into Smith's regime is he's a lot more like tranquil, nice-guy predecessors Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt than he is the volcanic Ditka. The McCaskey family proprietors clearly prefer it that way.

Virginia McCaskey, daughter of Bears patriarch George Halas, and her five board-member sons are as conscious of the team's image as they are its bottom line. Ditka had to go when he got too big, too flamboyant. Smith is just as likely not to go because the Bears owe him $11 million for the two years remaining on his contract after this one. Paying people not to work is not a Halas/McCaskey family practice, especially when the multi-year asking price of a Super Bowl-pedigreed successor such as Mike Holmgren or Mike Shanahan will exceed $11 million.

"Coach stays," as we heard in Hoosiers.

Smith's speak-no-evil stoicism passed for firm, quiet leadership when the Bears ran and tackled well enough to pick their way through a flawed NFC and reach the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, his third as the head man. Eye-rolling and smirks greeted Smith's weekly "Rex is our quarterback" pronouncements, and the endorsement lost a lot of credibility when Rex Grossman came up short in a 29-17 loss to Peyton Manning's Colts in SB XLI.

But Grossman was hardly the only Bear exposed on that moist Miami evening. They've gone 20-21 in 41 subsequent games, and as eight NFC teams finished play on Sunday with more wins than the Bears' four, the playoff drought seemed likely to encompass a third season, barring a miracle turnaround.

That's with Jay Cutler on board as a huge upgrade over Grossman -- the arrival of the team's first "franchise quarterback" since Sid Luckman gave rise to absurdly high expectations. Cutler has struggled to fulfill them, largely because the talent around him is lacking. There is no go-to receiver, and the running game has been of little help behind a porous offensive line.

In the absence of "difference-makers," Cutler has tried to force plays that aren't there, throwing a league-high 17 interceptions, including five in last week's hideous 10-6 loss in San Francisco. "There's still plenty of football to be played," Lovie Smith insisted afterwards ... as if that were a good thing.

The Bears' defensive lapses -- 45 points to Cincinnati, 41 to Arizona -- have to be galling to Smith, who assumed oversight of the defense before the season and vowed to coach it back up to 2006 levels. If he knows what the problems are, he isn't letting on, and that speak-no-evil stoicism is now perceived as cluelessness. Moderate Rick Morrissey, no bomb-thrower, called for the dismissal of Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo in his Sunday Chicago Tribune column. McCaskey frugality notwithstanding, the idea is likely to sprout legs unless the Bears tighten up things across the board.

Angelo has the final word on personnel and is responsible for the makeup of a suspect roster. He hired Smith, and they're joined at the hip contractually. Right now it's not a comfortable spot for either man.