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With an aggressive and significant move, Chicago coach Lovie Smith has put himself on course for one of two positions in 2009:
Coach of the Year or unemployed.
That's the upshot of Smith's decision to essentially take over as the Bears' defensive coordinator, one of several changes he announced Tuesday in a teleconference with Chicago-area reporters.
And really, let's not get into the semantics of Bob Babich retaining the title of defensive coordinator. Smith said he will call most and perhaps all of the defensive signals while Babich will coach the Bears' linebackers. Unless I'm wrong, Babich will be the only defensive coordinator in the NFL who doesn't call the defensive plays. In the book of reality, that makes him a linebackers coach with a fancy title and a few extra meetings to attend.
(Update: According to NFC West guru Mike Sando, new Seattle coach Jim Mora is likely to call the defensive plays in 2009. Also, Dallas coach Wade Phillips took over some level of the Cowboys' defensive play-calling during the 2008 season, but the level of his involvement was never fully established.)
By taking personal responsibility for the Bears' biggest area of need, Smith is either setting himself up for massive adulation if the defense improves or a potential dismissal if the gambit fails.
Smith would rightly deserve credit if he can personally restore the Bears' defensive advantage as part of an NFC North title in 2009. But if the defense does not make significant strides, or if the Bears slip in another area while Smith is tending to the defense, there will be no one left to blame. I suppose you could finger the assistant coaches responsible for the other areas, but ultimately it will come back on Smith for leaving them untended.
This move will be a referendum on Smith's ability as a defensive schemer and the manager of a football team. On the latter point, Smith has taken an unusual if not unprecedented tack to solve the Bears' defensive problems. There are multiple offensive-minded head coaches who call plays, but rarely do defensive-minded coaches follow suit.
(And, frankly, the practice of head coaches calling the offensive plays is trending downward. By the end of the 2008 season, only six were doing it. Game management has never been more important or time-consuming.)
In some ways, it's refreshing to see a head coach take accountability for a systemic downturn, especially one that occurs in his area of expertise. But you wonder how effective Smith can be as a head coach while also taking on such a substantive defensive role.
Here's how Smith addressed that issue with Chicago reporters:
"I'm a big boy, and after five years in this role, I think you find out exactly how much time you have and where you have time to do a few more things. This past year I coached the nickels for about half of the season and enjoyed that quite a bit. So I saw that I had a little bit more time to do some of these things. ... There are a lot of offensive coaches in the league that call plays, that do a little bit more on their side of the ball where their expertise is. For some reason, a lot of defensive coaches haven't done it. But I think it's time to change some of that."
I guess I could be overreacting to this news. It's possible these changes are more of a tweak than an overhaul.
After all, Smith went out of his way to point out that Babich "will continue to coordinate the defense." And Smith refused to be pinned down on the extent to which he will call plays. At one point, he said that "there are very few situations where one guy calls every play."
But ultimately, Smith acknowledged he will be in the "lead role" as it relates to the defensive signals. It's also worth noting the final three sentences from the long quote above, which indicate Smith wants to blaze a new trail for head coaches.
Most football people will tell you that calling defensive plays is far less, shall we say complicated, than calling the offensive plays. Nevertheless, Smith has placed the Bears' immediate future -- and his own career -- on his very confident shoulders.