There is an undercurrent of ambition to the firing of Lovie Smith.
Winning isn't enough anymore in Chicago. Winning 10 games isn't enough, anyway. A new standard has been set. It may have taken nine years to figure it out, but Lovie Smith was deemed incapable of delivering a Super Bowl, of going to the playoffs, of beating the Packers, and thus was launched despite double-digit victories in 2012.
Does that set the bar too high for the Bears' next head coach? Should he be launched if he only wins 10 games next season? Have the Bears undermined themselves by effectively erasing the greatest asset they have when it comes to attracting a top head coach, namely the gift of time?
Coaches joke that the acronym NFL actually means Not For Long. The joke hasn't been too funny for long-suffering Bears fans after six years of Dave Wannstedt, five of Dick Jauron and nine of Smith, all of whom seemed to outlive their use-by dates. But what a gift for any coach, the idea you can grow into a job, fail even, and still get a chance to succeed. Does the 10-win standard apply only to Smith or will there be a new burden of expectation on the next coach?
There are pros and cons to any job, even one of just 32 in a given profession. The obvious advantages to coaching in Chicago include the chance to oversee a charter franchise with loads of history, a passionate fan base in a premier American city. The disadvantages may be more numerous than the Bears have considered. They'll imagine coaches lining up for a chance to work out of Halas Hall and that may well be the case.
But general manager Phil Emery also has a sales job on his hands. If you want to outbid six other teams — and counting — that are without a head coach, you'd better understand the perception outside Chicago might not be as warm and fuzzy as the feel-good at Halas Hall.
Are the Bears a star-driven franchise with five — count 'em, five — honest-to-God Pro Bowl players or merely a collection of aging stars with more downside than upside? There won't be a Brian Urlacher to kick around anymore, right? Have guys like Julius Peppers and Charles Tillman seen their best days? Can Lance Briggs keep it up for more than a couple of years? Will age finally catch up to the defense? Will an effort to rebuild the offense lead inevitably to decline on defense?
If the defense does slip to a level that is just a fraction below where they are right now, will opponents find weaknesses to punish without remorse?
The first question any coach must have answered pertains to Jay Cutler. Is he an asset or a liability? Has Emery decided to give him an extension or will he wait and let the coach make a call on the quarterback's future? Cutler may be as talented as any quarterback Chicago has ever seen, but can he be coached? Is he really a franchise quarterback? Does he come with his own set or rules that the coach must follow, like keeping his personal quarterbacks coach, Jeremy Bates?
One of the underlying problems with the Bears' talent level is that there isn't a player on the roster the team can trade that will bring back more than was spent to acquire him. Not Cutler, for sure. If a potential head coach suggested that Emery should contact the Jets or Cardinals about dealing Cutler, what would the GM say? Is he locked into keeping Cutler? And if so, is that a good thing? If a coach needs proof, would Jay simply force a trade like he did in Denver? What are the rules for dealing with the guy?
Nobody wants to talk about it, but Cutler's fundamentals broke down badly this season and more than ever he seems like a flawed, finished product as opposed to a guy who can take coaching and change his style to fit an offense. Are there a lot of coaches eager to work with Cutler after seeing what has happened to the others who have?
The Bears fired Smith but still have his staff under contract for another year and they are leaving those men in limbo for the moment. Certainly, there are some good coaches among the group. Does the new head coach get to pick and choose who he wants to keep or are the Bears' hearts set on playing things out with a certain number?
It's a myth, of course, that the Bears throw nickels around like manhole covers. But it's a potent myth. Are the Bears willing to spend more than they currently do, or are they locked into being in the middle of the league? Will they pay big money for a head coach and his assistants or are they looking to save some cash, having to pay off Smith and some of his staff?
Would it be wrong for a potential new coach to inquire about the team's succession plans? How will the next generation of McCaskeys handle things with family members aging? Is there a chance the franchise could be sold soon?
Then comes the question of Emery himself. How much power does he have? Is he experienced enough to help a first-time NFL head coach put together a staff? Can he successfully increase the talent level and immediately fix the offensive line? What is his vision for the future? Is there a credibility gap for a guy who has never been around a consistently winning program?
Finally, the coach will have to evaluate the division. Are the Bears going to catch the Packers as long as Aaron Rodgers plays at a high level? Does that put them in a bad situation for the next five years? Are the Lions a coach away? Nobody seems to think much of Christian Ponder, but he played well when it mattered most late in the season during the Vikings' run.
Would you rather be in San Diego than Chicago? Where do the Bears rank against other potential job openings?
The Bears found a harsh answer for Smith, but it just opens up harder questions for the future.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "the Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.