"In the NFL, you evolve or you die." Doug Buffone said that during one of his last shows of the season on 670 AM WSCR out of Chicago. The Bears did a whole lot of dying this season, and not a lot of evolving. I've heard that Lovie Smith is a Coach who is married to his system. I think Smith is a good coach, but I have a real problem with his "marriage." When things go wrong--and they will--coaches need to be able to play to their teams' strengths. It makes no sense to stick with a Cover 2 defensive system when you no longer have the players needed to run that defense.
Buffone was great on the air the last couple weeks of the season. Every night at 6:00 on my way home, he'd come on the radio and rant about the defense being passive and the linebackers waiting to get smashed in the mouth. (In case you don't know who Doug Buffone is, you can follow this and find out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doug_Buffone.) He kept going back to the first game against the Minnesota Vikings, but we saw it almost all season long.
In Lovie Smith's system, the defensive linemen are supposed to maintain their gaps and attack the defense. But with Dusty Dvoracek out and Tommie Harris playing on one good leg, the tackles just couldn't get that done. Buffone's problem was with the way Bob Babich and Lovie Smith then used the linebackers. He thinks the Bears should've used the much healthier linebacker corps to attack the offense. Buffone's contention is that defensive players need to attack the offense, not wait for the offense to attack them. I tend to agree. If you are playing defense passively, you're going to get beaten. That's why I don't like Prevent Defenses. [Insert "Prevent You From Winning" cliché here.]
Eventually Bears fans saw more blitzes from the defense, and then a couple unknown tackles off practice squads (and off the street) stepped up and helped quite a bit. But why didn't the Bears coaching staff make early changes to the defensive system to match the strength of their squad? The only answer I can think of coupled to another key problem with the Bears in 2007. Almost every position coach on the Bears was replaced after the Superbowl. My gut feeling is that Smith filled his staff with Cover Two guys (or "yes men") and that was a big mistake. What I liked about Ron Rivera is that he was a student of several systems. When one system failed, Rivera could install components of another system to "fix" problems on defense. Smith didn't let Rivera do that, because he was married to his system, Rivera got frustrated and the two parted ways.
That, IMHO, is what went wrong with the Bears defense. What? You're confused? You don't understand because I've been defending Babich all season? The problem isn't with Babich, it's with Smith. Smith picked his new defensive coordinator, and the position coaches. And I think he picked Cover Two guys across the board. "So?" You ask, "What's wrong with that?"
Ever hear of the Bay of Pigs? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bay_of_Pigs_Invasion.) Ooh. Now you're really confused. Just be patient, I'm about to tie this all together with a neat little bow.
In a recent Meyers-Briggs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meyers-Briggs.) training session I attended, the instructor used the Bay of Pigs to illustrate the need for a varied staff with different backgrounds and personality types. He said the Bay of Pigs was allowed to happen even though many were convinced it would fail because John F. Kennedy surrounded himself with like-minded advisors. They all thought exactly like he did. So, when he thought the invasion was a good idea, it only made sense that his advisors did also. What Kennedy lacked was a devil's advocate in his staff, or even an advisor with a different point of view. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a dismal failure, and even worse, it solidified support of Fidel Castro in Cuba.
Now picture a defensive coaches meeting after week six of the season. All these guys know is Cover Two. Or they're too young. Or they're just new to their jobs. Babich knows which side his bread is buttered (his good buddy Smith promoted him to Defensive Coordinator). I think Smith surrounded himself with sycophantic invertebrates who might be good at coaching players, but can't (or aren't ready to) form independent thoughts about defensive strategy.
I don't think there was any dissention in the staff room, which may be what Smith thought he wanted, but dissention makes people think. Dissention brings to light different points of view and generates dynamic thinking and compromise. What the Bears defense needed was a little more compromise and change a lot earlier in the season. Their failure to form a new defensive strategy to fit the injuries their team suffered illustrates a lack of dynamic thinking on the part of the Bears coaching staff.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on Lovie Smith. Perhaps his coaching staff was simply too green to handle the rash of injuries the Bears suffered on defense this season. Perhaps it was nothing more than tragic timing that these injuries occurred the same season the Bears were breaking in all these new coaches. But I have a feeling that Smith used his success in 2006 to consolidate his power in 2007. If that's the case, Smith will continue to struggle as the Bears head coach until he is forced to hire a couple new coordinators and coaches, or fired. I for one will be very interested to see whether or not Smith and his staff have learned anything from the 2007 season. And I wonder if Smith is wise enough to "cheat" on his Cover Two System when necessity dictates...