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Lovie Smith’s best chance to win it all starts when he, Bears part ways

The Bears have shown they can only go so far under coach Lovie Smith limitatilooks be mutual. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

The Bears have shown they can only go so far under coach Lovie Smith, and the limitation looks to be mutual. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 23, 2012 2:57PM

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Bears travel to the desert this weekend to begin a last-ditch search for lightning in a bottle.

That’s their only chance. After nine years under Lovie Smith, the Bears’ ceiling is well defined. They’re great at kicking teams when they’re down. And they’re good enough on defense and special teams that every so often they can create enough breaks to beat a team that will win the Super Bowl.

But with a chronically dysfunctional offense, to win the Super Bowl themselves would require the moon and stars align perfectly. And that’s asking a lot. The Bears played a dome team at Soldier Field in January for the NFC Championship Game in 2006, beating the Saints, 39-14; The playoff bracket gods gave them the 7-9 Seahawks at home in their playoff opener, then the Packers at Soldier Field in the NFC Championship Game. And it wasn’t enough.

They could always cling to the Giants’ performance last season, but Lovie doesn’t live in the past. And besides, even the Giants’ didn’t face the gauntlet staring the Bears in the face today. The Bears would have to win five consecutive road games just to reach the Super Bowl. No team in NFL history has done that.

Not even the Giants. Though they squeaked into the playoffs in Week 17 last season en route to winning the Super Bowl, they beat the Cowboys at home to get in, then beat the Falcons at home in their playoff opener. That’s how it all started.

On the 40th anniversary of Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception that propelled the Steelers past the Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff game in 1972, we know anything is possible. Unfortunately, the Bears’ hopes of winning the Super Bowl under Smith seem founded in the notion that anything can happen, rather than the keep-knocking-on-the-door inevitability that worked for the Colts with Peyton Manning and the Broncos with John Elway.

So barring an unprecedented run to the Super Bowl, there is a new twist to the latest debate over Lovie Smith’s future with the Bears. Getting fired might be the best thing for him, too.

Since the Immaculate Reception, only the Steelers’ Bill Cowher has won a Super Bowl after coaching his team nine or more years without one. Cowher, a defensive coach who changed offensive coordinators like the Bears change left guards, won the Big Game in his 14th season in 2005. But he also had been to the playoffs 10 times prior to that and won eight playoff games. It’s unlikely Lovie is another Bill Cowher.

But fittingly, he might be another Tony Dungy — Smith’s mentor who brought him to the NFL in 1996 as a linebackers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Dungy was the best thing to happen to the lowly Bucs. He made the playoffs four times in his first six seasons.

Dungy was 54-42 (.563) in the regular season, but he never won in the playoffs because he never had an offense. The Bucs ranked 21st or lower in total offense in each of his six seasons and Dungy was fired after going 9-7 and losing to the Eagles 31-9 in the playoffs.

The next season, after hiring Jon Gruden — the quarterback guru — the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl. Brad Johnson, who had a 77.7 passer rating (13 touchdowns, 11 interceptions) under Dungy in 2001, had a career-best 92.9 rating (22 touchdowns, six interceptions) under Gruden.

And it worked out for Dungy, too. He inherited Peyton Manning at Indianapolis, improved the Colts’ woeful defense from 29th to eighth in his first year and won the Super Bowl in his fifth season — beating Lovie Smith and the Bears to do it.

Smith is at a similar point as Dungy was in 2001 — in fact, if the Bears win their final two games to finish 10-6, Smith’s winning percentage (81-63, .563) would match Dungy’s with the Buccaneers.

Smith is an outstanding defensive coach and a good head coach. But his best chance of coaching a quarterback and an offense good enough to win him a Super Bowl is to inherit one. It remains to be seen if the Bears know what’s good for them, and if Lovie knows what’s good for him.

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