Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
While Lovie Smith remains a candidate for coach of the year after he and his staff outcoached Rex Ryan in the 38-34 victory over the New York Jets on Sunday, a more heated competition is taking place among his lieutenants.
Who is the Bears’ assistant coach of the year?
It says a lot about the 2010 season that a convincing case could be made for virtually every assistant — not to mention the strength and training staffs that have helped this team remain remarkably healthy.
Smith has been fairly criticized for firing or not renewing the contracts for 24 coaches since 2005. He was ridiculed for offseason coordinator searches that turned into ‘‘Where’s Waldo’’ times two, but when a man is right, he’s right. There’s no arguing that this is the best staff he has assembled in his seven seasons in Chicago and one of the best in the league.
It’s a coach’s job to put his players in the best position to succeed. This staff is doing that and more. Not only are they directly impacting games, but they have helped decide a few.
But who is the best of all?
For years, the Bears’ idea of an offensive adjustment was retaping the fullback’s ankle. No more. There is no more important job in the organization than bringing Jay Cutler along, and the quarterback is making great strides under Martz. The coordinator is affecting games with his strategy and ability to exploit mismatches.
Early on, it became clear that this team couldn’t be in the position it is now without great improvement from the offense. Martz deserves much of the credit.
‘‘We’re a halftime team,” receiver Devin Hester said. “We go in and fix everything that needs to be fixed and come out and make sure we’re successful with it.”
We saw glimpses of the inflexibility Martz is known for early in the season. Since rebuilding the offense during the bye week, however, he has been pushing all the right buttons.
Even with the addition of Julius Peppers and the return to health of Brian Urlacher, there weren’t many who thought this would be an elite defense. That’s exactly what it has been, although meltdowns in two of the last three games are alarming.
The Jets and New England Patriots had solid, veteran offensive lines that handled the Bears’ front four and allowed accurate quarterbacks to gash the secondary. Marinelli needs to make sure a trend isn’t developing because they will face nothing but above-average offensive lines and accurate quarterbacks from here on out.
“We’re not concerned about our defense,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “They have won a lot of games for us. It was our turn to finally step up and play well.”
One thing has to be made clear when discussing what the offensive line coach has done. He has no Peppers, no Urlacher, no Lance Briggs and no Pro Bowl-caliber equivalents, yet the offensive line has steadily improved. It turned in its most complete performance of the season against the Jets.
Not only did Matt Forte gain 113 yards on 19 carries, but we saw something Sunday that was unimaginable when the same unit surrendered an NFL-record nine sacks against the Giants — a coverage sack.
“I’m just proud of this team, especially the offensive line,” Forte said. “That was a good defense. We pushed them around up front, and they got me some nice holes.”
The special teams have been the most consistent of the three phases this season. Toub also deserves credit for his role in turning back the clock on Hester as a returner, as well as the film work that allowed his players to identify and foil the Jets’ fake punt. It was just another in a long line of game-turning plays for a coach who always seems a step ahead of the opposition.
“They hadn’t done that all year,” Rashied Davis said of the Jets’ fake. “But Toub was adamant they were going to do it.”
The winner is . . .
Three weeks ago, it would’ve been Marinelli, hands down. It’s not easy to get pros to play as hard as they have to make this scheme work. The first-time coordinator has had the complete attention of his players from the first day of training camp and has earned their respect.
Toub has done his job so well for so long that he should be considered for head-coaching jobs.
Tice has had to do more with less than anybody on the staff. The offensive line still could prove to be a problem in the regular-season finale Sunday against Clay Matthews and the Green Bay Packers, but what Martz and Cutler are doing wouldn’t be possible if not for what Tice has accomplished with two grizzled veterans and three players with little experience. For that reason, the coach and coordinator are linked.
That said, Martz has been entrusted with the most critical job in the organization: shepherding the one player with the ability to ensure the Bears remain contenders for the next decade.
He also has dramatically affected at least two games this season — a Week 2 victory against the Dallas Cowboys and the win Sunday over the Jets — with his adjustments. That gives him the award in a photo finish.