The Bears would be wise to retain offensive line coach Mike Tice. | Tom Cruze/Sun-Times
The Bears are in the NFL’s Final Four, which means coaches, executives and players from the other 28 teams longingly look on from the outside.
Those teams are preparing for next season, trying to ascertain ways to still be playing football deep into January, scrambling to upgrade their coaches and players.
Every head coaching vacancy is filled, after the Oakland Raiders promoted Hue Jackson to head coach Monday, but several teams are still rounding out their coaching staffs.
Coordinators Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli would have a hard time justifying a way for the Bears to let them go. But another important assistant could draw interest: Mike Tice.
Several scouts and coaches have told the Sun-Times that Tice has distinguished himself this season by developing an offensive line considered – in terms of talent – among the worst in the NFL.
NFL Network analyst Brian Billick told the Sun-Times Monday that other coaches who looked at the Bears’ offensive linemen a year ago might have told Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, “You guys are nuts.”
But Tice embraced the challenge of a roster littered with young and largely unheralded players. He dumped former fourth-round pick Josh Beekman, and he empowered Lance Louis and rookie J’Marcus Webb. The latter – a seventh-round pick – stepped up to the challenge, and he’s steadily improved throughout the season.
During his visit to training camp, former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly said hiring Tice was “like getting a first-round pick.”
“Over a period of time, the coordination has improved,” said Casserly, now an analyst for CBS. “Players have improved. Mike brings an air of confidence to his coaching, and I think that translates to the coach.”
Added Billick, “It’s one of the great coaching jobs I’ve seen, and it’s flown under the radar.”
Tice and Martz are under contract to the Bears through next season. But teams typically allow assistant coaches to move on for a promotion. That doesn’t give Martz a viable option. And another very talented coach, special teams guru Dave Toub, would be similarly challenged.
But other clubs could make Tice an offensive coordinator or try to offer him the title of assistant head coach. The Bears aren’t obligated to let Tice out of his contract, but he may be intrigued about the possibility of calling plays and running an offense, which he’s never technically done. In Minnesota, when he was the head coach, he played a large role in running the offense when offensive coordinator Scott Linehan was hired away by the Miami Dolphins and Tice was not allowed to replace him. Without a viable option, he had to promote then offensive line coach Steve Loney into the role.
“There’s no question Mike could be a coordinator, if he wanted to,” Billick said. “But he should be thought of as a head coaching candidate going forward.”
Billick worked with Tice in Minnesota, when their offense broke records in 1998, and he insisted the line coach had the intelligence and experience to make the calls.
“You’re really just talking about a title,” Billick said.
Billick’s name came up in recent weeks, for different vacancies, and he said he would “love to work with [Tice] again.”
“Any coach would be lucky to work with Mike,” Billick said.
Smith indicated earlier this month that he was hoping some of his staffers would draw interest.
“When you have success, you want others to reap the benefits from it,” Smith said. “Our guys have done a great job… I’m talking about our staff. To a man, hopefully someone will want to look at someone off of our staff.
“Always, I try to promote that, encourage it, and hopefully it’ll happen.”
But timing could be a key.
Vacancies are quickly being filled, and things will accelerate next week in Mobile, Ala., which hosts the Senior Bowl. Assistant coaches are off limits for any job interview, unless it’s to become a head coach, until their team’s season is complete. If the Bears lose on Sunday, Tice could draw interest in Mobile. If they win, though, his odds are greatly diminished because teams often like to assemble their staffs quickly.
Tice, though, has made clear that he’s enjoyed his time with the Bears, working with his young players. He’s also close to his son Nathan, who plays football at Wisconsin, and his daughter Adrienne, who lives in the Twin Cities.
But Billick said he thinks the Bears will do all they can keep Tice around.
“I would imagine [the Bears] would do everything to keep him there, because he’s a key part of their success,” Billick said.