Showing No Love For Lovie

By David Haugh
Updated: June 9, 2009

CHICAGO — Rank Lovie Smith in the bottom half of NFL coaches in terms of rhetoric and not an eyebrow in Chicago would be raised. The McCaskeys would love to pay Smith by the syllable. He’s no Mike Singletary or John Harbaugh, that’s for sure.

But The Sporting News Today’s ranking of NFL head coaches that put Smith No. 20 must have weighed nouns and verbs more than victories and paid more attention to the podium than the field.

There are 19 men considered better NFL head coaches than Lovie Smith? Remove coaches who weren’t taking over new teams, and only three veterans — Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis, Houston’s Gary Kubiak and Washington’s Jim Zorn — were ranked lower than Smith.

My first reaction in seeing the online story was that The Sporting News must be trying to drive Internet traffic in the Chicago market. If that was the goal, they should have asked.

All they had to do is post a mouse-click magnet of a headline that says something like, ” Plaxico Burress Threatens to Take Focus Off Brett Favre in NFC North Race Bears Should Win.”

On most days, TSN Today is a reputable, comprehensive online publication that delivers information and opinions true to the publication’s tradition. On Monday, its NFL coverage lost a measure of credibility in the eyes of this league observer.

A team of former NFL scouts the publication refers to as RealScouts, using criteria that isn’t referenced, starts its top five with a safe, solid order of New England’s Bill Belichick, New York Giants’ Tom Coughlin, Philadelphia’s Andy Reid, Tennessee’s Jeff Fisher, and Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin. Nobody can argue with that group.

Belichick remains the modern standard. Coughlin has changed his ways to build a perennial Super Bowl contender. Reid has more than a decade of consistency unmatched in the NFC. Fisher has done it longer and better than any active NFL head coach. And Tomlin is the league’s reigning coaching star inspiring trends for bright, young coaches in the business.

But then the rest of the top 10 starts to become a head-shaker.

New Orleans’ Sean Payton comes in at No. 6. Hmmmm. Payton is 26-24 in three seasons with the Saints and has won one playoff game with one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks in that span.

Still, even with a resume that people in New Orleans might call disappointing given the talent level during his tenure, Payton deserves consideration as one of the league’s top 10 coaches based on the franchise’s turnaround and his innovative offensive mind. Carolina’s John Fox, ranked No. 9, also belongs in the top 10.

Where, objectively, Lovie Smith should be too.

Smith and the Bears are coming off a 9-7 season with a roster built for 7-9 or worse.

Yes, Smith offers so little publicly about the Bears that he would never sign up for a Twitter account because 140 characters is more expansive than his typical press conference answers.

Like every coach on the list, he has pushed the wrong personnel buttons on occasion (Danieal Manning is Exhibit A) and his late-game management decisions occasionally still defy logic – some Bears fans, for instance, never will forget or forgive the way he nearly blew the playoff win over the Seahawks by calling a timeout at the end of the game that gave Seattle a last chance.

But, by any objective analysis removing emotion from the equation, the numbers say that Smith has coached his way into the echelon shared by the top 10 NFL head coaches. Entering his sixth season with the Bears, Smith is 47-37 with two NFC North titles and an NFC Championship during his tenure.

Among NFC teams, only the Giants have a better regular-season record than the Bears since 2005. The Giants are 41-23 in that period and the Bears are 40-24. That gives the Bears a winning percentage of .625, tied with the Cowboys for sixth-best in the NFL since ’05.

The Bears are one of just nine teams in the NFL and five in the NFC to post three or more winning season since 2005.

That makes Smith the 20th-best head coach in the league? Or – more accurately – the 13th-worst?

Here are the other coaches ranked ahead of Smith: Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt (7), Atlanta’s Mike Smith (8), Baltimore’s Harbaugh (10), Minnesota’s Brad Childress (11), Miami’s Tony Sparano (12), San Diego’s Norv Turner (13), San Francisco’s Singletary (14), Dallas’ Wade Phillips (15), Green Bay’s Mike McCarthy (16), Jacksonville’s Jack Del Rio (17), Buffalo’s Dick Jauron (18) and Seattle’s Jim Mora Jr. (19).

Whisenhunt coached his team to a Super Bowl so that’s understandable. But can we wait for Mike Smith, Harbaugh and Sparano to have success for more than one season before assuming they will have the type of consistency Smith has achieved with the Bears?

Childress is the 11th-best head coach in the NFL? Were these scouts polled in a deer stand in Duluth? Have they seen Tarvaris Jackson throw?

If you’re an NFL general manager, you would rather hire Norv Turner or Wade Phillips to be your head coach than Lovie Smith? Both Turner and Phillips have won, yes, but is that because of them or their respective predecessors, Marty Schottenheimer and Bill Parcells?

And, sorry, Chicago fans who have “85 Bears,” tattooed on their shoulder but the only way Singletary gets the nod over Smith at this stage of their respective head coaching careers is if after-dinner speaking is one of the categories.

Object to Smith’s style but it is difficult to argue with the substance. Ranking Smith 20th among NFL head coaches shows a lack of acknowledgement of what has been done in Chicago since Smith arrived and a lack of respect for his role in it.

If the Bears struggle in 2009 after the best off-season in team history, then doubt Smith and apply the pressure that will be appropriate in the Age of Cutler. But until that happens, he has a recent run of respectability – the ’07 Super Bowl hangover aside – that should have earned Smith more sway among his peers.

Maybe the scouts polled in TSN’s survey sought to give more credit to GM Jerry Angelo, who is considered a scout at heart, than Smith. But in suggesting that Smith should be one of the league’s most lowly regarded veteran coaches makes it fair to wonder whether those scouts could tell man coverage from zone.