Rewriting History: What If Lovie Smith Had Hired Marc Trestman In 2004?

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Lovie Smith. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune)

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — “Why didn’t the Bears just hire Marc Trestman as the offensive coordinator?”

With all the criticism flying around Chicago these days, that’s a common question being asked, despite the fact that Trestman was very happy as the head coach of the Montreal Alouettes and was only going to leave that job for an NFL head coaching position.

But what if I told you that the Bears could have hired Trestman as their offense coordinator over a decade ago? And what if I told you that the head coach that passed on him is the same head coach that will be standing on the opposite sideline Sunday at Solider Field?

That’s right. When Lovie Smith became the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2004, Trestman was one of the coaches he interviewed to be the offensive coordinator. Trestman had just been let go in Oakland where Bill Callahan’s entire staff was wiped out following a 4-12 season.  But Smith passed on Trestman and instead hired Terry Shea, who only lasted one season before Ron Turner was brought in.

Considering Smith’s biggest failure in Chicago was not establishing a consistent offense to compliment his always stout defense, it’s certainly ironic that Trestman ended up replacing him as the head coach, a move that few doubted in 2013 when the new guy delivered Chicago the No. 2 scoring offense in the league.

But in Year 2, that offense has dipped to 19th in scoring and, more noticeably, Trestman has faced fair questions about whether or not he has lost the locker room — something no one ever had to worry about during Smith’s nine years in Chicago.

So would Lovie Smith and Marc Trestman have been the tag team that the Bears really needed 10 years ago?

It’s fun to think about, but pretty hard to project. Remember, Terry Shea was stuck with Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel and Jonathan Quinn at quarterback after Rex Grossman got hurt early in 2004. Would Trestman have done much better with those guys? Maybe slightly better. But slightly better might have been good enough to keep his job, as the Bears did lose four games by six or less points during that 5-11 campaign.

And had Trestman been retained from there, it’s very possible he could have gotten more out of Grossman and/or Kyle Orton, which begs the question: Would a Marc Trestman-led offense been enough to beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLI?

At the very least, Trestman may have gotten enough out of Grossman/Orton that former general manager Jerry Angelo might not have felt the need to trade Orton and two first round draft picks for Jay Cutler in 2009.

Whoa, no Cutler in Chicago?

All right, at this point, we’ve found ourselves deep into one of those “inverted hypotheticals” Trestman doesn’t like to talk about. (And, for the record, when asked about it back in training camp, Trestman declined to comment on his 2004 interview with Smith, although he did confirm that it happened.)

Unfortunately, we’ll never know what a Marc Trestman-led offense would have looked like paired with a Lovie Smith-led defense — at least not in Chicago — but we will get the chance to see the head-to-head pairing Sunday as Smith’s Buccaneers visit Soldier Field.

And, let’s be honest. This is, um, awkward.

“The way I look at it, you don’t want to let Lovie down,” Bears cornerback Tim Jennings told 87.7 The Game about facing his former coach Sunday. “I was a product of his, so I want to go out there and play the best that I’m able to play.”

Let’s be clear: That quote from Jennings is nothing more than a very meaningful comment about how much respect he has for Lovie Smith — a respect shared by most players who played for Lovie. It is not a referendum on the current coaching staff. Believe it or not, not every comment made about Lovie Smith is a smack in the face to Marc Trestman or Mel Tucker. They are all different people.

But at the same time, how many times do you have players this motivated to play well for the coach on the opposing sideline?

For Trestman, Tucker and especially Bears general manager Phil Emery, they probably all wish they weren’t playing this game Sunday. It’s really a no-win situation for them. Beat the Bucs and everyone will say they should have beat a 2-8 team. But lose to the Bucs, and the outcries for major change at Halas Hall will be louder than ever this season.

Think about it. For Emery, Lovie is the guy he let go against the wishes of the great majority of the Bears’ locker room. For Trestman, Lovie is the guy he replaced with much less success thus far. And for Tucker, Lovie is the guy whose defense he inherited and was forced to run with the same exact verbiage in 2013, when the unit was arguably the worst the Bears franchise has ever seen.

Of course, for Lovie, Trestman is the guy he didn’t hire in 2004. And from there, Lovie ended up burning through four offensive coordinators in his nine years of fielding sub-par offenses in Chicago.

Yup, Sunday is going to be awkward. So awkward you’ll watch every minute of it.

Adam Hoge covers the Bears for 87.7 The Game and TheGameChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AdamHoge.

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