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Thursday, December 3, 2009
Change is in the air with the Bears

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

The consensus among Bears fans, sports radio hosts and pretty much anyone who has watched a down of Bears football this season is that either Jerry Angelo or Lovie Smith must go. Scratch that. The consensus is they both should be relieved of their duties, contracts be damned, along with half the players, the media apologists (if there are any left), the guys who wave the "4th phase" flags and every goof who puts his own name on the back of a jersey.

Jerry Angelo
Jerry Angelo's inability to draft defense seems to be the impetus behind the team's downfall.

If the Angry Fans had their way, Angelo and Smith would take a timeout ... far away from the field. Permanently.

Not me, though. I say bring them back. Why, you say?

Well, I think it's a kind of masochistic curiosity. Covering the Bears this season is like driving by a car wreck on the highway. You don't want to gawk, but you can't help it. Every time I think the Bears have hit relative rock bottom this year, they've managed to surprise me with a worse effort. When they went into the bye at 3-1, I don't think many people, even the most grizzled cynics, thought they'd be 4-7 right now, and a pretty horrible 4-7 at that.

I'm seriously intrigued by how bad another season of the Angelo-Smith-Jay Cutler Bears can be. Through 11 games, Chicago has beaten a lousy Seattle team, two jokes in Detroit and Cleveland, and a Pittsburgh team with the attention span of Ron Artest at halftime. If the Bears finish with more than six wins, I'll be shocked, and I'm the idiot who mapped out a road to 9-7 two weeks ago.

I'm curious about how a change in offensive coordinators -- there is no level of morbidity that makes me want to endure another season of Ron Turner -- and perhaps a new defensive coordinator can transform a team in flux. Can Angelo manage to add a dark horse playmaker without a pick in the first two rounds of the 2010 draft?

There is so much work to be done. Angelo's shopping list looks like an expansion team's: offensive linemen, a backup running back, a playmaking wide receiver, a linebacker, a young defensive lineman, a linebacker, a safety or two.

Various news reports quote officials representing the owners and players giving ominous signs that the 2010 season will be uncapped, without a new collective bargaining agreement, thus upsetting the fiscal system in place to sign free agents. No one knows exactly whom will be available on the market, because if the year is uncapped, around 200 would-be free agents wouldn't be eligible. Wouldn't this hurt a team like the Bears?

While the addition of Cutler in April changed offensive strategy quite a bit, the Bears' gambles in signing Orlando Pace to play left tackle and Frank Omiyale, a natural right tackle, to play guard, have done more to wreak havoc on the offense and hurt any chance of improvement with Cutler under center.

Lovie Smith
The Bears players say the team's struggles are not Lovie Smith's fault, but his Cover 2 defense isn't fooling anyone.

Now that Angelo has his quarterback, who is about as popular in Chicago right now as Tiger Woods is in his own house, thanks to 20 interceptions and more bad games than great ones, the GM can try to add some linemen and a few more weapons on offense while rebuilding his defense.

Maybe the Bears can compete in 2010. Maybe the Bears rally around nice guy Smith, who will be looking for an unlikely extension if he returns.

But then I think about how miserable this season has gotten, and how much worse things could get next year and I say, forget all of that. Fire both of them and start over now. Why waste another season when the Bears have sputtered three straight years since peaking in 2006-07?

Just because the Bears may have erred in signing Angelo and Smith to extensions in 2007 doesn't mean the McCaskeys and President/CEO Ted Phillips have to double down when things have gotten worse. In fact, doesn't this situation, a deteriorating veteran-laden team sick with bad bets, big contracts and over-ripe memories of the past, seem perfectly right for a sea change at the top? Isn't this how it usually goes?

The prevailing notion is that the McCaskeys are too penurious, or perhaps too loyal, to fire both Angelo and Smith with so much money to eat, so maybe any argument for a massive overhaul is just mental gymnastics. But it's still something to discuss, because every team peaks, and it seems like instead of leaving a cold card table, Angelo kept cashing in for more chips. Sometimes you have to change your own luck.

We can wax philosophically about players' mindsets and how guys are so willing to lay down and die for Lovie, as if the exhortations of a calm, even-keeled coach like Smith could flip an emotional switch for a bunch of grown men, but there is no empirical evidence to prove or disprove that this team wants Smith to stay. We have to believe their PC locker room chatter, which states unequivocally that it's not Lovie's fault.

Angelo, and his lead negotiator Cliff Stein, should get some love in the locker room, considering the loyalty Angelo's shown at re-signing veterans, even after Lance Briggs blasted the organization before taking the franchise tag in 2007 and eventually signing a new deal after that season. Money talks and Angelo has earned some credibility with his players.

But throw that stuff out the window, because players don't have the vote. It's up to the higher-ups in the organization to decide the fates of the two most important Bears, who ultimately help the team bring in the all-important buck by winning and making playoff appearances. And if they are capable of making a heartless, calculated decision, they should look at the demise of a once-proud defense as a reason to make a change.

Kevin Seifert, ESPN's veteran NFC North reporter, broke down the Bears' struggles in drafting defense, which seems to be the impetus behind the team's downfall. Angelo just stopped making good decisions, or just got plain unlucky with injuries and players who lacked the requisite heart to compete in the NFL.

Angelo, who came aboard before the 2001 season, did a good job of building a core around the inherited Brian Urlacher, along with player personnel director Bobby DePaul and director of college scouting Greg Gabriel, both in their ninth years with the team, but has failed in the past five drafts to find a difference-maker, or even a consistent playmaker. And it's not like he hasn't tried, selecting 20 defensive players from 2005 to 2009.

Of that 20, only a handful currently play supporting roles on this defense, like defensive backs Danieal Manning, Kevin Payne, Al Afalava and Zack Bowman. Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison starts, but how often do you hear about him? Linebacker Jamar Williams has been forced into action by injuries. These are average to good NFL players, but they haven't followed in the footsteps of stars Charles Tillman and Briggs.

The Bears didn't have picks in the first two rounds in 2009, and their next two picks, defensive linemen Jarron Gilbert and Henry Melton, have been invisible. Johnny Knox and Afalava are regulars, but only Knox looks like he has star potential. And he doesn't play defense.

Smith's Cover 2 scheme isn't beguiling anyone, because his line isn't getting a push and there is no successor to Mike Brown in the middle of the secondary, and no up-and-coming playmaker anywhere in the defense.

After two disappointing seasons, the defense hasn't had much of a chance to make an impact with injuries sapping much of the depth and veteran leadership.

Cincinnati scored on its first seven possessions and Arizona on its first six in twin blowouts. Minnesota put up 24 points in the second quarter alone. Maybe the Bears lose those games regardless, but the sheer ugliness of those losses is cause for concern.

Football Outsiders ranks the Bears 21st in defensive efficiency this season, a perfectly mediocre balance: 22nd in pass defense and 21st in rush defense. Of the teams below them, only Atlanta and Jacksonville have shots at the playoffs, and only barely. The Bears have 10 interceptions, which puts them 16th in the league, and 22 sacks, which is 21st.

They are giving up an average of 339.8 yards, 18th best in the league, and are third-worst in third-down percentage with teams converting at an eye-popping 46 percent. That last figure almost certainly can be pinned on the loss of Urlacher, who went down in the opener.

Last year, the Bears were seventh in efficiency, 10th in passing and fifth in rushing. The year before, they were eighth, 14th in passing and fourth in rushing. In their Super Bowl season, they were second overall, a dominating, turnover-creating, try-and-score-on-us defense. Things have changed gradually, and then all of a sudden.

Coming off a game in which the Bears gave up 537 yards, the most they've surrendered in 15 years, and allowed 40-year-old MVP candidate Brett Favre to pass for 392 yards while only getting sacked once and hit five times, the team's defensive shortcomings are hard to ignore.

Maybe it's the scheme. Maybe it's the players. More likely, it's a combination of both, plus injuries. Whatever the reason for the decline, it's past time to shake things up on defense, and it goes deeper than just demoting Bob Babich.

I'm curious to see if Angelo and Smith, two men who deserve our respect, can change their fortunes in a hurry in 2010. But I can't say keeping them would be the right move.

I know the Bill Cowher rumors are just that, innuendo. But I can't help but think he's just what this team needs -- a new voice, a new defense and a new start.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.