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Lovie Smith’s biggest issue is what to do with Mike Martz

Jay Cutler Bears’ offense finally clicked under Mike Martz during five-game winning streak. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

Jay Cutler and the Bears’ offense finally clicked under Mike Martz during the five-game winning streak. | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: February 4, 2012 11:45AM

Even if the Bears’ disappointing season can be blamed on Jay Cutler’s broken thumb, there is one reality coach Lovie Smith can’t ignore.

‘‘We have to catch up to Green Bay,’’ he said in an unprompted reference to the rival Packers during his season-ending news conference Monday at Halas Hall.

A year after the Bears and Packers played for the NFC championship, it’s not too difficult to explain the stunning gap between the 8-8 Bears and 15-1 Packers.

While Cutler and the Bears’ offense took a small step this season, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense took a giant leap. As Josh McCown was bobbing and weaving through seven sacks on his way to a victory over the 3-12 Vikings on Sunday, Matt Flynn was throwing a Packers-record 480 yards with six touchdown passes in a victory over the 10-5 Lions.

Smith, who appears more keenly aware of the difference than ever, faces a critical decision: Can the Bears close the gap more quickly with offensive coordinator Mike Martz or without him?

Martz, who hired Smith as defensive coordinator with the Rams in 2001, completed a two-year contract Sunday. Smith offered only cryptic answers about his future with the Bears.

‘‘We did a lot of good things offensively, and we’re evaluating everything and Mike’s a part of that. So I can’t tell you,’’ Smith said when asked if Martz would return in 2012. ‘‘I haven’t had a chance to sit down with Mike to see exactly which way he wants to go, and which way we want to go.’’

The Bears improved from 30th in total yards and 21st in points in Martz’s first season to 17th in yards and sixth in points this season while Cutler was healthy. But the offense’s demise with Caleb Hanie at quarterback put Martz on the spot. The Bears, who were 7-3 with Cutler, went 0-5 to fall out of playoff contention.

The Bears lost six Week 1 offensive starters at one time or another: Cutler, running back Matt Forte, offensive tackle Gabe Carimi, wide receivers Earl Bennett and Johnny Knox and guards Chris Williams and Lance Louis. But Cutler’s injury sank them.

But there have been issues with Martz’s offense even when Cutler was healthy. Cutler was sacked 78 times in 27 games under Martz. And when the Bears seemed to solve that problem — Cutler was sacked only five times during the Bears’ five-game winning streak this season — he was injured trying to make a tackle on an interception return.

If Martz doesn’t return, Smith might have to find someone with better luck, too.

‘‘Mike did a super job for us. He had a lot of injuries this year,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I think you guys know how I feel about him, but this is a new year coming up and we’ll see how that goes.’’

The issue is whether the Bears would be better with a new coordinator. Cutler and his teammates have invested two seasons in Martz’s offense, which scored 14 touchdowns and averaged 26.2 points during the five-game winning streak.

‘‘It would be like starting all over again from scratch,’’ wide receiver Devin Hester said.

But Smith didn’t seem too concerned about that.

“In an ideal world, you would have the same coaches the entire time that players are here,’’ he said. ‘‘It just doesn’t work that way in the NFL. We’ve had coaches change. I think players adjust fairly well.’’

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