Yet for some reason, after speaking with eight organizations in two offseasons concerning their top post, Rivera remained an employee of the Chicago Bears. The fact that the Monsters of the Midway made it all the way to Super Bowl XLI this past season certainly hurt his chances because assistants on playoff teams are not allowed to talk to other franchises once the divisional round commences. If the Bears had been upset by Seattle back on Jan. 14, Rivera would more than likely be an NFL head coach right now.
But the Bears triumphed, and that's when the Rivera circus really kicked into high gear.
All signs pointed to Rivera returning to Chicago to man the defense once again if he were not hired away. However, the Bears launched a preemptive strike a week before his contract was set to expire and announced on Monday that their defensive coordinator would not be back. Although Lovie Smith has not officially named a replacement yet, linebackers coach Bob Babich in all likelihood will get the nod.
Rivera and Smith spoke to the media via conference call on Monday. The move caught most Bears fans completely off guard, yet both Rivera and Smith maintained that this was an amicable separation and the best decision for all parties involved. Smith also reiterated that although he is under contract for one more season, there is no news to report regarding an extension for him that many think is imminent.
While Rivera and Smith had lots of success together and assembled one of the best defenses in football the last three years, it's been speculated that the two did not see eye-to-eye regarding the scheme and that Rivera needed to escape Smith's sizable shadow cast in the Windy City.
Bill Parcells stepped down in Dallas on Jan. 22, one day after the Bears defeated New Orleans in the NFC championship game and advanced to Super Bowl XLI in Miami. Instead of Rivera having to answer questions about how he was going to slow down Peyton Manning and the Colts, everybody instead wanted to know if he was on his way to Big D. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones was said to be an admirer of Rivera, plus he had a team with enough pieces in place to make a title run in 2007.
The Dallas gig would eventually go to San Diego defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who is a 3-4 guy and looked to be a better fit for the current system in place.
Then on Feb. 12, the Chargers fired Marty Schottenheimer less than a month after adamantly professing that he would return next season. Rivera was again mentioned as a possible replacement and interviewed with San Diego GM A.J. Smith. The Chargers are coming off a 14-2 regular season and boast a roster flooded with talent on both sides of the ball, so this was a highly-coveted job to say the least.
However, San Francisco offensive coordinator Norv Turner got the assignment on Monday, leaving Rivera out in the cold once again.
Rivera's contract was set to expire next week, and it most likely would have cost the Bears in excess of $1 million annually to keep him around. But with his heart set on becoming a head coach and more and more teams asking about the availability of Babich, Smith ultimately had to make a decision between the two. Either he had to bring back Rivera for maybe one more year and run the risk of losing Babich, or he could jettison Rivera and hold on to Babich for the foreseeable future.
Smith sided with Babich, a long-time friend and colleague who has been a part of his staff as far back as the University of Tulsa from 1984-86.
Teams were already inquiring about Babich after last season, which was part of the reason why Smith upgraded his title to include assistant head coach. While Rivera is a disciple of blitz-crazy Jimmy Johnson in Philadelphia, Babich's beliefs run much more parallel to Smith's. Both are big believers in the cover-two approach that Smith learned under Tony Dungy in Tampa Bay.
Remember, it was GM Jerry Angelo who brought Rivera to Chicago as defensive coordinator, not Smith. For lack of a better term, this was an arranged marriage from the start. The two of them found a way to co-exist and were wildly successful in the process, but this was never a match made in heaven. Smith sticks by the cover-two scheme that relies almost exclusively on getting pressure with the front four. Rivera, as he learned from Johnson, likes to blitz more often in order to get after the quarterback. Their philosophical divide ultimately widened, and the defensive performance suffered down the stretch as a result.
Conversely, Smith and Babich will be on the same page.
It's hard to say that the Bears are a better team with Rivera no longer on the payroll, but this could be a blessing in disguise. Rivera's head-coaching aspirations were starting to become a distraction, and since he was going to leave anyway once the right opportunity came along, contingency plans were already in place. Babich is a quality assistant who is familiar with the system, the personnel, and the expectations of playing defense in Chicago.
"It's my job to put us in the best situation to move forward," Smith said on Monday. "And I think this will give both of us a chance to go in the direction we'd like to."
Losing Rivera may not be the most popular decision, but promoting Babich could be the first step toward getting better in 2007.