Commentary

Bears coach positively maddening

Lovie Smith continues to favor relentless optimism over hard truths

Updated: January 2, 2012, 6:13 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

In some ways you almost have to admire the half-crazed, half-full philosophy of Lovie Smith.

As the Chicago Bears' coach put it Monday, "When you're 7-8 and some disappointing things have happened during the course of the season, the only thing you can do is get to 8-8 ..."

He also ticked off the many other good things that happened with the Bears' first victory in their last six games Sunday -- like the offense getting to 2,000 rushing yards for the season; special teams reaching plus-40 net yards; Charles Tillman returning a team-record fifth career interception for a touchdown; and of course, the team extending its winning streak against the Minnesota Vikings to five games.

"All those things were important for our football team," Smith said.

How can you not admire that sort of rationale?

Clearly, the Bears' coach does not like the season post-mortem. No coaches do when their teams fail to live up to expectations and they have difficult questions to answer and issues to address. In Smith's case, he chooses to accentuate the positive and ignore the negative.

It should have come as no surprise that he gave us no decision on the future of his contract-expired offensive coordinator, Mike Martz, or that instead of giving fans some insight into what he thought of the season Martz had, Smith referred to evaluations that have yet to occur with him and Martz, him and Bears GM Jerry Angelo, him and Bears president Ted Phillips and him and Bears chairman George McCaskey.

[+] EnlargeLovie Smith
AP Photo/Jim MoneBears coach Lovie Smith saw a lot he liked in the Bears' finale against the Vikings.

That's a lot of evaluations. It's sort of the equivalent of the coach who answers every postgame question by saying he'll have to look at the tape, as if somehow he missed his quarterback's multiple interceptions or the double-digit sacks his offensive line allowed.

Smith was once again touchy when it came to anything Martz-related, in part, it is fair to surmise, because Martz gave Smith his big career boost in St. Louis by hiring him as the Rams' defensive coordinator. Nevertheless, Smith loses credibility when he says he was unaware of the reports that have circulated nationally over the last month about future job possibilities for Martz.

Word from inside the organization is that the coach bristled big time, and Martz was publicly embarrassed about how distracting it became.

Smith did allow, "Mike did a super job for us. He had a lot of injuries this year. I think you guys know how I feel about him, but this is a new year coming up and we'll see how that goes."

In Lovie-speak, that reads as much like Martz is not coming back as anything short of a press release announcing it. But we'll see how that goes. (By the way, he had no problem talking about special teams coach Dave Toub, whose contract is also up and who has been honest in saying he'd like to be a head coach some day.)

Bears players were generally supportive of Martz, with Matt Forte saying the only problem with a coordinator switch is when the entire system changes.

"It's just when there's no consistency and having to change the playbook and all that, that makes it a little more tough," Forte said.

In fact, the Martz transition was a difficult and tedious one, with some players (see: young receivers) taking longer than others (see: veteran quarterback) to pick it up and the coordinator often letting his stubbornness get in the way of simple efficiency.

A transition to Mike Tice bodes as a smoother one with Tice likely to be more conservative, but also more sensible, which has often been all that Jay Cutler needs.

But then, listening to Smith, the Bears' offense has been swell.

The offensive line is "the best situation I've been in since I've been here ..." he said. "I know of two free agents as I look at it coming in -- our two offensive linemen that we have, two first-rounders. So we feel pretty good about the offensive line, yes."

If you're scratching your head, you are not alone. But he was speaking of former Bears first-round picks Gabe Carimi and Chris Williams, both of whom were on injured reserve this season.

Smith is also high on the Bears' tight ends, saying Matt Spaeth was brought in to be the blocker he was and Kellen Davis "can do anything the good tight ends in this league can do."

Smith had to be careful here, since the Bears traded away a good pass-catching tight end in Greg Olsen, so he came up with: "As a [pass-]catcher, if we focus in on [Davis], we can make him more of a guy that people are talking about just based on throwing him the ball more."

Smith did allow that the Bears need more production from their wide receivers but gave no indication that the ones they have aren't good enough. But then again, he said the Bears defensively "got good pressure from the front four" this season, so we are probably expecting too much there.

Devin Hester, who sadly has still not found his true home as a slot receiver or strictly a return specialist, admitted Monday that "off-field issues played a big part on our team. You have to find a way to balance it out and make sure it doesn't happen next year."

He was referring to the Sam Hurd drug arrest on Dec. 14, the week of the Seattle loss. "It affected us mentally in the receiver room," Hester said. "It's like a brother, a guy who's around every day [and] to see something like that happen to him kind of [bothered] us a little bit."

It was nice to hear that kind of honesty in the locker room. It would be nicer if there was some from behind the coach's podium, though a little did slip out in anger as Smith was asked for his defense against the call for major changes in the organization.

"We made it [to the playoffs] one out of [the last] two years, and I think we would have been in it this year if some unfortunate things didn't happen," he said. "That's my defense. As you look at our football team right now, if you're watching football and you've seen us, I think you'd say when we were 7-3, that was a pretty good football team coming off of an NFC championship game. So I think we're still close.

"I think we keep the core in place and just make the changes that you normally make after a season and we get back there. For the fans, that's what I'm going to say. I'm going to say look at our team and just look at how everything played out and see what direction you think we're headed. I think we're still going that direction, and eventually we're going to finish the job and put the product out there on the football field that the fans want."

At least we know where he stands.

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.