Something I read about Lovie Smith yesterday morning brought me back to the Smith, and even the Dave Wannstedt regimes. The flexibility shown so far by Marc Trestman and Phil Emery contrast so much with that of Smith and Wannstedt, it’s another reason to be thankful.
I hate invoking the Wannstedt era with the Bears, although over the years I have mellowed somewhat. Wanny is human, he didn’t do a good job in Chicago, life goes on.
Anyway, let’s look back to Wanny’s rookie season in 1993. Wannstedt was the overwhelmingly top head coaching candidate available to teams that year. As much as I fault former team president Michael McCaskey for the malaise he brought to the organization for his 16 years in power, I will always concede that he went after and hired the top candidate that year. (Even if looking back I wish he wouldn’t have fired Mike Ditka).
Wannstedt brought his vanilla, bend-but-don’t-break defensive system with him from Dallas, where it was ultra-successful because he had stud players at all positions that made it work. On offense, he hired Ron Turner to coordinate a west-coast passing game with a power running game. With an aging Neal Anderson (and later that year a resurgent but mentally unfit Tim Worley) and a poor offensive line, the run game took no attention away from the pass. The passing game was to rely on short timing passes with no room for improvisation. Prior to the season, the Bears re-signed Jim Harbaugh to the largest contract in Bears history (five years for $15 million) to run the offense. Problem was, Harbaugh’s skill was his improvisation, making plays with his feet.
The result of Wannstedt and Turner putting Harbaugh’s square peg into the round hole of this offense was one of the quarterback’s lowest passer ratings of his career. He was sacked 42 times, the most of any season in his career, and he threw just seven touchdowns in 15 games to 11 interceptions. Following the 1993 season, after just one year into that blockbuster contract, he was run out of town on a rail by the Bears’ staff and their fans.
I was one of those fans that was “sick of Harbaugh,” not knowing that in a system built around him he could be an elite quarterback. Look what happened just two years later. In Indianapolis coached by Ted Marchibroda and Lindy Infante, he made the Pro Bowl, led the league in several passing categories and took an unlikely team to within a dropped pass of the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh became known as “Captain Comeback” in Indianapolis, but that moniker should have been given to him in Chicago under Mike Ditka and Greg Landry. In 1991 and 1992 Harbaugh almost single-handedly led the Bears to victory at least four times by my count.
To replace Harbaugh the Bears signed Detroit veteran Erik Kramer. Kramer had his share of success, most notably in 1995 when he set individual Bears passing records that still stand. But he was the opposite of captain comeback, rarely being able to seal the deal with a win while driving the team in a game’s final minutes (the 1996 game at Washington and Green Bay in 1997 at home, to think of just a couple).
I’m even going to cut the seemingly-milquetoast Dick Jauron some credit. Jauron may have been too loyal to offensive coordinator John Shoop, but at least he knew when the team needed a drastic change away from former coordinator Gary Crowton’s “razzle-dazzle” scheme. And as abrasive as defensive coordinator Greg Blache was with the fans and media, Blache supported a system change in 2001. After the signing of defensive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor, the focus was on those “800 pounds of ass” to clog the middle and allow MLB Brian Urlacher to clean up.
Then came Lovie Smith. Not to take anything away from his success in taking a team to the playoffs three times following 11 years of ineptitude in the organization. And he did change offensive systems multiple times. From the incompetence of first coordinator Terry Shea, to (again) Ron Turner’s power-running-west-coast system, back to a Shea system with Mike Martz, and ironically then to another incompetent system in his final season with Mike Tice.
But on defense he was inflexible. From 2007-2009 it was clear that injuries and age were catching up with Chicago’s front seven. Smith’s defense is doomed without a pass rush, and in those three seasons his team didn’t have the personnel to make his rigid system work. It had a definite resurgence after Julius Peppers was signed in 2010, but the ’07-’09 teams were a waste.
What this article all boils down to was Lovie Smith’s recent announcement that the team he is taking over in Tampa Bay “wasn’t built for his systems.” (Well of course it wasn’t, he wasn’t there.)
On the one hand I agree that every new coach is entitled to bring in his own systems. But in addition to much of the time being condescending to the media and fans, Smith in Chicago proved himself to be utterly inflexible on defense. Let us recall that prior to the doomed 2007-2009 seasons, Ron Rivera was “running” the Bears defense as coordinator (as much as any coordinator would be allowed to “run” Lovie’s defense. And we also should recall that Smith fired Rivera allegedly because Rivera wouldn’t adhere to Smith’s rigid bend-but-don’t-break ways.
After reading Smith talk about HIS system in Tampa, I’m thankful that we have Marc Trestman and Phil Emery in Chicago. On offense, Trestman proved in one season that he can take a group of players and tailor his system to fit their strengths. This is his genius, and is what we have been waiting for in Chicago for it seems decades.
On defense, the first year of the Trestman era was obviously a disaster. With Mel Tucker (by all accounts a great coach) running Smith’s system, the Bears posted the worst defensive numbers in their 94-year history!
But instead of having a coach insisting on inflexibly not making changes, dominating a general manager to spend resources on players to fit into his system, we finally have a group that is committed to developing a defensive system to maximize the players they will field in 2014.
Even if it pisses off Lance Briggs. More on that later.