All that early-season murmuring about Lovie Smith has pretty much subsided — so much so that now he’s even being mentioned by some as a Coach of the Year candidate. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: April 19, 2011 5:13AM
One more win may not guarantee the Bears their first postseason berth in four years, but it will all but guarantee that coach Lovie Smith will return next season, according to league sources.
Holding the Bears’ coach to a playoffs-or-bust mandate is more problematic considering there likely will be quality teams unable to find a spot at the postseason buffet in the top-heavy NFC, where seven teams with seven or more wins are competing for five playoffs spots. Therefore, a 10-win season — playoffs or not — should bring Smith back for the final year of his contract.
Whether Smith is offered a contract extension likely will depend on how far the team advances in the playoffs, according to the league sources.
The Bears’ 24-20 victory over the Lions on Sunday was their fifth straight. Earning their 10th win will be no easy feat, however, considering the team’s final four games include home dates against the Patriots and Jets and road tests against the Packers and suddenly resurgent Vikings.
“We have a tough schedule,” safety Chris Harris said. “We have some very good teams on our schedule coming up. But I feel we’re a good team. I feel we have a team that can go out there and compete with every one of those teams on our schedule, so I’m very confident about the team we have. I still don’t think we’ve peaked.
“The offense is clicking and catching their stride and probably getting more confidence as far as scheme.”
Players admitted during training camp that they felt pressure to perform for their coach, who was under intense pressure to win after the Bears posted a 23-25 record in the three seasons since their Super Bowl appearance following the 2006 season. With the team far exceeding expectations this season, the criticism of Smith has gone from a roar to a murmur.
And even the murmur has been mostly silenced since a 31-26 victory over the Eagles on Nov. 28.
“It’s not a blip on the radar at all,” Harris said when asked if players still worried about Smith’s job status.
“We’re just playing. We feel good with the team we have. We feel good with him as a coach. He’s a tremendous coach. Guys are just going out there and playing tough and hard.”
Fans who have spent the past three years demanding a well-coached product have gotten one, especially since the bye week when offensive philosophies and schemes were tweaked to fit current personnel. Defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has the defense performing better than it did during the Super Bowl season. The offense is coming together under coordinator Mike Martz, and Lady Luck has been batting her eyes at the Bears all season.
Instead of finding himself on the so-called hot seat, Smith is being mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate.
“I’d say he’d be in the running for Coach of the Year,” Harris said. “We’re 9-3. People had us picked to finish last in our division if not third.”
Perhaps the biggest factor in postseason coaching changes around the league is labor unrest that could result in a work stoppage which could spill into the 2011 regular season. One league source said that instead of the labor situation affecting how teams fill coaching vacancies, the opposite could be true. If big-name candidates such as Bill Cowher and Jon Gruden get snatched up, it could create a domino effect that has teams scrambling to land their ideal candidate.
If that’s the case, owners doling out big contracts to new coaches while paying off the existing contracts of fired coaches may be more willing to strike a deal with the union so players can start learning the offenses and defenses their new coaches want to implement in time for the 2011 season.
A lockout also could make teams interested in hiring Martz as a head coach hesitant because some decision-makers believe teaching his complex system to a new group of players would be problematic if there were fewer minicamps and offseason workouts.
Either way, labor unrest shouldn’t affect any coaching search by the Bears. Barring a complete collapse over the final four games, expect few — if any — changes at Halas Hall.