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Tuesday, December 21, 2010
No rush on Lovie Smith extension

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Debating whether Lovie Smith should be given a contract extension feels a little like launching a discussion on whether Sarah Palin is a viable candidate for president.

Lovie Smith
The Bears waited until Lovie Smith made it to the Super Bowl before extending him the last time, so will winning the division be enough this time?

It's probably a little late for that now.

With one year remaining on his four-year, $22 million deal -- an extension that Smith signed less than a month after reaching the Super Bowl in February 2007 -- the Bears' head coach is, in all likelihood, not going anywhere for a long time.

I say this because, as history tells us, the Bears do not make major moves easily or expeditiously, even moves that would appear obvious to everyone, including small children and people who don't follow the team.

Again, based on history, the Bears' climb to the land of respectability this season was likely all that team management needed to see to make the easy decision to retain Smith past next season. And if there was any doubt at all before the Bears' impressive 31-26 victory over Philadelphia at home on Nov. 28, that made it even easier with the 40-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday night.

Too bad.

If the Bears reach the Super Bowl and look as though they actually have a good chance to win it, then yes, they have to retain him. But even if internally, Ted Phillips & Co. have decided to keep him, here's hoping they don't rush into an announcement and at least wait until after the season is over to have a serious discussion.

What if the Bears get knocked out in the first round or look bad in losing after that? What kind of future does this suggest? What kind of upward movement?

Chances are Green Bay will not put half its roster on injured reserve next season. Detroit will get better. And the Bears? Well, their veteran core doesn't get any younger. Their luck in regard to lack of injuries, great timing in playing against some very green quarterbacks and, yes, the call in the end zone against Detroit may very well not hold out.

And innovation on defense is probably not coming any time soon.

Let us also not forget what happened the last time the Bears gave Smith an extension. The team went 23-25 the next three seasons and did not reach the playoffs.

The Bears clinched the division title Monday night with their victory over the Vikings, something for which to be proud. But is this the ultimate goal? To win one division title in four years and three in seven years? To amass a 2-2 postseason record (going into these playoffs)?

Look, Smith did what he had to do this season. With his job seemingly on the line, it was self-preservation time. So he took the load off himself defensively and made Rod Marinelli the coordinator, hired offensive coordinator Mike Martz and then -- at least from what we could tell -- suggested that Martz run a more balanced offense, held players more accountable for poor play and even became a tiny bit more honest and communicative with the fan base. But Smith also was consistently poor on game challenges, putting his team in potential jeopardy by losing timeouts. The Bears also lost in embarrassing fashion to the two of the best teams on their schedule and two other times to two of the worst -- at home.

With the collective bargaining agreement in flux, there is no reason for the Bears not to at least ride out the postseason, if not next season.

The interesting thing, depending on how the postseason goes, will be to see how much interest Martz draws for head-coaching vacancies. Clearly, his addition was a positive for Jay Cutler and for the Bears' offense once Martz made some compromises. And if anyone has a chance to get Cutler to work even harder on technique and take his game up another level, it would appear to be Martz.

If Martz goes, would Smith lose some cachet? If Martz leaves, would a Bears future under Smith become less desirable? When Martz was hired, the thought was that if Smith was dismissed, perhaps Martz could take over. But the scenarios are probably mutually exclusive -- if the Bears performed poorly enough to get Smith fired, Martz probably didn't have a great season, either. And if they performed well, as they have, there is less reason to let Smith go.

Martz
If Mike Martz leaves after this season, will Lovie Smith's regime lose some of its cachet?

The last time Smith was up for an extension and talks stalled, his agent said Smith would leave when the deal was up after the '07 season. Smith was the lowest-paid coach in the league at the time, but will it become contentious again?

Once again, Smith appears to have the Bears held hostage. Super Bowl or not, he may end up as a strong coach of the year candidate, and it's hard to argue against an extension under those circumstances. But let's not forget that the main reason he's a candidate is the Bears' dramatic improvement over the cruddy product Smith and GM Jerry Angelo (with three years left on his contract, he's safe for now) put on the field last season.

And let us also not forget what the goal is here. Or at least what it should be.

A good record is not enough. Nor is reaching the playoffs. And just getting to the Super Bowl didn't resonate very far the last time.

Nope, the Bears have to go, and they have to have a very good chance to win. Better yet, they should win. Has it been that long that we have forgotten that?

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.