Why Lovie Smith can’t get Jeff Fisher’s line of credit

Jeff Fisher and Gus Bradley were both fired in the last two weeks.

Fisher had a losing record for his sixth consecutive season.

Bradley’s streak hit four in his only four seasons as he averaged 12 losses.

Fisher’s streak made me first think of Lovie Smith – and the line of credit he has never received.

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Bradley’s firing made me think of Todd Bowles – and the line of credit he will never receive.

Both their streaks made me look up the 17 times an African-American coach has ever been fired.

The results? In 88% of firings the losing streak hit two seasons or less – usually less. Only one black coach has ever lost more than two seasons in a row – Dennis Green with the Cardinals.

Having three straight losing seasons is a common white coach allowance, and, like Fisher and Bradley, a number of white coaches abuse that privilege (see Mike Nolan, Dick Jauron, Dave McGinnis, etc.)

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But Jeff Fisher is special. He has had only six winning seasons in 22 years of coaching.

When you bring up Fisher’s well-documented privilege, his defenders like to remind me that he once made it to a Super Bowl in the last season of last century.

Even that occurrence took a miracle.

It was enabled by “The Music City Miracle” in the first-round playoff game – the still-contested fluke win against the Bills.

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Jeff Fisher finally got fired by the Rams this month after five losing seasons with the franchise.

Jeff Fisher finally got fired by the Rams this month after five losing seasons with the franchise.

(Butch Dill/AP)

Fisher’s greatest lifetime credential was about as arbitrary as a winning lotto ticket.

Yet the indelible image of Kevin Dyson falling just one yard short of sending Super Bowl XXXIV into overtime is the plate Fisher will eat off until his shiny new contract expires in 2018.

Fisher will get paid nearly an entire decade without a single winning season.

And then there is ex-Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Firing Todd Bowles now would turn the Jets into the Browns

Smith almost won a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as his quarterback.

Now THAT would have been a miracle.

Lovie’s 81-63 Bears record was achieved with, according to Grantland, the third worst quarterbacking in NFL history.

Even so, Lovie was fired after going 10-6 for the Bears in 2012.

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Prior to the firing of Smith, linebacker Brian Urhlacher said after the last game: “He gets us ready to play every week … We’re always prepared to play on Sundays, and that’s about as far as he can get us. I don’t see how you couldn’t bring him back as head coach.”

Brandon Marshall added: “Guys are willing to run through a brick wall for (Smith), and when you have a guy like that, it’s hard to find.”

Even still, it was general manager Phil Emery’s expert judgment that Marc Trestman of the Canadian Football League was more qualified to move the Bears forward.

Let’s see how that move worked out for Chicago:

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36-28 – Lovie Smith last 4 seasons with Bears

22-40 – Since Lovie Smith (last 4 years with Marc Trestman and John Fox)

Not so good. Two years later Emery and Trestman would both get fired.

Under Lovie in 2012, the Bears were the third-ranked defense in fewest points allowed. Why would any good general manager mess with that?

Tampa Bay Buccaneers fire head coach Lovie Smith

“We were in a position where if he stayed, he would be picking his fifth offensive coordinator,” said Emery. “Part of it was because I really believe looking at a team that if you’re going to have success, the most important relationship is between the head coach and the quarterback.”

Emery didn’t see 10 wins and a top-3 defense – he saw five offensive coordinators as the big issue.

This was the glass-is-half-empty-on-steroids lens Emery had applied to Smith.

Under Trestman, the Bears defense would immediately crash from No. 3 to No. 30 in the league (both years).

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If this was the lens applied to Smith, why hire a CFL coach who has been away from the NFL for a decade? Emery explained:

“Marc’s got a unique blend of intelligence, thoughtfulness and he’s incredibly competitive, which people don’t always see. He’s perceived as a very quiet, intellectual individual, which he is. But they don’t see all the competitiveness.”

Lovie Smith won an NFC title and took a Rex Grossman led team to the Super Bowl in 2007.

Lovie Smith won an NFC title and took a Rex Grossman led team to the Super Bowl in 2007.

(Jeff Roberson/AP)

There is a lot of pure subjectivity to unpack here, and none of it has to do with performance on an NFL field. Emery continues:

“When he was interviewing, we sat down for five hours in a hotel room outside of Chicago, one on one, he and I, and we talked about preparation for a game, and there was a spot in there when he said a few things to me which made me think, ‘Wow, this guy’s a football coach.’

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Wow. Five hours vibing in a hotel room trumps nine years winning on a football field.

In Trestman, Emery just basically hired the qualities he sees in himself.

This is how whiteness works in the NFL – and across most teams.

This is deeper than the lazy oversimplification of “is such and such racist.”

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Would an outside-the-box CFL choice like Trestman have been hired if he were black?

Absolutely not.

Would Lovie have still been fired if white? Maybe. Maybe not.

Even very good white NFL coaches get fired every now and then for a variety of reasons ranging from philosophical differences to seeking a “new direction.”

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But, in the NFL, discrimination is not really about one team’s firing, it’s about the league reaction to that firing.

DEC. 2, 2009 FILE PHOTO

Chicago’s GM fired Lovie Smith in favor of a coach (Marc Trestman) out of the Canadian league.

(Ryan Remiorz/AP)

After the Bears, Smith immediately interviewed with the Bills, Eagles and Chargers.

They passed.

When four separate teams give the benefit of the doubt to new coaches named Marc Trestman, Chip Kelly, Doug Marrone and Mike McCoy …

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That’s discrimination.

When a good black coach is fired, it’s a stigma. When a good white coach is fired, it’s an opportunity.

When Andy Reid was fired the same year as Smith after posting a 4-12 record with the Eagles, the Chiefs scooped him up five minutes later.

When John Fox, also a fine coach, was fired by the Panthers in 2010, Denver signed him right away. When Fox parted ways with Denver GM John Elway over philosophical differences, the Bears snatched him up too (now 9-21 with Bears).

Lack of playoffs, offense doomed Lovie in Chicago

Fox’s 2-14 record in 2010 or his dispute with Elway in 2014 never defined him – his solid track record did.

The real problem is not merely that Smith can’t get the line of credit of a good veteran coach like John Fox or an overrated one like Fisher – Smith can’t get the same respect afforded Gus Bradley.

Bradley went 4-12, 3-13, 5-11 and 2-12 in his four seasons before the Jags pulled the plug.

While he was losing, the Tampa Bay Bucs hired Lovie Smith to grow its young team in 2014.

Lovie Smith reaches deal to coach Buccaneers: sources

Jeff Fisher wasn't very good at winning games, his last winning campaign came back in 2008.

Jeff Fisher wasn’t very good at winning games, his last winning campaign came back in 2008.

(Tom Gannam/AP)

Smith would go 2-14 and then improve four games to 6-10 as promising rookie and future star Jameis Winston took over at quarterback.

Then Smith was fired.

Players expressed shock and disappointment.

Lavonte David, who developed into a Pro Bowl linebacker under Smith, succinctly tweeted “WTF YO!!!”

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Then he tweeted: “Outside looking in, y’all wouldn’t understand how great a coach/person he is.”

Da’Quan Bowers tweeted: “Somebody has to be given time for the formula to work!! I was rooting for Lovie, thought he changed the mindset.”

In an interview two months later, a “disappointed” Smith – now the head coach at the University of Illinois – agreed:

“I was surprised. Didn’t see it coming. I thought we had a plan and I was a part of that plan. I felt like I put a lot of things in place for the Buccaneers to be successful in years to come.”

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Smith added: “There should be more patience. It takes time. Things don’t happen overnight. You have to have a plan going in and stick with that plan.”

Tampa Bay general manager, Jason Licht, disagreed:

“I think when you have eight wins in two years, three home wins in two years, I think (fans have) been patient enough,” said Licht “It does take time, but I think while you’re building a good football team you can compete.”

NOV. 8, 2015, FILE PHOTO

Lovie Smith needs get the chance to finish what he started with the up-and-coming Buccaneers.

(Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP)

Not only does Licht’s statement parse out “home wins” as a flimsy reason, but passed the buck to “the fans’” patience – not his own. Third, Licht was dead wrong.

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To historical eyes, 2-14 and 6-10 are the first two seasons of Bill Walsh’s coaching career with a young Joe Montana on the roster.

Smith’s “eight wins in two years” was also the precise total of Jimmy Johnson’s first two seasons with a young Cowboys trio of new blood named Troy, Michael and Emmitt.

Tom Landry – the legend Johnson replaced – lost in his first five seasons. Landry’s iconic contemporary, Chuck Noll, started 1-13 and improved to 5-9 as No. 1 draft pick Terry Bradshaw joined him. Sound familiar?

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Licht never personally hired Smith, but was hired a month later by the Bucs. GM’s like to hire their own people, and it is unclear how much Smith’s fate was at Licht’s urging or from ownership.

Those who argue that the Glazers’ past progressive history of hiring black coaches (see Tony Dungy, Raheem Morris) automatically dismisses the prospect of racial bias, do not understand how discrimination operates.

Intent has never needed to be conscious or malicious for the impact to be real – and league-wide.

Also, The Coaches Friends Network values white friendships over black excellence.

Ten days after Smith’s firing, Mike Mularkey was hired to lead Marcus Mariota and the young Titans forward.

In Mularkey’s previous three years coaching, he went 2-7 with the Titans, 2-14 with the Jaguars and 5-11 with the Bills.

Smith’s availability didn’t even garner a Titans interview.

Many reports surfaced at the time that the real reason Lovie was fired was that other teams wanted to interview Lovie’s handpicked offense coordinator Dirk Koetter, and rather than risk losing Keotter, the Bucs fired Lovie to promote Koetter instead.

If these reports are true, it brings up a profound circular sadness to the NFL tale of Lovie Smith.

In Chicago, Emery fired Lovie because he had too many offensive coordinators. In Tampa Bay, when he finally found a good match, he was fired for his success.

Lovie never stood a chance.

And by the way, with today’s media mob, neither does Todd Bowles – no matter how great a coach he is. 

Investing in the future careers of Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg will mean the end of his own head coaching career.

Bank on that.

This is how an NFL web of whiteness works.

And it is all very sad.

The man who spent his entire career winning without a great quarterback finally gets one in Winston.

And he dreams of the exciting prospects of a building a 21st century Noll-Bradshaw or Walsh-Montana.

And when it actually happens, not only will he be deprived the developmental time as Noll and Bradshaw, he won’t be afforded even half the time of Bradley and Bortles.

That’s not merely sad.

That’s a football tragedy.

Tags:
nfl
gus bradley
jeff fisher
lovie smith
todd bowles
john fox
marc trestman
racism

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