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Unlike fired Jack Del Rio, Lovie Smith always backs up his team

OAKLAND CA - NOVEMBER 27:  Head Coach Lovie Smith Chicago Bears looks during pre-game warmups before game against OaklRaiders

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 27: Head Coach Lovie Smith of the Chicago Bears looks on during pre-game warmups before the game against the Oakland Raiders at O.co Coliseum on November 27, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\134167411.jpg

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LONGEST-TENURED COACHES

The top 11 with regular-season and playoff records:

1. Andy Reid, Eagles (1999) 122-80-1 / 10-9

2. Bill Belichick, Patriots

(2000) 134-53 / 14-5

3. Marvin Lewis, Bengals (2003) 67-71-1 / 0-2

4. LOVIE SMITH, BEARS

(2004) 70-53 / 3-3

4. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2004) 71-52 / 4-3

6. Mike McCarthy, Packers

(2006) 59-32 / 5-2

6. Sean Payton, Saints (2006) 57-34 / 4-2

6. Gary Kubiak, Texans

(2006) 45-46 / 0-0

9. Norv Turner, Chargers (2007) 45-30 / 3-3

9. Mike Tomlin, Steelers

(2007) 51-24 / 5-2

9. Ken Whisenhunt, Cardinals (2007) 36-39 / 4-2

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When reporters asked former Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio about his team’s questionable play-calling after a 14-10 loss Nov. 20 to the Browns, he deflected the blame toward his offensive coordinator, Dirk Koetter.

‘‘Our offensive coordinator calls the plays; I can’t speak to his thinking,’’ Del Rio said. ‘‘You’ll have to [talk to] him.’’

When reporters asked Bears coach Lovie Smith about his team’s questionable play-calling after a 25-20 loss Sunday to the Raiders, he defended his coaches and dismissed the queries as second-guessing.

‘‘You mean in hindsight?’’ Smith said when asked if the Bears could’ve taken some of the load off first-time starter Caleb Hanie by running more than 13 times in the first half when Matt Forte and Marion Barber were averaging 5.5 yards per carry. ‘‘I think our game plan was good enough to win the football game. If we eliminate a couple of the turnovers . . . it’s a different ballgame. I like our game plan. We just didn’t make enough plays. We will next [time].’’

And he was even more resolute when asked about the criticism of offensive coordinator Mike Martz for calling a ‘‘throwback screen’’ for Hanie on second-and-one that led to Kamerion Wimbley’s momentum-turning interception.

He wasn’t even asked about the play itself. He was asked if there was at least merit to the argument that you might want to run a safer play in that situation, so at the very least you settle for a field goal for an unlikely halftime lead that would’ve sent the Bears into the locker room feeling pretty good about themselves and the Raiders wondering why they’re losing to Hanie at home.

‘‘No. Maybe from you it is [a legitimate argument],’’ Smith said. ‘‘It didn’t work, so, of course, you’re going to get criticized when something doesn’t work. Next time it will.’’

An unsatisfying answer for those who know the throwback screen was at the very least an illogical or ill-advised call, if not a ‘‘stupid’’ one, as a Halas Hall insider made a point of telling me Monday. But that non-answer is just one reason why Smith is now fourth in the NFL in coaching seniority after Del Rio was fired Tuesday. He’d much rather throw us under the bus than any of his coaches or players.

In his eighth season, Smith is tied with the Giants’ Tom Coughlin behind the Eagles’ Andy Reid (13th season), the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (12th) and the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis (ninth) in seniority. And Coughlin and Reid are on the hot seat after blowout losses this week. So Smith could be in third place all by himself by the end of the season.

Smith’s staying power is respected by many but chagrined by some who think he’s lucky to work for an organization so impervious to outside criticism. There’s no denying his sometimes-annoyingly dispassionate manner works in his favor. While coaches such as Rex Ryan and Jim Schwartz seem destined to implode under the weight of their driven personalities — and white-hot coach-of-the-year-to-be Jim Harbaugh might eventually make that list — Smith just keeps on rollin’ like Old Man River.

The Bears are falling further behind the Packers — a reflection of general manager Ted Thompson’s superiority more than coach Mike McCarthy’s. But if the Bears beat out the Lions for a playoff spot, the difference will be coaching. Schwartz, still rough around the edges, is paying the price for enabling Ndamukong Suh and engendering an aggressive style that crosses the line. The Lions play to ‘‘the echo of the whistle.’’ But they don’t reflexively go after every loose ball like the Bears do under Smith — a flaw that cost them a takeaway against the Bears, by the way.

The aggression Smith promotes doesn’t intimidate, but it puts the Bears in position to take advantage of almost every opportunity — a big reason for their sometimes-uncanny resiliency. That’s why the Bears are one of only five teams to win at least seven games every season since 2005. That’s commendable. But unless Smith finds a way to get the Bears over the top, he’s destined to meet the same fate as Del Rio.



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