Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Coach Lovie Smith quieted skeptics by taking a team that most expected to finish near .500 to an NFC North title and a berth in the NFC Championship Game. As a result, Smith can expect to sign a contract extension that will keep him on the Bears’ sideline for the foreseeable future.
Now that the offseason has officially begun, it’s Bears general manager Jerry Angelo’s turn to step out of the shadows and make decisions that will ensure Smith has the talent he needs to move forward.
The problem is, like every other league executive, Angelo faces an offseason of uncertainty because of the expiring collective bargaining agreement and the likelihood of a work stoppage.
The general managers who do the best job preparing for the unknown will have a distinct advantage when the expected lockout ends and teams are allowed to replenish their rosters.
“We’ve got work to do,” Angelo said. “I’m not sitting here saying we can’t get better. We can get better; we will get better.
‘‘We’ve got a full complement of draft picks. We used one in the supplemental [draft] last year on [running back] Harvey Unga, and we like him very much. We’re going to do business as usual. We’ll have a plan for free agency, and I’m sure we’ll be able to get a few players in free agency. We’ll want to bring some of our own back, and I’m confident we’ll be able to do that. So business as usual, and, like everybody else, we’ve just got to plan accurately.”
While the draft will be business as usual, teams will not be able to sign free agents until a new CBA has been reached. What happens then likely will be chaos, especially if the impasse continues deep into the summer because when the new deal is done, all 32 teams will be scrambling to sign free agents and rookie free agents to fill out their rosters.
Drafted players won’t be able to sign contracts until the new CBA is in place, which means unprepared front-office staffs could be overwhelmed. Because it’s in a team’s best interest to get free agents and drafted rookies into the fold quickly, especially if new coaches are in place, the pressure could be intense.
“We’re going to plan as if free agency is going to start when it’s supposed to start and the season is going to start when it’s supposed to start,” Angelo said. “That’s the way we’re going to plan. We’re not going to wait and find out anything before we make decisions. We’re moving forward, and we will be a better football team in  for it.”
The first order of business is creating emotional distance. Angelo said during his season-ending news conference that everybody in the organization needs to take a step back after the disappointing loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game to gain perspective before evaluations begin.
With the draft still more than two months off and free agency on hold, this isn’t the time to make rash decisions.
“We’re going to do as we always did,” he said. “We have a process, and that process will probably take hold in another month. We’re going to let coaches have some well- deserved time off. We’re doing our evaluation of personnel. We’ll gather with objective, collective minds, and then we’ll make an evaluation on our football team with our players and what’s best for us.
“There’s a lot of things that go into that. For me to sit here and say anything about any player right now would be premature.”
Angelo will begin forming opinions and making decisions soon enough. For him, the 2011 season already has begun.