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Football Notes

Smith revved up to be reunited with old running mate

By Albert R. Breer
May 16, 2010

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It was nine years ago, but Lovie Smith remembers the halcyon days in the Edward Jones Dome as if they were yesterday.

Mike Martz, in his second year as Rams head coach, imported Smith from the Buccaneers to fix the team’s defense, and before anyone knew it, one side of the ball in St. Louis was mirroring the other.

It was football on amphetamines. Everything the Rams did was blindingly fast, and with the defense and offense in philosophical lockstep, St. Louis marched to a 14-2 record and rolled to the Super Bowl, where it was upended by the Patriots in one of the game’s great upsets.

Smith’s idea is to bring yesterday back to today in Chicago. And that’s a big part of why Martz is again working in tandem with him, ushered in as the Bears’ offensive coordinator in January.

The vision for the Bears, different as the personnel might be, is the same as it was for the Rams back then: Play ball at a frantic pace. Fitting, too, given the heightened pressure in Chicago, where it seems so many jobs are on the line.

“We had just a great experience [in 2001], all the way through, even though it didn’t did end the way we wanted,’’ Smith said. “Going into those games, we knew that, for the most part, we were going to put points on the board, and that’s such a great thing for a defensive coach, knowing we could play a certain brand of ball.

“Fans love defense, but most go to see offense, and we had all of that. We had a lot of special players on that roster, the Marshall Faulks and Kurt Warners. And we were exciting to watch — fast-break offense, fast-break defense, just a fast team overall. That’s what we want to be, and I think we have a fast team here in Chicago.’’

What Smith & Co. don’t have is the public favor they once engendered. General manager Jerry Angelo hired Smith in 2004, and the Bears went from 5-11 to 11-5 to 13-3, making the Super Bowl following the 2006 season.

Things have been decidedly uneven since. The Bears have gone 23-25 the last three years, and increased competition from Green Bay and Minnesota made them an afterthought at 7-9 in 2009.

But worse was the fashion in which things have gone down. The once-proud defense has ranked in the bottom half of the league the last two years, and the offense lost its trademark ability to grind it out on the ground while remaining inconsistent through the air, even after adding quarterback Jay Cutler.

At the heart of the problem: turnovers. On offense, a propensity to give the ball away negated any growth. On defense, the inability to create takeaways marked declining playmaking overall.

“You can’t win games like that,’’ Smith said. “To lose the turnover ratio the way we did, you just can’t win like that. That’s what we want to correct.’’

That ties back into that old Ram philosophy: Establish the offense as a juggernaut, get leads, hold them by possessing the ball, and build on them by forcing turnovers from a trailing opponent.

This kind of “playing downhill’’ is what Martz and Smith subscribe to.

“We have a ‘Chicago Bear philosophy’ on offense and defense; I believe in it, and with Mike Martz, I know it’ll work,’’ said Smith, who first worked with Martz on Larry Marmie’s staff at Arizona State from 1988-91. “He’s with a coach now that believes in him, and he knows that, and that’ll help him. And he knows what we can do defensively. We have that type of trust because of our track record and history.’’

There are a few things, though, that Smith has to count on.

The issues with a tattered offensive line will have to work themselves out. And Martz will have to revitalize the run game — “There’s a misnomer there, because Mike’s an excellent run-game football coach,’’ Smith says — behind Matt Forte and free agent Chester Taylor, something new line coach Mike Tice should help with.

The expectation is that a young stable of receivers (Devin Hester, Johnny Knox, Devin Aromashodu, Earl Bennett) will develop under Martz, and that having tackle-type tight end Brandon Manumaleuna will give him creative license to use versatile Greg Olsen.

And then there’s Cutler, who threw a career-high 26 interceptions after Chicago yielded a king’s ransom of draft capital to acquire him.

“Beyond just Mike, for Jay to have a Hall of Fame guy like Kurt Warner to call on from time to time, and to be able to see what Kurt did in that offense, it’s invaluable,’’ Smith said. “What’s best for the team in general is bringing in good coaches. But as far as having the best possible person to work with Jay, a quarterback guru that has a track record of taking guys to a higher level, that’s Mike Martz.

“It’s such a good fit. They’re both cerebral guys, and both guys get it.’’

Smith thinks he can get the defense covered. If motivated, newcomer Julius Peppers could be a monster off the edge, and the coach also sees linebackers Brian Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa, who combined to play in three games in 2009, as “acquisitions’’ as they return from injury. And Chris Harris returns from Carolina to fill a hole at safety.

Taking all these high-profile moves into account, it’s clear that it’s “win now’’ time in Chicago. It won’t be easy, to be sure, with the NFC North an increasingly daunting place. But for everything else’s that’s changed, Smith says the pressure he’s feeling is no different than it ever has been.

“Every day I’ve had a coaching job, I’ve felt the need to win,’’ Smith said. “The goal is always to win. Some years, we wanted to win but things just weren’t in place. That’s not the case now.

“We feel like things are in place for us to win now. We need to, and I feel like we’re going to.’’

INSIDE TRACK TO REDEMPTION?

Arena League could be just what Russell needs

That JaMarcus Russell (left) has been unemployed for a week and a half is hardly stunning, given a three-year career arc that looks like a ski slope. Ousted from Oakland, Russell is the first quarterback taken first overall in the draft to wash out of his original home this quick since the merger.

Epic failure? Sure. Salvageable? Anything’s possible.

But the place for salvation could surprise you: the Arena Football League. And not just to humble a 24-year-old who essentially has made $39 million to fall on his face at a record rate.

Playing in the AFL could force Russell to work on areas of weakness. His arm strength would be mitigated as an asset, and because of the pace of the game, he’d be forced to become a better decision-maker, get rid of the ball quicker, and put more touch on his passes.

“It would really help the process,’’ said an NFL personnel man. “The three-step game, learning to get rid of the ball, processing information quicker, all those things there would make him better.’’

In a play-action passing game, with a strong running attack that would allow him to strike downfield, there could be some future in the NFL for Russell.

But whether he gets through his issues or goes to the Arena League and comes back stronger, it’s clear that a lot of scouts misevaluated this guy.

“I don’t think he was overly accurate in college,’’ said the personnel man, “and you’re not going to all of a sudden be accurate in the pros if you aren’t at that level.

“But the No. 1 thing you can see is he can’t read defenses. He forces the ball. He can make all the throws, and you could see that when they beat Philly — he made throws to beat Philly — but they played well defensively, and everything had to fall in line for him.

“It’ll have to be the right system for it to work for him — give him half-field reads, quarter-field reads, and a strong running game. He can’t be chucking it 40 times a game.’’

TAYLOR A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE

‘Toxic’ behavior fits psychologist’s profile

The charges against Lawrence Taylor (left) — third-degree rape, patronizing a prostitute — are as tawdry as they come, but the circumstance, sadly, is not all together shocking.

And count noted clinical psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum — who authored books related to Taylor’s problems titled “Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols’’ (2005) and “Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side’’ (2009) — among those who think Taylor’s fame actually created a predisposition for this to come about. It’s part of what Teitelbaum calls the “Toxic Athlete Profile.’’

“I did write a passage on Taylor in the book, and he stands out, because he’s always been reckless, and he’d describe himself as a ‘system breaker,’ ’’ Teitelbaum said. “He’d tell you himself, ‘I live in the fast lane, that’s all I’ve ever done.’ ’’

Teitelbaum said the sense of entitlement and recklessness was likely in place far before Taylor became a Giant.

And while the Giants weren’t at fault for the issues themselves, they did little to fix the problem. Teitelbaum cited a $2 million life insurance policy the Giants took out on Taylor — because the club doubted he would live past 30 — as proof they were aware of the problems.

“The Giants aren’t culpable, but their treatment of him served as reinforcement,’’ Teitelbaum said. “All the small things — falling asleep in meetings, not showing up — were met with a slap on the wrist. With someone else, there’d be big penalties, but LT got treated in a special way.’’

The entitlement aspect of this has come up in the Ben Roethlisberger saga, and Teitelbaum finds the fact that women have come into the picture particularly disturbing.

Can the power complex be fixed?

“With Taylor, it’ll be more difficult, because he’s been that way for so long,’’ Teitelbaum said. “Roethlisberger has a better shot. Very often, getting caught serves as that deterrent for straightening out, and maybe it will for Ben. But for Taylor, he’s no longer active. What’s his life going forward?’’

Etc.

McDermott retooling Eagles’ defensive front
Eagles defensive coordinator Sean McDermott had been groomed to replace the legendary, late Jim Johnson for some time, but he still had growing pains in his first year running the show. His job wasn’t made easier by losing the defense’s two traffic controllers — safety Brian Dawkins (to free agency) and middle linebacker Stewart Bradley (to injury) — before the season. Everything fell apart in back-to-back losses to the archrival Cowboys to end the season. But the problems the defense had aren’t curtailing McDermott’s power. He’s planning to open the playbook and incorporate more 3-4 fronts to create more flexibility. The Eagles’ best incumbent pass rusher, Trent Cole, has experience playing on his feet as a “Joker’’ who was moved around the defense, and Philadelphia loaded up on malleable edge-rushing hybrids in the draft, selecting Michigan’s Brandon Graham, Washington’s Daniel Te’o-Neishem, and Clemson’s Ricky Sapp, and traded to get an experience 3-4 OLB in Alex Hall from Cleveland. McDermott sounded confident last week that wide-bodied Antonio Dixon could play the nose, and rock-solid tackle Broderick Bunkley would find a place in that style of front. Still, the biggest question would have to be whether the Eagles have enough large interior linemen to play the three spots up front, covering Bradley and newcomer Ernie Sims at linebacker. But overall, the idea is sound. Philadelphia was burned badly last year by Dallas’s screen game, and having more players who can rush and cover will help fix that problem.

New beginning for end
At draft time each year, some players are considered athletic and versatile enough to excel in any team’s system. And others are seen as more specific to a type of offense or defense. And some people think all that stuff is poppycock. It’ll be put to the test in Washington this fall. New Redskin Adam Carriker entered the league in 2007 considered the perfect 5-technique to play end in a 3-4 front. Shoulder surgery ended his 2009 campaign before it started, but that wasn’t the only reason he was jettisoned by the Rams after the season. St. Louis’s willingness to give up the 13th pick in 2007 for what amounted to a bag of kicking tees (part of a deal that had the Rams and Redskins swapping spots in the fifth and seventh rounds) was, at least in part, due to his awkward fit in Steve Spagnuolo’s aggressive, attacking 4-3 front. Carriker admitted as much at last weekend’s minicamp and is hopeful that a reunion with former St. Louis defensive coordinator Jim Haslett will provide the shot in the arm his career seems to need. Washington expects Carriker to put on 15 pounds, getting up to 315, to play the space-eating role an end in that defense fills.

Jets expect nickel to have value
At the time of the trade for Antonio Cromartie, the Jets said one benefit of the deal was that it freed them from having to select a cornerback with the 28th pick in the draft. Two months later, New York selected Kyle Wilson (above) anyway. The reasons? One: Coach Rex Ryan can’t get enough cover corners, who free him to be as creative as he wants to be with his passing-down fronts and blitz packages. Two, and more compellingly: Wilson was too good a player to pass up in that slot. From a physical standpoint, sources from two teams told the Globe that Wilson was atop their draft boards at the position, outdistancing Joe Haden, the seventh overall pick, in that regard. Additionally, Wilson was a consideration for the Browns in the slot that Haden was taken. Some off-field and intangible issues caused the ex-Boise State star to slip after Cleveland passed, but there’s a feeling that his perceived overconfidence will fit in fine with Ryan’s swaggering Jets. As such, Ryan won’t back off with expectations. “He’s coming in here to be a starting nickel on the best defense in football,’’ the coach said. “I think he’s going to be great.’’

Three and out
The frustration of Chargers outside linebacker Shawne Merriman was apparent with the firing of agent Tom Condon and the hiring of another cleanup hitter in David Dunn. But Merriman’s bigger problem, in facilitating a new contract or a trade, is a lack of leverage. Not only is he bound to the team with his tender as a restricted free agent, but the Chargers also have his bookend (Shaun Phillips) signed long-term and drafted his potential replacement (Larry English) in the first round in 2009. So San Diego can wait for (a) the trade offer it wants or (b) Merriman to come aboard . . . Count on there being a market for safety O.J. Atogwe, if the Rams do indeed cut him loose June 1, when they need to make a decision on whether to release him or offer a one-year tender worth 110 percent of his 2009 salary ($6.3 million). One concern is how he’s worn down late in seasons, and after an injury-afflicted 2009, he might have to do a one-year, make-good deal somewhere. Teams like Miami and Philadelphia would make a lot of sense . . . It really is a shame that the Associated Press voters handed Defensive Rookie of the Year honors to Brian Cushing a second time. The league and the union have worked to fight the use of performance-enhancing drugs in football, and they get left holding the bag because a bunch of people wanted to use that trophy to make a silly point about the process. My top three for Defensive Rookie, having eliminated Cushing: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews, Lions safety Louis Delmas, and Redskins end/linebacker Brian Orakpo.

Albert R. Breer can be reached at abreer@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @albertbreer. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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