The Chicago Bears not only control their postseason fate with three games remaining, but the hard truth is these last three weeks could affect the long-term futures of several people, ranging from coach Lovie Smith to quarterback Jay Cutler.
Like all confident coaches around the league, Smith is fine with that.
"It's all based on wins and losses, really, and I'm OK with that," he said Monday.
It's important first to note the Bears aren't out of the hunt. They made the road to the postseason more arduous with a late collapse Dec. 2 against Seattle and Monday's melt down at Minnesota. Injuries to Brian Urlacher, Tim Jennings and a host of others don't help. Nor does the fact the Bears -- who may need to win out or at least win two of three -- host NFC North power Green Bay on Sunday, followed by back-to-back road trips to end the regular season at Arizona and Detroit.
Failure to make it beyond the regular season for the fifth time in six years would surely jeopardize Smith's job security, right? He's got a year left on his deal, and new general manager Phil Emery has often voiced support for the coach, calling Smith a uniting force. But if Emery deemed change at the head coaching position necessary at the end of the season, it's important to ponder the potential implications.
On Cutler: Signed through 2013, Cutler acknowledged Monday during "The Jay Cutler Show" on ESPN 1000 that it would be difficult "to turn down money" in a potential contract extension, but expressed a desire "to be on a winning team."
Would relieving Smith of his duties inspire confidence from Cutler about the team's ability to put a winning product on the field due to the likely rebuilding effort associated with a change at head coach? How would that affect negotiations, considering he'll likely demand the richest deal of all the players on the roster, but he also wants a chance to win? Maybe Cutler would think he'd have a better chance elsewhere to win a Super Bowl.
A coaching change could actually grind any potential talks to a halt and force Cutler into a situation where he plays out the final year of his contract with the new coach and evaluates the long-term prospects. Perhaps the new coach would prefer to start over and draft a new quarterback, or maybe bring aboard another veteran signal caller who caters more to the offensive system he would implement.
Also don't count out the possibility of Cutler not being on board with the philosophies of the new coach. The Bears acquired Cutler from Denver because he no longer wanted to be there after the Broncos hired Josh McDaniels, who apparently preferred Matt Cassel at the position.
A new coach also would increase the likelihood of Cutler working with his fourth offensive coordinator in five years.
Sure, Emery could hire a new coach with the caveat of retaining current offensive coordinator Mike Tice or quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to lead the offense. But coaches come into jobs accountable for the results on the field. So if they're to be placed in that position, most if not all of the best potential candidates would prefer to do the job with their own people in place.
On personnel: Smith's long tenure in Chicago means the club has spent several years on the personnel side acquiring talent that fits the coach's defensive system. The group is aging now, and if Smith is retained, he'll likely look to freshen up the roster anyway.
While there's a chance a new coach would run a scheme similar to Smith's, the league's recent trend of teams shifting to more 3-4 fronts could lead to the Bears basically scrapping all they've built in free agency and draft classes if the new hire brought in a coordinator who prefers that type of scheme. That would mean Emery would have to turn over the roster on that side of the ball. Given his experience, the general manager knows what a huge undertaking that would be.
Would Bears fans be willing to endure the growing pains associated with such a process?
The same could take place with personnel on the offense, which is currently in the first year of Tice's system, still searching for its identity and sure to -- at the very least -- revamp the offensive line if Smith is retained. Maybe a new coach would try to cater his scheme to the personnel already on hand, offensively. But that would result in an adjustment period of at least a season; a situation Cutler might not be patient enough to endure all over again.
If the new coach implements something new, Emery would have to try to acquire talent that caters to the scheme, in addition to trying to fix the offensive line.
Besides, it's not like the organization has put together a history of making splash hires over the years. Would the organization empower Emery to go after the most coveted coaching candidates? Would ownership spend the money to bring in one of the high-profile names often bandied when coaching jobs open up around the league?
The emotions rushing over Bears fans after another disappointing loss that jeopardizes the team's postseason prospects are definitely understandable. But it's also important to understand the implications these next three games can have on not just Smith, Cutler or Emery, but for the entire organization and a fan base growing increasingly impatient, yet could be forced to wait even longer for success if there's a new regime.
We've really just scratched the top layer off what could transpire in the coming months.
So be careful of what you ask for.