The last time the Bears found themselves in a spot like this was 18 years ago.
Only two seasons removed from being the NFL coach of the year, Dick Jauron was fired by general manager Jerry Angelo, who replaced him with a first-time head coach who was a respected defensive coordinator and a devoted disciple of the “Tampa 2″ defense – Lovie Smith.
With no offensive background of his own, Smith hired Terry Shea – a veteran college coach with only three years of experience in the NFL as a QBs coach – to be his offensive coordinator
The team had finished the 2003 season 28th in total offense and 30th in passing. On defense, it was 14th in total defense and 22nd in points allowed.
Rex Grossman had been drafted a year earlier with the 22nd overall pick to be the franchise quarterback the team had long searched for.
The running back room was solid with Anthony Thomas and Adrian Peterson. Receivers were shaky at best, and the offensive line had Olin Kreutz to build around, but that was it.
Angelo had shed the defense of studs such as Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Phillip Daniels, Roosevelt Colvin and Warrick Holdman, but had a couple of young studs, including Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Mike Brown.
Angelo went right after his offensive woes in free agency making what, at the time, were big deals for running back Thomas Jones, tackle John Tait and guard Ruben Brown. For the most part, he ignored the defense.
But in the draft he used first- and second-round picks on 3-technique tackle Tommie Harris and anchor tackle Tank Johnson, grabbed little-known wideout Bernard Berrian in the third round, then took cornerback Nathan Vasher, linebacker Leon Joe and defensive end Claude Harriott with his next three picks.
In all, six of Angelo’s eight draft picks were on defense.
What got me to thinking about all this was watching Matt Eberflus’ first few practices and seeing the striking similarities between a lot of his defensive coaching techniques and philosophies with Smith’s. And although Eberflus is more talkative and more outgoing than Lovie, their personalities don’t seem all that dissimilar either.
Does “Floos” have his Urlacher, Tillman and Brown in Roquan Smith, Jaylon Johnson and Eddie Jackson? Perhaps. And although he doesn’t have a Briggs, Smith didn’t have a Robert Quinn.
Was the team Smith inherited more talented than this team Eberflus inherited? Probably slightly on defense – they weren’t switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme – but not on offense, although some will argue Fields is a much better prospect than Grossman, but that’s just revisionist history. Much different yes, but much better, we can only hope.
Their GMs’ approaches to supporting them, however, seem very different. In free agency, Angelo attacked his offense with gusto, especially on the line, and ignored his defense.
Current general manager Ryan Poles has chosen to nibble around the edges, bargain hunting on offense with free agents Byron Pringle, Lucas Patrick, Dakota Dozier, Julie’n Davenport and Shon Coleman, and make his more significant signings on defense with Al-Quadin Muhammad, Justin Jones, Nicholas Morrow and Tavon Young.
In the draft, Poles matched Angelo’s first two D-line draft picks with two defensive backs, and both went with a wideout in the third round, but then Poles went offense with five of his next six picks, including four more offensive linemen.
Lovie’s first team went 5-11 and finished last in the NFC North. A year later, after spending big again on Muhsin Muhammad, Fred Miller and Roberto Garza and drafting Cedric Benson, Kyle Orton and safety Chris Harris, they’d be NFC North champions at 11-5. Only two years later, with the addition of Brian Griese and drafting Danieal Manning, Devin Hester, Dusty Dvoracek and Mark Anderson, they’d be in the Super Bowl.
In spite of a couple of disasters, such as Shea and quarterback Jonathan Quinn, Angelo’s handpicked veteran QB bridge to Grossman, it was a wildly successful three-year rebuilding plan.
The Bears are going to struggle in 2022, as Lovie’s first team did. The roster doesn’t lie. But with Poles’ frugal quantity over quality approach, can “Floos” and company contend in 2023 and, dare I say, be talking Super Bowl in 2024?
It’s a different approach to rebuilding, and for now we can only hope.