Now is no time to extend Smith's contract
Now is no time to extend Smith's contract
http://www.chicagotribune.com/media/...1/57853182.jpg Bears coach Lovie Smith congratulates Devin Hester after a touchdown against the Vikings. (Brian Cassella, Chicago Tribune / November 14, 2010)
David Haugh In the Wake of the News 6:19 p.m. CST, November 23, 2010
In fairness, the name Lovie Smith belongs alongside the Buccaneers' Raheem Morris and the Packers' Mike McCarthy as top contenders at this point for NFC Coach of the Year.
Smith deserves credit for doing more with less and leading a team that looked in preseason as if it already had started the countdown to the 2011 NFL draft into 7-3 playoff contender.
But six games remain.
That's too much time in this wackiest of seasons to say Smith already has locked up details about his coaching future.
It looks encouraging enough heading into Sunday's showdown against the Eagles for general manager Jerry Angelo to issue an unsolicited vote of confidence for Smith last week. But if the Bears miss the playoffs for the fourth straight year despite a surprising start, can a franchise justify bringing back a coach who would have qualified for the postseason in only two of seven seasons?
As the Bears prepare for a month of suspense only they expected, questions linger. But one of them shouldn't be whether to offer Smith a contract extension before he enters the final season of a five-year, $23.5 million deal even if his team's unlikely success continues.
Even without factoring in the Lovie fatigue that envelops Chicago, it should be easy for team President Ted Phillips to keep the checkbook in the top drawer.
Colleague Brad Biggs insightfully broached the idea for the first time Sunday when pointing out the perils of a coach in the last year of his contract. That's the way the NFL calendar generally works to avoid infighting or insecurity that can undercut a weak coach only promised another 16 games. As Biggs pointed out, for example, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis has proved ineffective in the final year of his deal, a 2-8 disaster. If it talks and walks like a lame duck, it's a lame duck.
But Smith isn't Lewis. He's a better coach. And while it might not be fair to Smith, his strengths that Angelo extolled and have kept the Bears on course this season actually work against any argument that he needs a contract extension before the 2011 season.
Smith doesn't lose teams. Even when the Bears have been out of contention the past three seasons, the players played hard out of respect for Smith. It's not a 53-man Lovie Coalition, but it's close enough to unanimous to assume Smith would command the same type of authority in '11 regardless of his contract status.
Heck, he took the Bears to the Super Bowl as the lowest-paid coach in the league — at times with players using lack of appreciation for Smith as motivation. Without an extension, Smith again could find a subtle way to use his lame-duck status to his advantage and a Bears' winning season would produce another mega-deal. And if Smith can't, then eight seasons is a good run and everybody would benefit from a change.
Many will cite the example of the Vikings and Brad Childress as a warning to any team extending its coach's contract. But because I can't envision Smith alienating his locker room the way Childress did or insubordinately making personnel decisions, it's an interesting but largely moot point.
The broader more relevant question: Would Smith merit a new contract if the Bears make the playoffs?
On one hand, the Bears had only 23 victories to show for Smith's $15 million in salary in the three seasons since Super Bowl XLI. On the other, he never has embarrassed the franchise and a playoff berth with this team would represent one of his most impressive coaching feats. If Smith survives this season, by training camp he figures to rank in the top five in tenure among NFL head coaches.
Would that make him a $7 million a year coach? His agent probably thinks so but it's not a debate in which the Bears must engage. They have a legitimate out that should give them pause under the best of circumstances.
A Collective Bargaining Agreement impasse and potential lockout looms. The NFLPA wrote to Mayor Richard Daley and Gov. Pat Quinn this week to warn them Chicago stands to lose as much as $160 million in revenue and lost jobs if the 2011 season is canceled. Nobody in town would lose more money than the McCaskeys. Under such financial uncertainty, can you see the family committing nearly $25 million in new money to a coach whose unpopularity makes the possibility of four more years sound like a threat to its fan base?
Already, fans fret. I had one enterprising reader, inspired by the White Sox dangling of Ozzie Guillen to the Marlins, wonder if the Bears could tempt Cowboys owner Jerry Jones with an offer of Texas-native Smith for a draft pick. I had another remind me the Cowboys and Vikings both fired coaches a day after losing to the Packers and hoped lightning could strike thrice if the Bears can't win Jan. 2 at Lambeau Field.
Perhaps Smith getting fired remains a remote possibility. So does Smith being named NFC coach of the year.
No matter what happens over the final six games, the Bears will have no compelling reason to pay Smith more than the $5 million the final year of his contract guarantees him