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Monday, January 2, 2012
Lovie Smith mum on Mike Martz

By Michael C. Wright
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The conclusion of the Chicago Bears' 2011 season provided zero clarity concerning Mike Martz's prospects for a return in 2012 as the team's offensive coordinator.

A day after his team defeated the Minnesota Vikings 17-13 in the season finale, coach Lovie Smith remained tight lipped about Martz's future, saying he and the offensive coordinator haven't yet met to discuss matters.

"I haven't talked to the coaches, so I'm not going to talk to you about any of them right now, and I think you can understand that," Smith said. "This is the process we've gone through: we get off the plane last night, and we came here today, met the team, and eventually I'll meet with the coaches. I'll meet with our administration, and give you a better idea of what direction we're going with everyone then. Mike did a super job for us. He had a lot of injuries this year. I think you guys know how I feel about him. But this is a new year coming up, and we'll see how that goes."

Smith made it clear that Martz won't have to convince him he deserves to return as the offensive coordinator. The coach also revealed the team -- from top to bottom -- will undergo an "evaluation process" that includes individual meetings with the assistant coaches, and players. Smith will also meet with general manager Jerry Angelo, team president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey.

From there, the club can start making decisions on both coaches and players.

Smith said he'd like to start making moves "as soon as possible," which is "why I tried to give you a timeline on what I'm going to do." Smith wants "as many of our coaches as possible ... to return."

It's still unclear whether Martz fits into that group, but Smith was complimentary of the job the offensive coordinator did under difficult circumstances. Martz lost five offensive starters to season-ending injuries, including quarterback Jay Cutler and running back Matt Forte. The Bears also played five contests without Cutler's favorite target, Earl Bennett, as the rest of the receiving corps battled nagging injuries.

Although Martz hasn't directed a top 10 offense since 2004 in St. Louis, the Bears finished ninth in the league in rushing (2,015 yards), generating their best numbers in that category since 2005 while marking just the second time the team eclipsed 2,000 yards on the ground since 1990. The offense accomplished that feat despite using six combinations of starters on the offensive line, and three different starters at running back.

"They've got to figure out if they're going to sign him back, too," said Forte, who is also hoping to receive a new contract from the Bears. "Hopefully, he can come back. It's a good offense."

The Bears ranked No. 30 in total offense and 21st in scoring in Martz's first season, and 24th in 2011, despite the team's myriad injury issues. Martz was rumored to be interested in leaving Chicago for other jobs earlier in the season, but Smith called the reports at the time "made up."

"We love the staff we've had," Smith said. "I know that we have coaches without contracts right now And this time of year, if a coach can better himself -- get a job or whatever reason -- these things happen (at) this time of year. I realize that because I've been in that position before."

Receiver Roy Williams said he thought Cutler "progressed under Mike Martz," adding that "it takes a while for people to learn this offense."

"(But) Jay's got it," Williams said.

Martz expressed a desire to return last week, because "this is going to be a great football team, and I'd like to be part of it." But Smith wants "a chance to sit down with Mike to see exactly which way he wants to go, and which way we want to go."

Receiver Devin Hester said "it would be starting over" for the team to go a different direction in 2012 with the offense. Williams pointed to the team's progress during a five-game winning streak earlier this season -- without the benefit of an offseason program because of the lockout --- as evidence Martz is the man for the job.

"That would be tough (to have to switch offenses for the third time in four years if Martz isn't brought back)," Forte said. "But it happens all the time. It's just when there's no consistency and having to change the playbook and all that. That makes it a little more tough."

Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.