If you think about managing an NFL team as a formula, you would break it into a dependent variable (maybe winning, or point differential), and then a series of independent variables (things like coaching, scheme, personnel, luck) that will eventually give you that depenedent variable. So maybe it would be:
POINT DIFFERENTIAL = COACHING + PERSONNEL + STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE + LUCK
My outlook is that a lot of NFL teams have a tough time figuring out how to win because they don’t understand their dependent variable very well and they also have a tough time isolating the independent variables.
To put it another way, they mistake W/L records for the dependent variable because of their “stats are for losers” mindset and this ends up infecting a lot of other decisions that they make. If teams don’t even know the dependent variable in the formula, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to solve for any of the independent variable values.
The firing of Lovie Smith strikes me as a move that doesn’t contemplate winning in the NFL as a formula. To start with, the 2012 Bears were actually probably a little better than their 10-6 record if you look at Expected Win/Loss, where they would have been a little closer to 11 wins than 10 wins. Expected win/loss has more predictive power on following year wins than actual win/loss records do. So I would argue that the Bears made a decision based on the wrong dependent variable when they applied the NFL’s results oriented mentality.
But if you were going to look at the Bears and try to figure out what things need to be addressed in order to make improvements in the organization, what changes would you make, and would a coaching change be needed in order to improve the team? It strikes me that a coaching change would be low on the order of priorities. I realize that the Bears have missed the playoffs a number of times recently, but Smith is still the coach that took them to a Super Bowl and has only had two years of negative SRS during his tenure. He took over a team that had only been positive in SRS one time in the seven previous years.
So what changes would you make to the Bears if you were going to leave in place the parts that aren’t the problem and you were going to try to improve the parts that are a problem? The defense seems fine. They were one of the best, or the best, defense in the league this year depending on which numbers you subscribe to. The special teams seem fine as they were top 10 in the league according to Football Outsiders.
Most of the offensive pieces also seem fine. The Bears have one good wide receiver in Brandon Marshall and one promising young wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery. Jay Cutler isn’t great, but you can win with him. Matt Forte seems like a fine running back and fits with the kind of offense that works well in the NFL today where running backs are as valuable for their receiving skills as their running abilities. The major glaring weakness for the Bears seems to be their offensive line. It stinks. Since Jay Cutler got to Chicago, they’ve given up the 2nd most sacks in the league over that time.
But I think a reasonable question to ask is whether firing Lovie Smith is going to cure this issue with the Bears line, or whether you could address that issue independently and keep Lovie Smith on as coach given that he appears to be an above average NFL coach? That’s obviously a rhetorical question and I would argue that the Bears offensive line probably shouldn’t be any better than it is right now. Here are the Bears’ draft picks in rounds 1-3 going back to 2006.
If I didn’t know anything about the Bears, and only looked at that table, I would expect their offensive line to be bad. Over a seven year span, they took only two linemen in the first three rounds. They used a bunch of their picks to take defensive players and they used two first round picks to acquire Jay Cutler in a trade.
There are a lot of issues at play when any coach is fired and I guess it’s possible that the Bears could hire a better coach than Lovie Smith. But the expectation that they should have when they hire a coach is not that the new coach would be better, as most NFL coaches are actually probably worse than Lovie. Also, the Bears shouldn’t confuse their line problem with a coaching problem, which is what I think a lot of teams do. I guess it’s conceivable that Lovie Smith was the reason that the Bears haven’t addressed their offensive line issues, but the fix to that problem seems as simple as telling Lovie that you think he’s a good coach, but he stinks at addressing offensive issues in the draft and some of that control has to be taken out of his hands.
I think the problem with a lot of decision making in the NFL is that it’s tough to expect that a team that would confuse its offensive line woes with coaching woes is going to be any good at making the necessary changes in order to actually improve. If you had a doctor that couldn’t tell the difference between soft tissue damage and damage to bones, would you expect that doctor to be any good a prescribing treatments?