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Friday, February 25, 2011
Bears see a lot they like in Lovie Smith

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

It would be disingenuous for me to write that Lovie Smith's contract extension brings about some kind of visceral reaction, good or bad.

I know there are Bears fans who loathe Smith with a hatred generally reserved for election season robo-calls, and there are some who stand up for him with an annoyingly contrarian bent.

Some only "likey" the coach.

The truth is Smith is a good NFL coach who fits the ethos of his organization and operates with the trust of his players. There was no reason not to give him this modest extension.

Given the general outline of what a professional football coach should do -- be the public face of the team, delegate responsibility to assistants, inspire confidence in the players, organize the season and, most of all, win football games -- Smith did a fine job in 2011.

Some of his calls were questionable (but find me a coach who is perfect) and at least one of the team's decisions was costly and outrageous (Todd Collins over Caleb Hanie at No. 2 quarterback), but that was offensive coordinator Mike Martz's call. Smith should have overruled it, but there's no guarantee it would have made a difference in the NFC championship game.

Lovie Smith
The Bears and coach Lovie Smith agreed to a two-year extension on Friday.

The players backed Smith with their voices and their play, and the Bears surprised most of us with their NFC North title and unlikely run to the cusp of the Super Bowl. A Jay Cutler knee injury, a few bad defensive series, Collins and a generally uneven offensive performance kept the Bears from meeting Pittsburgh in Jerry World.

Smith was awarded a two-year contract extension Friday, shortly before the team announced it was raising ticket prices across the board. His contract now runs until 2013. He was in the final year of a four-year, $22 million deal.

Sure, the dissenters have reason to question the timing of the deal, especially given the three-year drought that followed the last time Smith took the Bears to the playoffs, but this was a smart move. It was a no-brainer, as a former Bears coach was wont to say.

Given the nature of his high-profile job, having "lame duck" status would have been an enormous distraction going into the presumptive 2011 season. Distractions, like penalties, are a coach's nightmare.

Every week, players would be asked about winning for Lovie. Lovie would be asked about winning for himself, and on and on.

By giving Smith an extra two years, it hardly amounts as a major risk. And just to digress, the next time you hear anyone empathize with the Bears about money might be the first. The cheapest ticket in 2011 will be $74, face value. As fans can attest, everything is expensive at a Bears game.

Smith spoke to reporters at the draft combine in Indianapolis following the release of his deal. He was Lovie-esque, if that's possible.

"Of course I feel great about the extension, like I have every day I've been on the job as the head coach of the Chicago Bears," Smith said at one point, according to ESPNChicago's Jeff Dickerson.

While fans may have grown disenchanted with Smith's demeanor at televised news conferences, Smith's equanimity is seen as a strength by his players.

He doesn't throw temper tantrums but treats the Bears like professionals. And when he gets really heated, it resonates.

It sounds simple, but it's amazing how many coaches don't have the self-confidence to act like a human being when they're in charge.

Smith was so confident in this extension he had his son Matthew, a second-year law student, handle the negotiating, rather than previous agent Frank Bauer.

After the Bears' Super Bowl appearance four years ago, Smith jettisoned defensive coordinator Ron Rivera to promote his guy Bob Babich. To a lot of Bear-watchers, that was the first sign of the fall.

This offseason, the Bears moved to keep offensive line coach Mike Tice from bolting for a prospective job in Tennessee, and they return both coordinators, Martz and the extremely popular Rod Marinelli.

While some decisions on veterans will be made soon -- defensive tackle Tommie Harris and center Olin Kreutz, for two -- the message is clear: Continuity is king.

"We have great players who come to work every day. We have an excellent coaching staff," Smith told reporters. "I'm in position to be here and get that extension based on what the players and our staff have done."

There are things I'd like to see change in 2011, most notably the postgame media ban on Martz.

Because Martz is solely responsible for the offense, the team needs to allow him to speak to reporters after games, as it did with his predecessor Ron Turner.

I understand the "one team, one voice" philosophy, but not letting Martz talk until the Wednesday following the game is silly and shows a lack of transparency.

For that matter, it would be wise of Smith to encourage his quarterback to engage himself more with the media and, by proxy, the fanbase.

Smith wisely protected what's left of Cutler's reputation at the combine, but it's clear that Cutler's persona will continue to be a lingering question. Is that important to him quarterbacking the Bears? Maybe not, but the questions about his image end up directed at the coaches and Cutler's teammates, and believe me, they're all sick of talking about him.

It's time for him to take control of his own public image, and I think Smith could help.

Cutler's performance needs work too. He showed flashes in 2011, but still had his moments. And if Cutler can't work with Martz in mini-camps and training camp, he won't get to make the necessary improvements for him to realize his vast potential.

While Lovie's new deal does little to stoke the flames of a Bears fan's soul, it's just as tough to get excited about the 2011 season. Offseason events like the combine, the draft, minicamps, whatever, lack a familiar buzz, because of the dour outlook of the labor situation.

Both sides have reportedly been meeting, but there is little optimism a lockout will be averted. The collective bargaining agreement expires on March 4, and after that, it's anybody's guess when a new deal is struck.

The best part about Smith's new deal, for everyone's sake, is that it's done. One less thing to worry about.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.