FoxSports: Lovie Smith must make changes to save season

Discussion in 'NFL Zone' started by Angus, Oct 19, 2007.

  1. Angus

    Angus Active Member

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    Smith must make changes to save season
    Michael David Smith, Updated 34 minutes ago

    It's mid-October, and the Bears are all alone in last place in the NFC North. Something must be done.

    A year after reaching the Super Bowl, the Bears are a mess. Early in the year everyone was blaming quarterback Rex Grossman, who was brutal in the first three games of the season before Lovie Smith finally benched him. But while Grossman was a big part of the problem in Chicago, he was far from the whole problem.

    On offense, the running game has been, if anything, worse than the passing game. (The advanced stats at Football Outsiders rank the Bears 30th in the league in passing offense and 32nd in rushing offense.) The once-stout defense is now mediocre. Only the always-solid special teams is playing at anything close to a Super Bowl level.

    But six games into the season is too early to give up. The Bears are an extreme long shot to get back to the playoffs, but they're not out of it yet. Here are the four steps Smith needs to take to have any hope of a successful season:

    1. Bench Cedric Benson for Adrian Peterson

    No, the Adrian Peterson who plays running back for the Bears isn't as good as the Adrian Peterson who plays running back for the Vikings. But he's better than Cedric Benson, the guy who's ahead of him on the depth chart.

    Peterson is averaging 4.3 yards a carry this season to Benson's 3.1. Peterson has a better burst of speed, he's better at breaking tackles, and he has better vision when he's in the open field. Peterson is also a better receiver than Benson and better in pass protection than Benson, which is why, offensive coordinator Ron Turner said this week, the Bears use Peterson when they're in the two-minute drill.

    So why does Benson remain ahead of Peterson on the depth chart? The first reason is that the Bears drafted Benson with the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, signed him to a huge contract and declared him their featured back when they traded Thomas Jones to the Jets. They now feel the need to justify putting that much faith in him. But that's foolish. Keeping a player in the lineup just because you've invested a lot of resources into him is an example of what economists call an irrational escalation of commitment. The Bears are making a bad choice in an effort to justify past decisions.

    The second reason the Bears have kept Peterson on the bench does have some merit. He fumbles too much — four fumbles in the last two years, even though he's only had 53 touches. But it's more likely that Peterson (who only fumbled once in 136 career touches before 2006) will start holding onto the ball than it is that Benson will start breaking tackles.

    2. Turn Devin Hester into a real receiver and not just a guy who goes long

    Everyone knows Hester is an incredible kick returner. And everyone saw Hester run a fly pattern, get past the Vikings' secondary and catch an 81-yard touchdown pass Sunday. But can he be an every-down wide receiver, and not solely a deep threat who gets a long ball thrown his way once or twice a game?

    The Bears need him to be. Muhsin Muhammad, who is supposed to be the team's top receiver, simply isn't getting the job done. He drops passes, fails to get open over the middle and doesn't appear to provide the kind of veteran leadership the Bears thought they were getting when they signed him to a huge free-agent contract. Having Hester on the field as part of the base package, getting him the ball in the normal course of the passing game and not just on deep routes and gadget plays, may be the only way to invigorate the offense.

    3. Put Alex Brown back on the field

    Last season Brown started at defensive end alongside Adewale Ogunleye, and rookie Mark Anderson came on in passing downs. With a very simple set of instructions — run as fast as you can to the quarterback — Anderson thrived and became one of the league's surprise rookies, leading the team with 12 sacks.

    But on the strength of those 12 sacks, Anderson got Brown's spot in the starting lineup this season, and he's not as effective as an every-down player. While Brown is a complete defensive lineman who can hold his spot when the run goes directly at him and chase down running backs when the play goes to the other side of the field, Anderson rushes the passer and does nothing else. Brown needs more opportunities.

    4. Take the game planning away from defensive coordinator Bob Babich

    Smith and Babich have been friends for a quarter of a century, since coaching together at Tulsa in the early 1980s, so demoting Babich wouldn't be easy for Smith. But it's clear, after six weeks, that Smith made a mistake after the Super Bowl when he got rid of last year's defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera, and replaced him with Babich. Smith has more of a personal connection with Babich than he had with Rivera, but a coach shouldn't be judged by his collegial relationship with his fellow coaches; he should be judged by how his players perform on the field. Last year the defense looked intense, focused and disciplined; this year the unit looks lazy, disorganized and sloppy.

    Fortunately, the Bears have a coach on their staff who knows how to bring the intensity back — Smith. Smith got the Bears job because he was a good defensive coach in his previous stops, with the Rams and the Buccaneers. This year's Bears don't look like a Lovie Smith defense because they're not a Lovie Smith defense. They're a Bob Babich defense. Smith is a loyal guy, and he doesn't want to go to his old friend and tell him he's getting stripped of some of his responsibilities. But just as he eventually realized that his loyalty to Grossman was dragging the team down, Smith needs to realize that taking over the defense from Babich is the most important move left to make.

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