7:42 PM CST, December 11, 2012
The Bears may appear to be going nowhere, but that doesn't mean Lovie Smith is headed anywhere.
Smith effectively can seal another contract with a victory over the Packers on Sunday. Beating the Packers is important to Bears ownership, and Smith could end a five-game losing streak to the NFC North rivals while also ensuring a winning season and keeping the dream of a division title alive. Despite a recent Tribune poll in which 86 percent of the responders want Smith gone if the Bears miss the playoffs, they all should cheer for him Sunday.
Smith is miles away the most qualified person for the job he holds. Does anybody believe the Bears would get in a bidding war for Jon Gruden, rumored to be on the way back, or be interested in coaxing Bill Cowher out of retirement?
To complicate matters, the NFL is looking at an offseason in which eight to 10 head coaches likely will get the pink slip. Considering the glacial pace at which the Bears interview and hire, would any top candidates still be available when the team got around to filling a potential vacancy? There is always a surprise move or two in the offseason (Could Sean Payton wind up in Dallas?), so the list might be longer than expected.
Coaches on the hot seat include Norv Turner, Jason Garrett, Rex Ryan, Ken Whisenhunt, Romeo Crennel, Andy Reid, Ron Rivera, Pat Shurmur, Chan Gailey, Mike Mularkey, Dennis Allen and Mike Munchak. Smith would make it a baker's dozen.
If the Bears dump Smith, it's a virtual lock they would replace him with a first-time head coach. That is simply what they do. The last new Bears coach who did not make his NFL debut with the team was George Halas in 1958, starting his fourth go-round in the job.
In reverse order, Smith, Dick Jauron, Dave Wannstedt, Mike Ditka, Neil Armstong, Jack Pardee, Abe Gibron and Jim Dooley all made their NFL head coaching debuts with the Bears. Armstrong had head coaching experience with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL and Pardee with the Washington Ambassadors of the WFL.
Would hiring a new coach signal a complete overhaul, from scheme to talent? How long would such a rebuilding process take, and how many current Bears would be a part of it?
With Phil Emery wrapping up his first season as a general manager and his top lieutenants also in their first year in new jobs, is there a support system in place to enable a rookie coach to succeed? Would Smith's departure signal the exodus of 30-and-older defenders Brian Urlacher, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman and Israel Idonije? How many times can they change offensive coordinators with Jay Cutler? Would the quarterback have to sign off on the new hire to sign a long-term contract?
Smith's fate rests with Emery, according to team insiders. But Emery isn't going to pop his head out of his office door one day and ask a secretary to have Smith report with his playbook. He would make the move only after consultation with President Ted Phillips and Chairman George McCaskey. The Bears are sticklers for organizational hierarchy and letting people do the jobs they are hired to do, but there's no doubt the McCaskey family — perhaps even matriarch Virginia McCaskey — would have to sign off on any move this big.
Ditto with any contract extension for Smith. He has one year remaining on his deal, which pays him more than $5 million per year. It's hard to imagine a scenario in which he would go into next season as a lame duck. His status would become a daily topic of conversation.
Forbes listed Smith as the seventh-highest-paid coach in professional sports, behind only Bill Belichick, Mike Shanahan, Jeff Fisher and Pete Carroll in the NFL, though the magazine based the results on a $6 million yearly salary that a Bears source labeled inaccurate. Nonetheless, Smith is making a lot of money. Would a two-year extension be enough to keep him, as it was the last time he got new paper through next season?
The Bears believe stability, consistency and a strong, single, visible leader are the keys to sustained success. Smith is the perfect boss for their dysfunctional family and precisely the leader they deserve.
Fans may be eager to run across the Dan Ryan just to get away from the guy, but it's a safer bet to stay with him.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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