New coach will have to right ship as GM changes course

Emery decides to jettison Smith because he couldn't get Bears back into Super Bowl contention

Around 10 a.m. on the first day of 2013, Bears general manager Phil Emery will appear at Halas Hall and declare the organization's New Year's resolution to change the way they chase Super Bowls.

Well, Emery likely won't use those exact words. But his actions in firing head coach Lovie Smith after nine seasons announced a metaphorical turning of the page for the Bears that coincided with flipping the calendar. Figuratively and literally, Emery will mark a new day for the McCaskey family-owned business Tuesday when he explains the boldest decision any NFL general manager made on what is known around the league as Black Monday. This is Emery's "Trust me,'' moment.

Changing coaches after a 10-6 season says Bears veterans no longer can feel comfortable and a Bears management structure easy to criticize no longer can be called complacent. Ownership easily could have rationalized keeping Smith for the final year of his contract and probably flirted with a 10-victory season again. But the culture had gone stagnant after missing five of the last six playoffs and the offense was going nowhere.

The result was the Bears slowly slipping away from a Super Bowl instead of getting closer. A team can't start a season 7-1 and go 3-5 in the second half, no matter the opponents, and consider the arrow pointing up. Are the Bears currently closer to the Packers or the Lions?

More than anything, this move illustrated Emery's recognition of the gradual slippage. In sports, smart executives would rather risk getting rid of players or coaches one year too early than one year too late. The timing felt right to replace Smith, who had run out of football equity in Chicago.

A man and a good staff of assistant lost their jobs, but many Bears fans viewed the news of Smith's departure as an excuse to start New Year's Eve parties before lunch. The irony is the most optimistic day for the Bears in years came when the guy who always saw the glass half-full left town.

Cry not for Lovie. Speculation already links Smith to head coach vacancies with the Bills and Cardinals — and wouldn't a reunion in the desert with Arizona resident Brian Urlacher be fascinating? Smith will coach again and likely succeed, perhaps as a better game-day coach and offensive facilitator his second go-around. He served the Bears well, represented the franchise with integrity and stayed true to his stoic self down to his final team meeting. He is a good man I simply never considered a great coach because of a blind spot for offensive football.

Players reacted predictably with anger and sadness. Devin Hester threatened retirement but my sense is the Bears hope he waits to file papers until they gauge his trade value. Hester and most teammates will miss Smith personally, for the way he protected them publicly and limited their practice workload. For them, facing the unknown sounds scarier than playing the Packers.

Jay Cutler, most notably, suddenly finds himself for the second time in his career wondering how he will mesh with a new head coach. Cutler's maddening inconsistency deprived him the right to have input into the process and, depending who Emery chooses, the Bears should be in no hurry to talk contract extension. Cutler joins a long list of players suddenly in prove-it mode, though his presence makes the job more attractive than many that don't include a veteran quarterback.

Expect the Bears' roster to turn over considerably as Emery meticulously stays true to his scouting roots and incrementally shapes the Bears as a draft-driven organization modeled after the Packers. Reports Monday that two of the first candidates Emery contacted were lesser-known assistants suggests Smith's replacement will be somebody the GM envisions growing with as the Bears develop players. The only prerequisite: He must believe in a proven offensive system. Nothing so far indicates Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, or any other celebrity coach commanding north of an un-McCaskey-like coaching salary of $7 million, will get a call unless it is for advice.

That doesn't mean a Bears team needing to get younger and facing a potential rebuilding phase can't make the 2013 playoffs. The Colts rode emotion and a first-time GM, head coach and 43 new players into the postseason. The Redskins featured a rookie quarterback and sixth-round running back and won the NFC East. The Vikings were 3-13 in 2011 and, a year later, ousted the Bears from postseason play.

This isn't a massive Cubs-like project that requires four steps back to take one step forward. In the NFL, teams can rebuild a Super Bowl contender and win playoff games in the process. It takes the right coach to get the most of the roster every Sunday, an energized one with an open mind and fresh ideas.

Smith wasn't a bad coach — just the wrong coach at the wrong time for Emery. So on the last day of 2012, the Bears bid farewell to an old acquaintance who won't be forgot.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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