Lovie, McCarthy are at a crossroads

NFL football seasons are fragile, and in Green Bay and Chicago, two seasons are at a major crossroads. Both teams sit at 4-4, and both are coming off embarrassing losses on Sunday.

But head coaches Mike McCarthy and Lovie Smith can do something about it — as long as the players are still buying into what they’re teaching.

You see, as fragile as football seasons are in this league, players are even more delicate. Every team that struggles, and every team that falls flat down the home stretch of the 2009 season, will have one common denominator that won’t be talked about often in the major media outlets. But it’s a major reality for coaches.

And that’s when the players — the same ones who were talking playoffs back in August — shut it down. They stop playing for their head coach, and they stop believing in the schemes, the meetings and the practice sessions. They become tired of, well, the season, and that starts and ends at the top — because NFL players will turn their backs on a football program in a minute.

Sure, it’s hard to believe, but the worst thing that could happen to a team like the Bears or the Packers at this point in the season is to suffer another quick loss this week, because then the players will start to talk -- and when that happens, you can forget about 2009.

From my perspective as a former player, that’s exactly where the Packers and Bears are right now. Yes, both teams have major issues. The Packers have given up 37 sacks, they blew a fourth-quarter lead against a rookie QB in his first ever pro start, and the way I see it, they’ve taken the field the past two Sundays looking as unprepared as any Packers team I’ve ever seen.

The Bears are no different. Their last two losses — outside of a lackluster win over the Cleveland Browns — have been examples of poor defense. Lovie’s team gave up a total of 886 yards and 86 points to the Bengals and the Cardinals, which could turn out to be the worst losses of Lovie’s tenure as head man in Chicago.

But 4-4 is not 1-7, or 2-6, and as bad as these two teams have been of late, they’re still battling Atlanta, Philly, Carolina, San Fran and the Giants for two wild card spots.

Easy for us to say that McCarthy and Smith are on the hot seats in their respective jobs, but we know better, and I don’t see any possible scenario where they would be out of work next year. No, they’re the coaches of these teams for the near future, but that doesn’t hide the fact that they have to earn back their players’ trust.

But their main job is to find a way to keep their team together, to bring back those high hopes from August, because I guarantee their players are frustrated, and their players have questions about their coaching styles. Losing does that — and losing like both of these teams have been doing in recent weeks can send players over the edge. When that happens, it’s tough to turn a season around at this level.

I saw it myself as a Redskin in 2003. A 3-1 start. But a quick losing streak brought us back to reality, and the team started to slide. We all questioned the leadership from inside the walls of the locker room, and by late November, we were done. Guys had packed it in, and what was once a promising season in early October turned into a dreadful finish, a coaching change and a whole new locker room the following spring. And that’s just how fragile these situations can be.

Can McCarthy and Smith find a way to get a win this week and make a November push that leads to meaningful games in December?

Their first step is to make real adjustments, not just something they say at the weekly press conferences. Get in the minds of the players, find an even ground and work toward something together that the players believe in. Now, 4-4 is not the time to be tough as a head coach in Green Bay and Chicago. Instead, win back the players at all costs, because it’s obvious from their performance on the field that they aren’t buying it right now.

Former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs was great at this. A losing streak? A poor performance? He met with the team’s veterans, asked questions and tried to find out if the players had adjustment ideas that needed to be addressed. He was open to the players, and that’s why they always bought into what he said and what he taught on the field.

We have to understand that there are always ways to improve the game plan for Sundays, but in the case of the Packers and the Bears, that game plan won’t work unless the players are on the train with the coaches.

And right now, their play tells me that they aren’t fully on board anymore.

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