By Dan Pompei
Babysitting the grandkids, taking out the trash and tending to tomato plants has been all well and good, but it's time for Lovie Smith to come out of exile.
Smith was fired by the Bears last January for missing the playoffs five times in six years, and for failing to make his offense capable of spreading its wings without being nourished and nudged by mother defense. Last offseason, he was interviewed by the Bills, Eagles and Chargers. This go-round, USC came calling and the Texans already have interviewed him. It is likely he will continue to draw interest from almost every team with an opening until he's hired sometime in the next few weeks.
Why? In a league full of uncertainty, there is no mystery with Smith. There isn't a projection involved in his hiring. He won't require a learning curve. Just as his schemes never were very reliant on disguises and deception, Smith is an easy read. He doesn't have a lot of highs and lows. He is as steady as a dripping faucet.
Some would say he is as exciting as a dripping faucet as well. It is a criticism that rankles Brian Urlacher, Smith's former captain and middle linebacker. "That's bull," Urlacher said of the knock that Smith lacks emotion. "He was that way with the media and on the sideline. But there were a couple games at halftime when we were getting our butts kicked, he lit into us, and in the second half we responded and played well. There were times in practice when he did the same thing."
One front office man who worked with Smith said his greatest strength is galvanizing the group and keeping everyone focused both through difficult times and prosperous times -- a critical aspect of leadership that can be easily overlooked.
Urlacher found Smith to be a solid leader in many ways. "The respect factor for him was huge in the locker room because of the type of man he is," he said. "He treated everyone on the team the same as far as I know. There was no favoritism. He's a good role model for guys to look up to. He didn't say something and not do it. He is a player's coach. He let us know when it was time to go, but he also took care of us when he could. He let us have fun in the locker room. He let the locker room be ours. He didn't try to run it, which was cool."
Smith follows a system and formula he learned from Tony Dungy, but he will deviate from the book if he believes change is necessary. In Chicago, he made changes on his coaching staff with regularity, and he benched players on occasion. Even though Smith never spoke a disparaging word about his players publicly, Urlacher said he held players accountable to the point where even he was worried about being benched. " He would pull me in his office and say, 'You didn't do well enough. We need more out of you.' There are a lot of people who blow smoke and say, you are doing great, don't worry about it. He wasn't like that. As a player, you respect that and sometimes you need to hear that."
A coach sometimes needs to hear input from players, and according to Urlacher, Smith was open to suggestions and flexible in his planning processes. For instance, Urlacher never saw the benefit in dropping deep in the middle seam in Cover 2 because it took him away from the action in the box. He said as time passed he convinced Smith to use him less frequently to run the middle of the field.
"I would go to him every day, Urlacher said. "There would be points Lance [Briggs] and I would bring up things about the defense. He would always listen to us. There were a lot of things we did the last couple years changing calls, disguising things. They listened to us and gave us some leeway with the defense because we did understand it so well. And as long as we didn't screw it up, he'd give us a longer leash."
Whatever Smith did, it worked pretty well. In nine years of running the Bears, Smith's teams won nine or more games five times. Despite never having a Pro Bowl quarterback, he finished with a record of 81-63. He took a team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl. During the period when he was coach of the Bears, 81 other coaches led NFL teams; his winning percentage was better than 83 percent of them over that time. Among the coaches whose records between 2004 and 2012 were not as good as Smith's were Jeff Fisher, Jon Gruden, Mike Holmgren, Joe Gibbs, Gary Kubiak, Bill Parcells, Andy Reid, Nick Saban and Dick Vermeil.
Four times, his defenses finished in the top four of the NFL in points allowed. Seven times, his defenses finished in the top eight of takeaways.
This year, it's been a different story for the Bears defense. The team ranks 30th in points allowed and 14th in takeaways. Of course, the 2013 Bears defense has been ravaged by injuries, so even a loyal Lovie disciple like Urlacher can't argue that Smith's absence has been the difference. But he did say this: "The thing is, when Lovie was there, we didn't make mistakes. We didn't run through wrong gaps. We did our walk-throughs every day and we knew where we needed to fit, we knew what we needed to do every single play. I'm not sure what's going on right now, but there are some big-ass gaps. The other thing about a Lovie Smith defense, you know it's going to play hard as hell. You always saw guys running to the football. That's how we got so many takeaways. If you didn't run to the football with Lovie, you would not be on the field."
Stellar defenses were a given with Smith. But so were dysfunctional offenses, and that's why he spent the year on his couch. Smith could be a victim of discrimination -- because he is a defensive-minded head coach. In the modern NFL world, every team wants a head coach who can speak the language of quarterbacks. It's becoming more of an issue with each passing year. Of the eight head coaches hired in 2013, seven of them had offensive backgrounds.
And so the most important question Smith will answer in interviews is this, "Who will you hire to run your offense?" The answer last year probably would have been Pep Hamilton. He isn't available anymore, so Smith has to hope an accomplished offensive coach falls into his lap.
With Smith, at least prospective employers know what he has struggled with. And they will know what he has excelled at. The sum of his coaching career is why he will be on every short list in the NFL.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter@danpompei.