In 1992, the front office of the Chicago Bears made a highly questionable decision, firing head coach Mike Ditka after 11 seasons with the organization. The club was coming off a 5-11 campaign, only the second losing season of Ditka's tenure.
Thus began a dark age for Bears football.
The next six years fell under the reign of Dave Wannstedt, who made the playoffs just once. Dick Jauron was next up, who went to the postseason once in five years. During 11 seasons with Jauron and Wannstedt in charge, Chicago finished 75-101 in the regular season and 1-2 in the playoffs.
GM Jerry Angelo fired Jauron following a 7-9 season in 2003 and immediately began a protracted search for the next head coach. His top two candidates turned him down, so Angelo hired Lovie Smith, who at the time was defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams.
Little did anyone know that Smith would go on to coach the team for nearly a decade, finishing his nine-year run in Chicago with the third most wins in franchise history (81), behind only Ditka and the great George Halas.
Things started off very well for Smith. With a defensive focus, he improved from 5-11 in his first year to 11-5 in his second season. In just his third year, he brought Chicago to its second Super Bowl in team history. In his first three years, Smith went to the playoffs twice – the same number of times Wannstedt and Jauron went to the playoffs in 11 seasons combined.
Despite a loss to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI, the future looked very bright for Smith and the Bears. Unfortunately, things didn't unfold as planned.
From 2007-2012, Chicago made the playoffs just once – an NFC Championship run in 2010. These weren't wildly unsuccessful seasons – Smith's team never finished worse than 7-9 during that span – yet despite finishing 10-6 this year, the lack of appearances was the impetus for GM Phil Emery to give Lovie the hook.
"Going to the playoffs is important, but more important is the track record and the history of meeting our goals. We were [out of the postseason] five out of the last six [years]. So since '06, we've only been [to the playoffs] once," Emery said following Smith's departure. "Hey, I'm glad that we went. It's important that we go. But to get to be a championship team, to win it, we have to be in it more often."
What made the decision easier was the way in which the Bears dropped out of the playoffs the past two years. In 2011, the club started 7-3 but lost five of the final six games. This year, the team began 7-1 yet went 3-5 in the second half of the campaign, again missing out on the postseason.
Smith has demonstrated competence as a head coach and was a great representative of the organization. He finished 18 games over .500 in the regular season (81-63). His 81 wins since 2004 are the fourth most of any NFC team during that time. Yet his lack of playoff success was too glaring to ignore.
"As a professional sports team, and as a historic charter member of the greatest sports league in this world, the NFL, our No. 1 goal has to be to win championships. And to win championships we must be in contention on a consistent basis. And to be in contention, we have to be in the playoffs on a consistent basis," said Emery. "Five out of the last six years, we have not been there. We have fallen short.
"The end result is that we did not have enough consistency. That part and not getting to the playoffs on a consistent basis, being able to meet our organizational goals, to be in a consistent spot, to be in the hunt to win championships, I made the change moving forward."
In his initial press conference after being hired as head coach of the Bears, Smith outlined three goals for his team. The second goal was to win the division; he won three NFC North crowns. The third was to win a Super Bowl; he came one win away in 2006.
Yet Smith's first stated goal was to beat the Green Bay Packers. He started off well, going 7-3 against Green Bay in his first five seasons. Since 2009 though, things have taken a turn for the worse, with Chicago going 1-8 against the Packers, including a loss in the 2010 NFC Championship game.
Had Smith accomplished his No.1 goal, beating Green Bay, just once this season, the Bears would have made the playoffs.
Throughout Smith's tenure, in both the good and bad years, Chicago's defense has been stellar. Nearly every season, the defense was ranked in the top half of the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed. Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and the rest of the Bears' defense have consistently carried the club since 2004, leading the league in turnovers the past nine years.
"Lovie's been a very successful coach here. He's had a good run of nine years of very competitive teams, teams that presented themselves with class. He's had a lot of defensive excellence during the course of that run," Emery said. "Definitely, we've had defensive excellence. We've led the NFL in defensive takeaways during that time period. I believe we were either the leaders or close to being the leaders this past year in that category."
Yet offensively, the Bears have been a complete mess nearly every season under Smith. In the past nine years, Chicago has finished in the top half of the league in total offense just once. Every other year, the Bears were 24th or worse on offense. Things reached a boiling point this year, with coordinator Mike Tice's group finishing 28th in total offense and 29th in passing offense – despite the addition of Brandon Marshall, arguably the best wide receiver in the NFL.
"During the course of coach Smith's career, we've had one offense that was ranked in the teens (15th)," said Emery. "We haven't had the balance between our defensive excellence. We have not had consistency on the offensive side of the ball. We have gone through a number of coordinators. We have searched for answers."
With Smith being a defensive-minded head coach, he can't take blame for the failures on offense from an Xs and Ox standpoint. Yet he is the one who hires his entire coaching staff, which includes the offensive coordinator (OC), who is entrusted to put points on the board.
Upon being hired, Smith hired Terry Shea as his first OC. The Bears finished dead last in the NFL in total yards, passing yards and points scored in 2004.
Lovie quickly shifted gears and brought back a familiar face, Ron Turner, who had served in the same role with the Bears from 1993-1996. Turner's offenses finished 29th, 16th, 27th, 26th and 23rd.
Dennis Wierzbicki/USA TODAY Sports
Next came Mike Martz in 2010. His two units finished 30th and 24th. When Martz retired following the 2011 season, it signaled another system change for Cutler, his third in four years with the team. To ease that transition, Smith elevated Tice, the team's offensive line coach the previous two seasons, to OC.
As we all know, Chicago's offense under Tice was downright pathetic for most of the campaign, which was the final nail in Smith's coffin.
Lovie's repeated failure to find a quality offensive coordinator is the main reason he was fired the day after Chicago's 2012 season ended. Going through four coordinators, without any improvement, exposes a head coach with no ability to hire talented offensive minds.
And that is a pure shame for Bears fans, as an era of defensive dominance, one that will soon come to a close, has been entirely wasted. Consider this: in the one season where Chicago's offense barely sneaked into the top half of the league (15th overall) the team went to the Super Bowl. How many more trips could they have made had there been just a sliver of offensive consistency each season?
The NFL is trending more and more each year to a passing league. The passing numbers put up over the past few seasons have been record breaking, as many teams are adopting the spread attacks found in the collegiate game. In today's NFL, a healthy passing attack, led by a strong quarterback, is enough to carry a team to a championship.
Don't believe me? Just look at what the Packers did two years ago – sneaking into the playoffs in the last week of the season, with no defense, no offensive line and no run game – and steamrolling through the postseason for the club's fourth Super Bowl title.
Smith's time in Chicago was a successful one and should be looked back upon with great favor. Yet Emery sees the numbers, he knows the trend toward passing and he's adjusting accordingly. It's time for the Bears to move into a new era, one where Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler, and not Brian Urlacher and Julius Peppers, will lead the organization to the promised land.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.