Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Let’s call this the Lovie Smith Miracle.
Go back to the beginning of September. After three consecutive years without a playoff appearance, the Bears’ head coach was listed as doubtful with hot-seat burns.
He already had been forced to fire himself as defensive coordinator. Seeing as how defense is his specialty, this was not considered a good indicator of long-term employment. It was like a chef admitting it would be best for everyone if he stayed away from, you know, the food.
Heading into the season, Smith’s team didn’t look very good on paper, didn’t look very good on the field and didn’t look very good in the eyes of many people, including the gaggle of former coaches and players who work for the TV networks. The only way it could have looked grimmer is if Jay Cutler had started complaining of vague shoulder pain.
Yet week after week, Smith kept plugging along and collecting victories, oblivious to the criticism that his team’s success was a product of some combination of Calvin Johnson, horseshoes and an unremarkable NFL.
Through it all, Smith kept pointing to the record, and he was right about that. It was the only thing that mattered.
And now here the Bears are, chilling with a first-round bye while other teams prepare for playoff games this weekend.
And now here Smith is, still standing while other NFL coaches have been falling all around him.
You have to give him credit.
You don’t have to give him a contract extension, but you have to give him some credit.
Going into the season, I thought there was no chance he would still have his job when the Bears were done with their 16-game schedule. By all rights, he should have been fired after last season, but there was no way ownership was going to pay him to act like a statue at home for two years. No matter what the McCaskeys tell you, if any of them were to ever speak, money was the bottom line.
But that’s ancient history. What matters is that Smith’s team finished the season 11-5 with a No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.
He deserves credit for coexisting with the former head coaches who have added steady hands to the Bears’ operation. Whether Smith truly wanted all of those coaches, we’ll probably never know. But Mike Tice has calmed down a shaky offensive line. Mike Martz saw that his offensive plan wasn’t working with the players he was given and reeled himself in. Rod Marinelli went from a defensive line coach who didn’t accomplish much last season to a coordinator who led a top-10 defense this season. Getting Julius Peppers helped. So did getting a healthy Brian Urlacher.
On Monday, the Browns fired Eric Mangini. Last week, Carolina let John Fox know it wanted to move on. San Francisco and Denver already have fired their coaches. There will be more firings.
Lovie Smith won’t be one of them.
A miracle, is what it is.
We all know his weaknesses. He doesn’t appear to do much on the sideline. He shows emotion only when there’s a turnover or touchdown that favors the Bears.
He rarely takes responsibility for his mistakes, the timeout that erased a first down Sunday being the latest example.
He can be gallingly condescending with the media and, by extension, the fan base.
But this is a league that deals in results, and he delivered. There’s nothing I or any other doubter can say to deny he led his team to an NFC North title. But let me just check the standings one more time, just to be sure. Yep, there’s no denying the Bears won the division.
Smith gets credit for playing his starters Sunday and making sure they played hard the whole game. I didn’t expect that. I expected him to play the starters briefly and then send Cutler and the rest of the stars to a Green Bay day spa. It was a demanding toughness we hadn’t seen out of Smith.
No reason for extension
A good season has led to the inevitable talk of a contract extension for Smith. There’s no reason to give him one. One good season doesn’t make up for the three mediocre seasons that came before it. He has a year left on his contract. Let’s see what he does with it.
For now, let’s enjoy the fact that the Bears earned a weekend off in the playoffs.
They’ll play Philadelphia, Seattle or New Orleans on Jan. 16. A shot at the NFC Championship Game is more than a distant possibility.
We’re going to start to hear from lots and lots of people who said they saw this season coming and believed in Lovie all along. What an amazing coincidence: They were in attendance when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game, too.