Lovie Smith might have been able to do this forever. He might have been able to keep the Chicago Bears competitive, to ensure the defense would annually be near the top of the league, to keep preaching turnovers, mismanaging timeouts and making ill conceived challenges for another nine seasons. Smith has brought many things to the Bears since being hired in 2004, but chief among them was consistency. The same defensive scheme, the same blank stare on his face, the same flat tone in his voice -- all of these things became tokens of the Smith era in Chicago, one that ended on Monday with an 81-63 overall record and the inability to make the playoffs in five of the last six seasons.
You aren't supposed to fire a coach who wins 10 games, but NFL coaches are also hardly expected to hold office for nine seasons in the current climate. Maybe there was nothing intrinsically fair about Smith's dismissal. Maybe a coach who had the respect of a veteran-laden roster and handled his job with nothing but class shouldn't have suffered such a cruel fate one day after the end of a relatively impressive regular season. The Bears don't have time to worry about semantics, though. This football-drunk city has been thirsty for a Super Bowl for 26 seasons and Smith proved he wasn't capable of overseeing a championship-worthy offense. Lovie dragged the Bears from point C to point B -- from perennial selectors in the top 10 of the NFL draft to something resembling a viable postseason candidate nearly every season. But no city and no franchise is content with point B. Today, Chicago is rejoicing. Lovie had to go.
The 2012 Bears and Lovie Smith were ultimately doomed by the same thing -- total and complete offensive ineptitude. These Bears seemingly had the pieces to make it work. Jay Cutler might be the best quarterback the team has ever had, Brandon Marshall shattered every conceivable franchise receiving record and Matt Forte was picked in the first round of every fantasy draft. Yet, the numbers don't lie: the Bears finished No. 28 in total offense, No. 29 in passing yards, No. 18 in rushing touchdowns and No. 21 in passing touchdowns. Football Outsiders had the Chicago offense as No. 24 through Week 16 in DVOA. This type of sub-mediocrity was nothing new for the Bears under Smith. It was simply par for the course.
In Smith's nine seasons as the Bears' head coach, Chicago never finished higher than No. 15 in offense, and that was the 2006 Super Bowl team that torched opposing defenses for the first eight weeks before the wheels fell off and Rex Grossman turned into a national punchline. The 2009 trade for Cutler put an end to the team's historic quarterback troubles, but it didn't fix a punchless offense. Neither did four offensive coordinators, a trade for Brandon Marshall or a series of early draft picks committed to the offense.
The downfall of the 2012 Bears is clear -- a horrendous offensive line. While the group did improve incrementally as the season went on, it's been Chicago's biggest problem for a number of years. Is it Smith's fault that first-round picks Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi proved worthless, that the front office continued to stick with J'Marcus Webb at left tackle, that the offensive line was mostly ignored in the draft by former GM Jerry Angelo? Of course not, but there's something to be said for what Marshall preached all season -- accountability. And that falls on the head coach of a team with just one playoff appearance since reaching Super Bowl XLI.
Do not discount that there are certainly worse NFL coaches than Lovie Smith, and it's very possible general manager Phil Emery hires one. Smith may go on to oversee another fire-breathing monster of a defense somewhere else -- hell, even Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt found their way to another NFL head coaching gig after being fired by the Bears. But what the Bears and Emery have right now amounts to a great opportunity. There are pieces to work with on this roster, on this offense, and they just need someone who can mold it all into a functional unit. No matter what the Bears tried under Smith to fix the offense, it never seemed to work.
This is why the Bears have no choice but to make sure the next coach comes from an offensive background. There are plenty of local cries for Bill Cowher, but defense was never the problem under Smith. It's also a bit foolish to assume the Bears would dish out the type of cash required to get someone like Cowher -- after all, money is the only reason Smith wasn't fired after going 7-9 in 2009 with two seasons left on his contract and a lockout looming.
How bold Emery will decide to be remains to be seen. Will the Bears get into the Chip Kelly sweepstakes, will they target a retread with a proven offensive background like Andy Reid or an up-and-coming assistant like Denver's Mike McCoy? It's all on the table for Emery's first coaching hire. Just be sure the Bears' next coach is someone everyone believes can do the impossible and turn around this offense.
There's plenty of time to debate what's next, though. Today should be about remembering Smith -- the good, the bad and the boring. He was and is a very good head coach who could have found even more success in a slightly alternate universe -- if Jay Cutler hadn't suffered a season-ending thumb injury in 2011 or if the Bears could have found a way to beat a single elite team this season. Here's the most telling stat of all: the last two seasons, the Bears have went just 2-7 in December after starting out 14-4. Whether it's totally fair or not, that blood is on Smith's hands. On Monday, it cost him is job.