Commentary

Return elicits memories

Bears' defensive dominance hasn't returned to level it enjoyed under Rivera

Updated: September 29, 2011, 6:10 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Ron Rivera and Lovie SmithIcon SMI, Getty ImagesRon Rivera admits it won't be just another game Sunday, but Lovie Smith is downplaying Rivera's return.
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Until the Carolina Panthers arrived on the Bears' schedule this week, there hadn't been much talk here lately about Ron Rivera.

Five years after Bears coach Lovie Smith decided not to renew Rivera's contract as defensive coordinator -- that would be "fired" in old-school parlance -- the Bears' defense had returned to a level of respectability, if not exactly dominance, under current coordinator Rod Marinelli.

But maybe, more than anything, we have all just become numb to the controlling ways and borderline paranoia of Smith, who slipped through a period of job shakiness two years ago and now appears firmly entrenched after signing a contract extension in February that will carry him through the 2013 season.

In Lovie's world, jettisoning Rivera after the Bears went to the Super Bowl following the 2006 season was actually brilliant.

They're calling it a "business decision" today -- which is code for "I didn't want Rivera's popularity and his old Bears-style defense threatening me," if you're Lovie, and "It's not worth burning bridges," if you're Rivera.

Rivera, now head coach of the Panthers, took the high road, as always, in a conference call Wednesday, saying, "I learned a tremendous amount of football from Coach Smith in the three seasons I was with him and I'd never deny that. It was business and we moved forward. I guess some people are surprised that's what I feel, but it's nobody's fault, just circumstances, so we moved on."

It took the Bears four seasons to recover, if you can even call it that, going from rankings of second and fifth in the NFL in overall defense in Rivera's two seasons as coordinator, to 28th, 21st and 17th in the next three years under Bob Babich.

Marinelli, while continuing to implement Smith's Cover 2-based system after being promoted to coordinator last season, should be commended for helping lift the defense to ninth in 2010 as his unit carried the Bears to an NFC Championship Game berth. The return of a revitalized Brian Urlacher, who missed 15 games due to wrist surgery the season before, certainly helped.

It's still too early to make a call on this season's group, which has sustained key injuries at safety and is currently ranked 25th overall. But Bears players are devoted to Marinelli and seem to love his attention to detail and his old-school ways.

Ironically, that's what they got from Rivera, who preached an attacking defense that combined the styles of Buddy Ryan and Jimmy Johnson.

Smith hated and still hates taking chances on defense, yet he still gets burned.

When Rivera exited the Bears, Smith insisted the two had the same philosophy but wouldn't elaborate on why Rivera was leaving other than to say they were "going in two different directions."

As Rivera pointed out Monday, it wasn't Smith who hired him. GM Jerry Angelo is credited with that move in '04. Marinelli was Smith's first choice but wasn't allowed out of his contract at Tampa Bay. Bob Babich, another of Smith's friends, was not yet ready for the job.

You can't blame Smith for wanting to promote Babich, who had coached with him at the University of Tulsa and was in sync with Smith's defensive philosophy. But others inside the organization say Smith was also threatened by Rivera's deep ties to the Bears' owners and the organization, as well as growing chatter by fans that Rivera, emerging as a head-coaching candidate around the league, would be an ideal Bears head coach someday.

Unlike the eras of George Halas and Mike Ditka, when differences with assistant coaches were considered part of the creative process (though it's doubtful they ever used those words), Smith wanted none of it.

"I think it was just a decision that was being made," Rivera said at the time. "All I know is that my three-year contract expired and we'll leave it at that."

And so the coordinator of the fifth-ranked NFL defense was gone after 17 collective seasons as player and coach in Chicago. And by early the following season, it was evident that the tide of defensive dominance had shifted, never to be totally regained.

Safety Adam Archuleta told reporters in October '07 that the Bears' defense "lacked an identity." Archuleta, it should be noted, was not Babich's fault.

Rivera All I know is that my three-year contract expired and we'll leave it at that.

-- Ron Rivera

Still, it has never quite been the same, and if Bears fans experienced a twinge of jealousy when Rivera was hired by Carolina last spring, perhaps it is because the Panthers have a leader who seems more hung up on winning than anything else.

With the Bears, the double-talk to the public continues. And Smith, who for the last two years has not allowed his coordinators to speak after games, again sounded defensive this week when asked for his thoughts on facing Rivera.

"We're excited about getting an opportunity to play the Carolina Panthers," Smith said. "I don't think Ron is going to be out there playing..."

Not literally, anyway.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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