There isn't much the Bears can do this offseason before deciding on the future of offensive coordinator Mike Martz. When trying to guess their plans, keep in mind that the Bears didn't intend for his contract to expire after the season. They reportedly offered him an extension last winter, but Martz reportedly turned down the deal. The decision would have put Martz in position to seek a significant raise, or possibly a head coaching job, if the Bears had another playoff run. But after finishing 1-5 after quarterback Jay Cutler's season-ending injury, Martz's status is unclear. As we discussed last week, the Bears will have to decide how important continuity is to them and to what degree they hold him accountable for the post-Cutler struggles.
There is an alternate way to view the Bears' offensive struggles, and thus Martz's performance: The offense didn't struggle because of Cutler's injury, but instead because Caleb Hanie -- the backup Martz has reportedly never been sold on -- replaced him. I was left wondering if that's how Martz feels after awkwardly crossing paths with him Sunday. The backstory: I was doing my regular Sunday morning appearance with 1500 ESPN on the second floor of the Metrodome press box, which houses booths for radio, television and assistant coaches alike. Asked how Martz's legacy might be viewed, I brought up several points we've discussed on the blog -- that the Bears' late-season slump suggested Cutler was more responsible for their midseason success than Martz. Unknown to me, Martz was already in the Bears' booth and must have heard my answer. He popped into the hallway and said: "How did the quarterback play last week? How did the quarterback play last week?" Then he walked away. (Podcast here, about halfway through Hour 1.) Indeed, the backup with a long-time Martz connection, Josh McCown, had played decently against the Green Bay Packers in Week 16, completing 67.9 percent of his passes for 242 yards in a 35-21 loss. Martz's handpicked quarterback proved to be better on less than a month's notice than Hanie was after two years in the system. Does that lessen the blame we can justifiably direct toward Martz? Perhaps.
Tailback Matt Forte had a Pro Bowl season even though a sprained knee cost him the season's final four games. Like Martz, his contract has now expired. But unlike Martz, this issue will take months to resolve. The easiest play for the Bears will be to make Forte their franchise player and pay him a relatively reasonable $7.7 million or so in 2012. Based strictly on economics, that would be a smart move for the Bears. But it would also leave Forte, one of their best players, to assume the risk of a career-threatening injury with no financial guarantees beyond the season. After seeing three NFL running backs receive more than $20 million guaranteed as part of new contracts in the past six months, Forte isn't likely to be happy with franchise money. What happens next will depend on whether either side is willing to close a significant financial gap too large to overcome during negotiations last summer. The worst-case scenario is Forte holding out rather than sign his franchise tag.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
Where does this season leave linebacker Lance Briggs? As you recall, Briggs requested a trade during the preseason when the Bears refused to renegotiate his contract. That deal now has two years left on it. He's scheduled to earn $3.75 million in 2012 and $6.25 million in 2013 before it expires, when Briggs will be 33. So did Briggs gain leverage by playing out the 2011 season, getting him more than halfway through the original six-year deal? Or would the Bears be even less inclined to address it now that he is a year older? I'm not sure where this will go. It wouldn't be difficult for the Bears to throw one of their top players a bone, but the same could have been said about the situation last summer. The real question is how far Briggs is willing to push it. Will he reiterate his demand for a trade?