LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- On Saturday night at the team hotel in Dearborn, Mich., I found myself in an elevator with Lovie Smith.
He was in a gregarious mood, the kind you don't see during news conferences and only on the sideline after, say, a Devin Hester touchdown return. He was wearing a gray winter hat and a white dress shirt, laughing and joking with a Bears PR guy.
When the PR staffer got off the elevator, Smith nearly followed him, forgetting his own floor was higher up. When it was just the two of us, I asked him if he had a nice Christmas. He said he did. "I've never had a bad Christmas," he said, as only Lovie could.
Optimistic to the end. Smith, of course, can now say he has had a bad New Year's Eve.
About 14 hours after the Bears were officially knocked out of the playoffs, the news leaked out that Smith was fired as coach of the Chicago Bears after nine years.
Reporters had been predicting his downfall for years, but the speculation really picked up in the past few weeks after the Bears lost to Seattle at home and Minnesota on the road. A 7-1 start had devolved into an ugly end. It was the second straight season the Bears finished with a pronounced thud. Last year's finish cost general manager Jerry Angelo his job. This year it was Smith's turn.
Don't let it be said that new team chairman George McCaskey and general manager Phil Emery are resistant to change.
While you can't blame Smith for Jay Cutler's injury last year or the poor play of the offensive line this season, he was the man in charge. He got paid very well to be the front man for the team, and he should have to suffer the consequences for the Bears not being a consistent playoff team.
For those who think it's ludicrous that the Bears fired a coach with an 84-66 record (which includes his 3-3 postseason mark) after a 10-6 season, you need to recognize the reality on the ground.
Smith had one year left on his contract, at more than $5 million a year, and the Bears had missed the playoffs five of the past six seasons. In his nine years, the Bears never bottomed out as they had under so many of his predecessors. He was too good a coach to let that happen. But the Bears didn't win enough important games to garner another contract.
In his introductory press conference, Smith talked about the importance of beating the Packers. Green Bay has won eight of nine games, and six straight. This year, the Bears went 2-6 against playoff teams, with wins against Indianapolis and Minnesota.
Smith's news conferences were legendary for their combative obtuseness, but he was a great communicator where it counted -- with his team.
"He treated you with respect," Bears linebacker Nick Roach said. "He respected you just as a person, as a man. He wasn't a condescending type of teacher. He just wanted guys to be able to get the job done, and he was able to get that done without screaming and yelling and swearing and all that. He was able to communicate what he wanted effectively, which I think is clear by our successes that we had. From that standpoint, it would be hard not to say you'd want a coach like that."
With Smith gone, we might see an overhaul of his defense. Few expect franchise linebacker Brian Urlacher to be back. Maybe the new coach implements a pass-rushing 3-4 scheme, making other players obsolete.
The mood in the locker room was downcast, as to be expected.
Hester, always emotionally raw, spoke about retiring from football. The mental stress had been affecting him for weeks and this news topped it off.
"I don't even know if I want to play again," Hester said. "That's been something on my mind for two years."
Hester added "the media, the false fans, you all got what you all wanted. The majority of you all wanted him out. Players as players we wanted him in. I guess the fans -- the false fans -- outruled us."
Hester is a nice guy, one of my favorites to cover, but he's wrong. Neither the players nor the media had a vote here. Emery knew what he wanted and so did George McCaskey. They want playoff wins. Beating Jacksonville and Tennessee is fine, but when you can't beat the important teams, it's just false hustle. Smith's teams typically took care of business against the dregs of the league.
But it was time to try something new in Chicago. Last year, Cubs president Theo Epstein talked about 10 years being long enough in a sports-related job. Close enough.
"Change isn't always a bad thing," Bears quarterback Jay Cutler said. "Sometimes, it can be good. The prospect at the time was unfavorable, but ... no one really wants to change or think about changing. Now that it's upon us, we've got to be positive about it. It is what it is. We've just got to keep moving forward, and whoever it is, we've got to make the most of it."
Emery is a scout to the Nth degree, and you can bet he made up his mind to fire Smith weeks ago. Maybe nothing less than a Super Bowl run would have saved the coach.
ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that the Bears will interview Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy this weekend. McCoy, 40, was praised for fitting an offense around Tim Tebow last season. Some would say he deserves a Nobel Prize for that feat.
This year, with Peyton Manning, you can assume his duties are more limited. But after going to the playoffs with the best and worst quarterbacks in the league, it's fair to say McCoy can work with Cutler. The two intersected briefly in Denver before Cutler was shipped to Chicago, and the young coach is highly thought of around the league.
Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, a former offensive coordinator for the Patriots, should be considered, though it would tough to see why he'd leave State College after a year of rallying the campus after scandal.
If Titans interim offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains doesn't keep his job, he could be a coordinator or quarterbacks coach candidate. He is close with Cutler and was a candidate for quarterbacks coach last season. Cutler doesn't believe his current QB coach Jeremy Bates will keep his job.
Whomever comes in has to have a firm set of ideas on how to be successful with Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, which shouldn't be too hard, and has to work with Emery in building the offensive line.
Defense was never the problem under Smith. But Cutler's arrival was supposed to be the dawn of an offensive age in Chicago, but that didn't happen. If anything, it made the team's failings more embarrassing. In his time with the Bears, the offense has been ranked 23, 30, 24 and 28. Smith doesn't call the plays or make the mistakes, but ultimately he had to take responsibility for those who did.
"The only thing I'm really thinking is I wish we could have done more offensively, wish we could have made more plays and won a few more games here and there, and I think overall just be more consistent offensively," Cutler said. "I think that definitely would have helped things."
Cutler has been in this situation before in Denver. The change in coaches, from Mike Shanahan to Josh McDaniels, led to his trade here. The quarterback only has another year left on his deal. He has left a trail of offensive coordinators in his wake.
Angelo is gone. Smith is gone. It's safe to say without an extension this offseason, Cutler is on the clock. For all his talent, he is nothing more than a middle-of-the-road quarterback. The next coach and next offensive coordinator are pivotal to his success. As he goes, so go the Bears.
In a league where rookie quarterbacks are going to the playoffs, there is no time to rebuild or make excuses. No matter who is hired to replace Smith, the time to win is next season and every season after that.
This is the NFL. What else is there?