Writers of Pro Football Prospectus 2008

22 Dec 2006

Lovie Smith Is a Genius

My column this week reflects my belief that Lovie Smith is one of the truly great defensive minds, and that he doesn't get enough credit.

Posted by: Michael David Smith on 22 Dec 2006

46 comments, Last at 27 Dec 2006, 1:00pm by SJM


by emcee fleshy (atl/sd) (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:26pm

Sure am glad we passed over this guy for Mora Jr.

by Josh (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:31pm

Aside from winning the Super Bowl, to get the genius label Smith needs to have his Bears stop one of the top offenses in the SB, either Indy or SD.

by B (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:38pm

Considering Smith's apparent blindness when it comes to the QB position, maybe we should give him the "savant" label until he can do what the other geniuses did, fix the problems their team has on the other side of the ball.

by MCS (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:44pm

Which one of these guys doesn't fit?

The List:
Neale - Forerunner of MLB
Landry - Pioneered the 4-3. Creator of Nickel
Stram - Creator of triple stack. Creator of many of the first zone defenses
Arnsparger - Forerunner of 3-4
Ryan - Creator of 4-6
Belichick - User of 3-4

Belichick may be a great innovator, but based on the evidence listed in the article, I do not think he fits with the rest of the coaches.

by JJcruiser (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:45pm

But the two coaches who most often get the credit for that defense — Dungy and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin — have had significantly less impressive defenses than Smith has recently.

Uh, personnel differences maybe account for that? How about giving Angelo the genius label?

I agree with 2 and 3; Lovie needs to be able to hide his weaknesses and win the big one before you should go throwing the "G" word around. Especially since, as you noted in the column itself, he basically runs the same defense as a number of other people do, he just gets better execution from his players (and has better plays with which to do it). At a minimum, putting him in with Walsh or Brown or Belichick is heresy until he wins at least one superbowl.

by dbt (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:53pm

#4: There's no such thing as a 4-6 defense (that I know of). It's named after Doug Plank, hard-hitting safety for the Bears who wore #46. Ironically, the number is worn again by Chris Harris, second year hit-first, cover-later safety for Lovie's Bears.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 3:58pm

I'm not sure the article presents much of an argument for Smith as a "genius". The distinction that I feel needs to be drawn is between "great coach" and "genius" or "great offensive/defensive mind". Great coaches consistently create great units, which play above their talent levels. Smith is a great defensive coach, and the article argues very cogently to that effect. To my mind, and seemingly to MDS's, judging by the other examples given, "genius" (and I think also "great offensive/defensive mind") entails strategic/tactical brilliance, of the sort exhibited by Belichick's defensive game-plans for coping with the Bills and the Rams, and conspicuously absent in the Bears' failure to cover Steve Smith. It's about a combination of Xs and Os and play-calling.

MDS claims the "loaf" approach constitutes an innovation of the sort which could justify the genius tag; I'm unconvinced. To me, this sounds like an excellent motivational technique, but not a true innovation. If Lovie came up with further such novel and successful motivational devices, we might be tempted to call him a "motivational genius". That would seem fair enough. For now, he'll have to live with being a great defensive coach - a superb motivator and teacher whose players can be relied on to execute almost flawlessly and play to the limits of their potential, but who has done nothing differently to a number of other coaches, only the same things better. He doesn't have to be a "genius" to be a guy most teams in the league would dearly love to have in charge.

On the flipside, being a genius does not necessarily make one a great coach. Just ask the Lions, and their 30th ranked DVOA offense.

by Matt (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:02pm


I tend to agree. Lovie Smith is a defensive genius because he's a good motivator? I don't see the logical connection, there. He's done a good job implementing the Tampa 2 and has a great group of players to play it (e.g. Urlacher might be the best Tampa 2 MLB ever). But he's not a genius.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:05pm

The Belichick "genius" argument tends to stem from the flexibility he has shown in switching from one defense to another, but in particular to the highly taylored defensive gameplans which stopped the dominating offenses of the Bills, Rams and Colts in the post-season.

by Kal (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:24pm

I guess it's hard for me to label any coach a genius without them doing something significantly innovative or changing the way the game is played. While Smith is clearly a good defensive coach - one of the best out there - I don't see the innovation that would let me label him as such. Point of fact, I see signs that he is very much unable to innovate, as the Bears don't adjust well to certain opponents.

Meanwhile, Belichick does weird things like have a 2 lineman set one week and a 5 lineman set the next. The Pats D and the schemes involved are just craziness. Plus, he's shown repeatedly how much of a student of the game he is and all the weird-ass stuff that he knows. Add that to his track record with the Pats and their consistently good D despite ridiculous losses to the team, and it seems kind of ludicrous to compare the two reasonably.

by MCS (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:31pm

The dash was a typo.

by adwred (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:32pm

Seems to me MDS is just saying if you use the term genius on the other coaches, use it on Lovie Smith. Personally, I won't use the word genius to describe anyone but myself.

by jebmak (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 4:45pm

#6 To correct a correction comment; that isn't ironic, it is coincidental.

(I hope that someone corrects me now, then we can get a correction train going)

by JMM (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 5:15pm

For an article to discuss coaches who have brought defensive innovations to the NFL and not mention Chuck Noll and Bud Carson or Bill Cowher and Dick LeBeau is incomplete at best.

RE #13:

"(I hope that someone corrects me now, then we can get a correction train going)"

Didn't you mean: "I hope that someone corrects me now. Then we can get a correctrion train going." ?

by calig23 (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 5:30pm


The omission of Dick Lebeau seemed surprising, given that he invented the "zone blitz." That's certainly more innovative than "loafs" or Belichek's creative gameplans.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 5:36pm

This Indy fan has no problems attributing genius status to Belichick. He and his teams have shown incredible guile and adaptability and more oftenthan not, make their D packages fit their changing personnel. Injuries? No problem. Contain the greatest show on turf? No problem. Shut down Indy at what may have been its offensive peak? No problem.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 5:40pm

If Lovie Smith is a genius for consistently getting his defense to perform on a high level, then so is Brian Billick. The Ravens have a slightly higher defensive total DVOA (but not weighted) this year, so I'm not sure one could make the statement "Smith has built the best defense in the league in Chicago" without qualifications.
Plus Billick has a Super Bowl ring, which some people here seem to think is necessary for the genius label.

by Marko (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 5:56pm

Billick is (supposedly) an offensive coach, not a defensive coach. That's why he's not considered a defensive genius. His defensive coordinators (Marvin Lewis when the Ravens won the Super Bowl, later Mike Nolan, now Rex Ryan, son of Buddy Ryan) and Baltimore's personnel department deserve the credit for Baltimore's outstanding defenses in the recent past.

by jonnyblazin (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 6:12pm

re: 18
Its clear Marvin Lewis is a great defensive coach, I mean, look at those great Bengal defenses of the past few years! And no one wants to go up against Nolan's ferocious 49er defense (ranked 30th in the league).
I don't think Billick is any kind of genius, but I would argue that if one was to say Lovie Smith is a genius, then Billick should also be considered as such.

by blahblahfalcons (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 6:19pm

I like #12's philosophy, but I don't have any problem with calling Lovie a genius. I don't think it's one of those things where you need to hit a certain milestone before it applies. tho it's also not synonymous with "good head coach" - cf. Gruden, Martz.

by Marko (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 6:36pm

19: You're missing the point. It wasn't that Marvin Lewis and Mike Nolan are great defensive coaches, although they did have success as defensive coordinators in Baltimore. It is that Billick doesn't have much responsibility for the defense in Baltimore. That's not his area of expertise. Therefore, he is not a defensive genius.

Would you say Dungy is an offensive genius because of the success of Indy's offense? No, of course not. Tom Moore runs the offense in Indy. Dungy's background is on defense, and that's where his expertise lies. Not that you could tell from Indy's defense . . . .

by J Frazier (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 7:10pm

Only Smith knows the loaf and he deserves the best defensive team of the year but the offense is standing in the way, he will be approaching the Super Bowl like he did last year , he may even make it. but he knows he can even be better next year and thats the scary part...he'll may be the the legend of coaches in the NFL.

by NF (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 7:38pm

I think Bill Belichick's father had the best response to calling anyone in football a genius. From a quote in Halberstam's book, to a reporter writing about his son: "You realize you are talking about a man who walks up and down a football field."

by noah of the ark (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 7:41pm

Football geniuses are overrated. Any coach has any measure of success over a period of time, and all of a sudden he's a genius. If anyone's a genius, it's the personnel people who pick the players that make the coaches (and other fellow players) look so freakin' good.
Belichick and Bill Walsh are the only real geniuses from my time I can think of (Belichick because the personnel he has doesn't seem to match his accomplishments).

by SlantNGo (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 10:07pm

Come on guys, there are no geniuses in football! A genius is someone like Norman Einstein.

by The Ninjalectual (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 10:08pm

FO writers, or maybe just Aaron, often note that defensive excellence rarely carries over from year to year like offensive excellence does. Smith's Bears have done that. Say the Bears D carries over into 2007 at the same level they are at now. Can we consider that some sort of innovation?

P.S. I agree with #3, savant seems more appropriate.

by Mr Shush (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 10:47pm

#27 - I don't think so, no. Not unless there was some identifiable and novel idea of Smith's which lay behind that consistency.

One of the best (non football-specific) definitions of genius that I have heard goes something like: clever men have great ideas that make you go, "Why didn't I think of that?" Geniuses have ideas that make you go, "I would never have thought of that in a million years." I submit that Smith's excellence is of the former type.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 10:52pm

Some other things you didn't mention about Landry. Landry's defense revolved around reading the offense before the snap to see what they were going to do instead of "chase the guy with the ball." Basically, modern day defensive adjustments were created by him.

Landry also popularized the shotgun formation in the NFL. Before it was used rarely and most often teams ran the ball out of that formation. When you see Peyton Manning drop back into the shotgun, he's got Landry to thank for that.

Landry also introduced the track star to WR. Bob Hayes was a RB in college and generally it was thought that you put the fastest guy on your team at tailback. Landry put Hayes at WR were he flourished and thus gave a ton of track guys the chance to be great football players instead of playing out of position at tailback.

by Yakuza Rich (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 10:57pm


While I tend to think Belichick is a bit overhyped on some accounts, his "genius" comes from taking the 3-4 to a different level. The Steelers and Dick Lebeau (who should probably be on the list) created a 3-4 scheme that revolved around the versatility of the down lineman and their ability to zone blitz from their down linemen. Belichick took that idea, but made the OLB the versatile cog of the defense, allowing him to stand up or go into a 3 point stance and then either rush the passer, drop back in coverage or take on the run.

I agree with one of the earlier posters in that I think most of these guys were "savants." I think the only genius I truly remember was Landry because he did so many brilliant things on both sides of the ball (shotgun passing formation, 4-3 concept, pre-snap reads by defense, moving the fastest guy on the team to WR instead of RB)

by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 12/22/2006 - 11:54pm

Part of the other thing with Belichick is that I don't really know why they call the defense a 3-4. A lot of the time it's a 3-4, sure, but it's had 2 down linemen and 5 linebackers on occasion, and five linemen and two linebackers, and four linemen and three linebackers. It'd probably be more properly called a "flex six" defense, or something like that, where basically other than the NT, the linebackers and linemen position can be mixed and matched as needed.

by PerlStalker (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 1:08am

Regardless of the "genius" tag, it's interesting to see how good coaches adjust their defenses. B.B.'s wackiness with the Pats D has already been discussed.

Shanahan and Denver's defensive coordinator had to come up with a way to deal with KC's (and eventually SD's) exceptional receiving TEs. They call it the Big Nickel. They replace one of the LBs with a safety instead of the CB you usually see in a nickel. The safety, of course, gives them a better coverage guy on the TE without sacrificing much in run support. IMO, it generally washes out with the downgrade in blocking one sees with receiving TEs.

by Jeff W (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 2:20am

Why isn't Dick LeBeau on the "genius" list?

by thad (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 1:09pm

Landry also used the "flex" defense. Two DL's off the line.

by Jim in Pittsburgh (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 3:36pm

#32 -- I was thinking the same thing. Inventor of the zone blitz for goodness sake.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 3:55pm


Maybe because under his tenure, he coached one of the worst teams of the last 20 years to the worst record in their history (2-14 Bengals). In fact, his entire HC tenure was sort of nightmarishly bad. That might have something to do why he doesn't have the genius label. Lovie Smith has made some good Chicago teams and has built up some other teams defenses. He's sort of been the defensive answer of King Midas.

by Balaji Sarpeshkar (not verified) :: Sat, 12/23/2006 - 7:13pm

#35: On the same token, can Belichick still be considered a genius since he never accomplished anything in Cleveland? I mean, if he was such a genius, surely he could have won a Super Bowl or 3.
Oh, what's that? He had infinitely more talent in New England, much like LeBeau had much more talent in Pittsburgh?

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Sun, 12/24/2006 - 1:28am


Dick LeBeau has now won 1 SB as a DC, none as a HC.

Bill Belichick won 3 as a HC, 2 as an assistant. He also had a playoff appearance in Cleveland. Dick LeBeau has never done anything outside of Pittsburgh, whatsoever.

Belichick did poorly in Cleveland, but has done very well at two other places. Meanwhile Dick LeBeau has only gotten one HC stint, never once had a .500 or better record, and has mostly been simply a good defensive coordinator. He never had any success as a HC.

In terms of personnel, yeah those were bad Bengals teams, but can you really give someone the "genius" label based solely on unrealized potential?

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Sun, 12/24/2006 - 3:58am

Another thing people are overlooking regarding Belichick is the number of old and forgotten offensive line-ups he's brought back and used in new ways. It's certainly made the game more exciting. I don't remember seeing a lot of teams playing five-wide regularly five-plus years ago. Now everyone's employing it, and while it had been used sparingly before the Pats employed it, they showed how it could be used fairly regularly as a way to create unfair match-ups, a way to shave DBs off of target receivers on short routes, and a fairly new way to gain short yardage when your running game isn't sparking. I'm sure some of that has to be credited to Charlie Weis as well, but it's hardly the only historic formation Belichick and co. have laid claim to and helped to revolutionize.

Belichick also did well in Cleveland, but had to deal with a lame-duck team in his last year that everyone knew was moving to Baltimore. No coach in that situation would have managed a successful team, but this has been beaten to death on these forums before.

by JMM (not verified) :: Sun, 12/24/2006 - 11:06am

I haven't read anyone make the case that LeBeau is a great head coach. However he has developed and introduced significant innovations in defense now used by many teams in the NFL. The article listed coaches who deserve a genius label for defensive systems. LeBeau's system was developed by him, he has had success with it and it has been copied by other coaches. I'll throw Cowher in with LeBeau (see post #14) as a case can be made Cowher was a significant contributor.

While Belichick has had remarkable success both with the Giants and with the Pats, I don't see his contribution to the system. Certainly he knows how to use the system and has had great players, but I don't see him as an innovator, I see him more as a practitioner.

I also don’t see how Bud Carson can be left off the list. The development of the “Tampa 2�, for which Lovie Smith is credited as being a genius (for proposing that players hustle) can be traced to Carson and Noll building the Steel Curtain of the ‘70’s.

If “genius� is for innovation, then certainly LeBeau, Cowher, Carson and Noll should be part of the discussion. If “genius� is for excellence in practice, well, I still think they need to be a part of the discussion.

by Jim (not verified) :: Sun, 12/24/2006 - 10:37pm

I don't know, I think Lovie is a little too dogmatic with his system(Carolina playoff game.) The Bears D has been great but I think a lot of that has to do with superior personnel. I don't care for his choice in offensive coordinators either.

by Crushinator (not verified) :: Mon, 12/25/2006 - 3:51pm


Also worth noting are the offenses in Lovie's division during his tenure.

by Justanothersteve (not verified) :: Tue, 12/26/2006 - 12:06pm

Re: #32/34 and others - Dick LeBeau did not - repeat - did not invent the zone blitz. He may have refined it, but he did not invent it. LeBeau learned it from Capers (who used it extensively in the early days of the Carolina Panthers), who learned it in the USFL. See question 4 at link.

by Joel Dias-Porter (not verified) :: Tue, 12/26/2006 - 1:24pm

That is incorrect. LeBeau developed the 'Zone Blitz' as the DC in Cincy when they went to the Super Bowl. Creating a novel defense that takes your team to the SB is certainly something.

by Joel Dias-Porter (not verified) :: Tue, 12/26/2006 - 1:27pm

No, you have it backwards. Capers Learned the ZB defense when he was the Steelers DC and LeBeau was the Secondary Coach. That preceded Capers job in Carolina.

by Martial (not verified) :: Tue, 12/26/2006 - 3:43pm

regarding zone blitzes and authorship:

Bill Arnsparger in his Coaching Defensive Football says at one point that there is nothing new under the sun, that no one "invents", but they do build on and refine. Which is apropos as Lebeau cites Arnsparger as giving him the idea that turned into the Cincinnati zone-blitz.

by SJM (not verified) :: Wed, 12/27/2006 - 1:00pm

Nothing in this article convinces me that Lovie Smith is any more of a genius than Gregg Williams, who has coached top defenses in Tennessee, Buffalo, and Washington. Both are excellent defensive coaches, and neither has really distinguished himself from the other.