With Bears' surprise showing, coach in line for contract extension
Everything Jerry Angelo said about Lovie Smith on Thursday night before the Bears' 16-0 victory at Miami is proving correct.
The general manager stepped forward in support of his coach as if he knew the team was destined to have a performance as strong as the words he chose.
Smith, who once seemed to have his head in the guillotine, is leading the new Bears' revolution that has them among the top teams in the NFC at 7-3. Smith got a reprieve and he has made the most of it to this point. The Bears have matched the victory total they had in two of the last three seasons with six games to go.
Smith apparently has the right people doing the right jobs, replacing himself as defensive coordinator with Rod Marinelli and more recently performing a cosmic intervention with offensive coordinator Mike Martz that has resulted in a balanced attack. His standing in the locker room never has been questioned.
"We've seen the same thing we've seen every year from Lovie," Angelo said. "He always has been a great leader for us. I keep going back to that adversity, those thorns, he continues to create hope and the guys rally around Lovie.
"You can say what you want to say. I've read everything that you've said, most of it to me is unfair because the guy has really done an outstanding job of keeping the team together. I think that is critical for a head coach in this league. You can't minimize that and he doesn't get enough credit for that.
"He has done a great job of leading this team. I feel the staff has really galvanized in a short period of time with the newness of the coaches. Hopefully we're going to see the fruits of that the second half of the season."
As recently as the end of the 0-4 preseason, the question wasn't whether Smith would be fired but when. Instead, the 13th coach in franchise history appears to have pulled off the great escape. His contract expires after the 2011 season and now the question must be posed: When is his next contract coming?
Of course, the Bears need to continue down a path to success and reach the postseason. If that happens, he will have fulfilled team president Ted Phillips' mandate for an immediate turnaround made in January.
The irony here is extending Smith, who is believed to be making more than $5 million annually, could be just as difficult as firing him if the Bears desire to rein in what they pay a coach who doesn't have control of personnel.
Short of a victory in Super Bowl XLV, extending him also could be wildly unpopular even if it's fair in terms of career achievement. Failing to extend him would create the risky business of entering next season with a lame duck coach. How slippery can that be? Look at what has transpired with the 2-7 Bengals, where Marvin Lewis is in the final year of a contract with the defending AFC North champions.
Smith was an absolute bargain when the Bears made a run to the Super Bowl in 2006. Phillips forced the lowest-paid coach in the league to prove himself before he was given new paper. Instead of extending Smith a year before with a modest deal when the Bears pulled off an impressive 11-5 season playing largely with rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, Phillips allowed him to secure major leverage as he had his best season when he needed it most.
Phillips, the club's former money man, hadn't done much contract negotiating since moving into the president's role and he found himself paying a king's ransom to Smith. In all truthfulness, the value of that deal is the only thing that has kept him alive for another contract.
Smith always has been an excellent leader and within the team he has done a great job of marshaling his forces. Players love him. The trick is he hasn't shown the same concern about how he's viewed publicly, placing a priority on controlling the locker room and keeping his players out of harm's way.
The question is where is ownership when it comes to paying a coach in the new fiscally responsible NFL, especially after the McCaskeys committed nearly $55 million guaranteed in a spring free-agent shopping spree?
Smith made a power grab the last time, saying he and Angelo reported to Phillips. Roles are defined clearly and Angelo is the general manager. What's the going rate for a veteran coach without a Super Bowl ring and lacking ultimate personnel juice? Phillips isn't going to find a discount when you consider only six head coaches have been entrenched in their current positions longer -- Lewis, Bill Belichick, Jack Del Rio, Jeff Fisher, Andy Reid and John Fox, another lame-duck coach who appears headed out of Carolina.
No doubt the situation is being monitored closely from both sides. Smith's veteran agent, Frank Bauer, huddled with his client beneath Soldier Field following the victory over the Vikings last Sunday. He has known Phillips for decades and both sides are taking the pulse on the situation. The Bears need to continue winning for sure. It's also a definite that Angelo doesn't want to address the blossoming what-if he soon could face.
"I don't want to get into that," Angelo said. "We're just going to take it one game at a time and then everything else takes care of itself. It does. I'm not worried about that."