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Coaches like Smith hard to find

Chicago may learn to appreciate job Smith did ... after he's gone

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

8:33 PM CST, December 31, 2012

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Getting rid of Lovie Smith does not make the Bears a better team.

Only replacing him with a better coach would.

Jon Gruden? Hearing he's not coming down from the press box.

Bill Cowher has gotten too comfortable wearing makeup.

Mike Holmgren? He probably would want a little more juice than he could get in Chicago.

Andy Reid, now he would be worth a look.

But mostly what the Bears are staring at is the pool of great unknowns — coaches who never have done it before, at least not at this level.

Some of their resumes are impressive. But every one of them is a gamble.

Go ahead and roll those dice, Phil Emery.

Smith was the opposite of a gamble. A sure thing if ever there was one. Consistent as a healthy heartbeat, steady as the terrain on a Midwestern drive. You even knew what he would say at the podium.

Many Bears fans would like to dance on the U-Haul truck that takes Smith and his belongings to his next city. But Smith was a solid head coach for the Bears. He wasn't Vince Lombardi or Bill Walsh, but he got his team to compete hard every season.

This franchise has had 47 cracks at making it to a Super Bowl and made it there twice, once under Mike Ditka, once under Smith.

Smith managed to go where Jim Dooley, Abe Gibron, Jack Pardee, Neill Armstrong, Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron could not.

Since Smith became head coach of the Bears in 2004, 81 others have led NFL teams. And his winning percentage was better than that of 83 percent of them over that time period.

Among the coaches whose records between 2004 and 2012 were not as good as Smith's were Gruden, Holmgren, Reid, Jeff Fisher, Joe Gibbs, Gary Kubiak, Bill Parcells, Nick Saban and Dick Vermeil.

But in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, missing the playoffs five of six years did in Smith. It's not like the Bears completely fell apart over that time period, though. They still won 54 percent of their games since the 2006 Super Bowl season.

Even in Smith's final season, he won 10 games. Winning 10 games was enough to get four coaches a postseason appearance. But it wasn't enough to prevent Smith from getting fired.

He had been in his chair for a long time, nine years. They talk about a "10-year rule" for head coaches. After 10 years, a coach's message gets old. He wears out his welcome — if not with his players, at least with his public.

That clearly happened to Smith.

It happened mostly because he never could straighten out his offense. There were maddening constants on offense throughout his tenure despite dozens of changes — lack of player development, time-management issues and poor utilization of personnel.

He was much like Tony Dungy in that regard. Dungy was the same coach in Tampa that Smith was in Chicago. And then Dungy took a job that had offensive coordinator Tom Moore and quarterback Peyton Manning in place.

There didn't seem to be a way out of the offensive tar pit for the Bears as long as Smith was the coach. A fifth offensive coordinator would not have been the answer.

Really, all of this was evident one year ago. Nothing has changed.

If the Bears wanted to whack Smith, they should have done it last January, when George McCaskey took out Jerry Angelo's knees. It would have been much cleaner that way — bring in a new GM and head coach in tandem and get everyone working together from the start.

But it also would have been more expensive that way. So now Emery's program gets delayed one year.

It's possible Mike McCoy or Keith Armstrong or Mike Sullivan or one of the other assistants who will interview with Emery will come to the Bears and end up with a better record than Smith. Maybe one of those coaches finally can get the offense right.

But teams once had those kinds of hopes for Tony Sparano, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Bobby Petrino, Josh McDaniels, Steve Spagnuolo and dozens of others.

Coaches like Smith are not easy to find. Someday, if not today, a lot of people around here are going to realize that.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei