Following three straight seasons without making the playoffs, the triumvirate of Ted Phillips, Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith was on thin ice last January. The president, general manager and head coach, respectively, allowed a team fresh off a Super Bowl appearance to finish 23-25 in the three-year span that followed.
One year later, after the team’s improbable run to the NFC Conference Championship, the talk around Halas Hall is a possible contract extension for Smith. This was announced by Angelo during a season-ending press conference and, of course, was met by criticism among Smith’s biggest antagonists.
The case being made by critics of Smith is that he is not a good game day coach. They offer evidence about some poor choices he’s made during games over the course of his seven seasons as Bears head coach. While he’s made his share of mistakes, it’s impossible not to acknowledge his accomplishments as well.
Smith carries a 63-49 (.563) regular season record into the final year of his contract. He has three division titles in seven years and a 3-3 playoff mark. His defenses have consistently been among the league’s best at generating turnovers and, as Phillips stated last January, his teams have never slipped into prolonged losing streaks.
Furthermore, one of the biggest indictments about coaches who have failed at their jobs and have gotten fired is that they’ve “lost control of their locker rooms” and the players no longer buy into what those coaches are selling. No one can deny the level of respect Bears players have for Smith and how hard they work for him.
If I can prove nothing else in this column, I hope I at least can give pause to the most vocal of Smith’s critics with this one statement:
The blatant hypocrisy of fans, who claim the Bears are devoid of premier talent and yet neglect to give Smith due credit for his success with inferior talent, is both unmistakable and irrefutable.
The Bears are either a Super Bowl champion that has failed to live up to expectations or they’re a 6-10 team that Smith did wonders with.
Or, to put it more simply: either the Bears are a good team or Smith has done a good job coaching. You can’t have it both ways, so don’t talk out of both sides of your mouth.
I marvel at how many fans called in to radio stations following an 0-4 preseason and acted like the Apocalypse was near. I heard predictions of anywhere between a 4-12 record and 7-9. Few fans even predicted a .500 record.
I was even riding in a car with one of my brothers, a Packers fan, who laughed at the despaired callers and even admitted himself that the Bears were a talented team that would exceed these low expectations.
And yet, these same fans are too prideful five months later to give Smith credit for the job he did in 2010.
Smith deserves a contract extension, and here’s why:
First and foremost, what he has done with the little talent he’s been given has been remarkable. If anybody is to receive the lion’s share of the blame for the three straight playoff-less seasons, it’s Angelo and the scouting department for failing to replenish the 2006 NFC champions with new, young talent.
Secondly, the fact that there may be a possible work stoppage in 2011 is more of a reason to extend Smith beyond this year than to let him coach out his contract. If the NFL and the players union don’t agree to a new collective bargaining agreement until late summer, that could push back the start of the season, or even cut into the number of games played. Teams cannot hold workouts over the summer without a deal in place, which means no NFL coach — Smith included — can be judged by the performance of their underprepared teams in 2011.
Finally, let’s say Smith does not receive an extension and the Bears fire him after the upcoming season. That means Angelo — who is signed through 2013 — will hire a new coach with only two years remaining on his contract. That, in effect, would make the new coach a lame duck unless the team extends Angelo’s contract or allows assistant general manager Tim Ruskell to take over the reigns.
Neither one of those decisions would be a wise move. In fact, they’d be downright deplorable. Angelo has probably had one of the worst track records of any general manager at selecting talent through drafts. And as for Ruskell, he single-handedly decimated a franchise in Seattle that appeared in the Super Bowl only five years ago.
The best course of action would be to extend Smith’s contract two more years, which means his contract would expire with Angelo’s. Let the two of them, who have been professionally married since 2004, finish out their stints together. What that also does is allow Smith to coach the core of Jay Cutler, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher for a four-year stint (2010-2013) — if Urlacher makes it another three years, which is questionable but certainly possible. Hopefully Angelo can add a few pieces around Cutler on offense — specifically on the offensive line and at receiver — and complete the defense with help for Peppers on the defensive line and playmakers in the secondary.
If Smith can’t win a title with some young playmakers joining that core of players within the next three years, then we know it’s time for him — and Angelo — to move on.