It's over for Lovie Smith. He knows it, too. He's no dummy. He is never going to win a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears. He's never going to get there with Jay Cutler. Even his pet defense, now aging and easy to dupe, is never going to win one for him.
It's not that he has been awful for nine years. He has done some excellent things. But when you keep driving in the same direction, eventually you run out of road. That's where Smith is now as the Bears' coach. He has nothing else to do, nowhere else to go . . .
It's just time. The Bears need to fire him. It's not an angry thing, but just a realization that it's never going to happen in Chicago with Smith. He got the Bears close a few years ago, but has reached the highest height he ever will in this job.
From here, the Bears are going to have to start rebuilding the defense and also the big one: decide after next season whether to give Cutler another big contract. I wouldn't do it, but it's a good bet that the Bears will. They haven't bothered to start developing anyone else, after all. They wouldn't know how to do it, anyway.
And they are hanging on to their dreams that Cutler has magic. He doesn't. But Smith's defensive-mindedness surely isn't going to make the most of Cutler. Neither will any assistant coach Smith ever hires.
It was just too much imagery Sunday. The Bears lost 21-13 to their rival, Green Bay, who won the division title right there on Soldier Field of all places. It was Green Bay's sixth straight win over Smith.
Meanwhile, the Bears, once 7-1, have now lost five of six, and are likely to miss the playoffs entirely. It is a collapse even worse than last year's.
You cannot miss the playoffs five times in six years and still be the head coach. Even the defense, Smith's specialty, is letting down the Bears now.
Imagery? Cutler had the ball on the Bears' 3-yard line with just under a minute to go. Would this be his defining moment? The Drive? No. He did nothing, and the clock just kind of ran out on him.
On the Bears. On Smith.
"It's been the same way all year,'' Bears receiver Brandon Marshall said, pausing to fight off tears. "It's the same thing every single game. We need to be held accountable.
"What I have to do is try my best to keep it together and not let this affect me . . . Right now, it's affecting me way too much. I'm trying my all to do my job. So that's it.''
He fought off tears again, and then walked away. Marshall had talked about jobs, and re-evaluating everyone on the offense.
The thing that stands out about Smith? His terrible record of hiring assistant coaches. The best CEOs and leaders do not surround themselves with incompetence.
Bob Babich. Mike Martz. Mike Tice. All colossal failures.
When Smith came to the Bears, he wanted assistants who brought the rah-rah feel of college coaches. So he hired a bunch of guys without NFL experience. What happened? Of course, the players didn't respect their coaches and ignored them. Smith put his friend, Babich, in as defensive coordinator, partly just as a puppet while Smith ran things.
That didn't work, either.
Next thing you knew, the rah-rah plan was gone, and the Bears had three former NFL head coaches as assistants. Martz, architect of the Greatest Show on Turf, was the offensive coordinator. A guru.
Two years later, he was gone. A fraud. Now, Tice is coordinating the most uncoordinated offense imaginable.
Smith has set world records for firing assistant coaches, guys he hired. Cutler is on his third offensive coordinator in four years.
Surely, next year he'll be on No. 4. And while Smith turns the offense over entirely to his coordinators, he doesn't know what to look for in someone to do the job.
The Packers are just such a sharp contrast to the Bears. Neither team has an offensive line, really, but Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers seems to be able to overcome that. Cutler cannot.
Someone asked Rodgers about why the receivers have been so good, and he started talking about the front office's draft choices, and the coaches developing them.
No one EVER talks about the Bears that way.
Smith has made the defense a source of a civic pride again. His Cover-2 schemes, and varying strategies and looks on defense -- things Rodgers praised Sunday -- show that he's still a defensive genius. He has worked some sort of miracle in developing the defense's belief that it can strip the ball any time it wants. And the locker room believes in him. He got to one Super Bowl, a loss, and two NFC Championship Games.
But the Bears don't draft and develop the way the Packers do. They patch and paint. And that doesn't work well anymore, especially when the painters are incompetent assistants you have hired.
The Packers are division champs, but they aren't great. They aren't going to the Super Bowl, either. But they brought in Rodgers and developed him slowly, until he was ready. You don't always have to do that with quarterbacks anymore, apparently.
But by successful scouting, drafting and coaching, Green Bay has not only developed stars, but also solid depth and the continuity of a system. There is something solid about the Packers. And it allows them to get through the ups and downs of a long season.
"It's been all about who's hot at the right time,'' Rodgers said. "You saw it with the Giants last year, and us, (and) Pittsburgh when they made their run a few years back.
"It's all about how you're playing late in December, and what your team's health is like.''
It's not all Smith's fault. He has gone years with a welcome-mat of an offensive line. And while I was strongly in favor of the move when the Bears gave up two first-round picks for Cutler, he is not special. He is certainly no Rodgers.
Cutler is just too flawed. But the Bears don't think they've played that one out yet. Besides, they haven't shown any ability to draft and develop a quarterback anyway.
This past season, the Bears re-committed to him, giving him his favorite receiver, Marshall. They gave him his favorite quarterback coach, drafted another top receiver, got rid of Martz. I suspect that's the path the Bears will decide to continue.
But Bears new general manager Phil Emery is going to have to set his own direction, decide if Cutler is worth it. Whatever it is, it just has to be a different one from Smith's. There is no more road for him.