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Bears have year to think about Lovie extension 

Updated: April 19, 2011 5:17AM

The Bears’ season has played out nearly the opposite of what might have been expected coming out of last year. No grim drama filled with rancor and recrimination for this bunch. It has been a year of glory. With one game remaining in the regular season, the Bears have a playoff berth and the NFC North title in their pocket, along with the possibility of becoming the top seed in the NFC and a golden chance to knock the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs.

There will be no need to print an obituary on the Bears career of Lovie Smith, even if you suspect plenty of them were written and ready to go.

Instead, in a league where four coaches already have been fired this season, including former Bears linebacker Mike Singletary on Sunday night, the conversation about Smith has turned to whether he deserves an extension with only next year left on his deal.

Timing matters in such things — not only when you get rid of a coach, but when you decide he needs to be around longer.

In Smith’s case, it’s generally believed his big salary provided him with the job security to allow for failure and revival. Do the Bears risk putting their head coach in lame-duck status next year? Do they dare raise the possibility of losing the man after the 2011 season? Should they play it out or pay it out?

The answer to those questions can be found in the past — specifically in what happened the last time Smith came to the end of his contract.

Bears president Ted Phillips made a spectacular blunder the last time around by rejecting Smith’s overture for a contract extension. Smith was making a rock-bottom $1 million a year and wanted a raise into the range of about $2.5 million. Instead of jumping at a chance at a three-year deal at that number, Phillips decided he needed to see more.

What he got in return was an unlikely Super Bowl appearance by a minority coach who also happened to be the lowest paid in his profession. It was an embarrassment for the Bears, and amid the money and power grab that followed that season, Smith was a huge winner. He became one of the top-paid coaches in the NFL, receiving a deal that paid him in excess of $5  million a year and shifted the power in the organization.

The mediocrity that followed in three straight years without a playoff appearance, despite the return of virtually every player the Bears wanted to keep, put Smith on the hot seat this year. Not only did he respond well, but his players had his back, too.

Everybody gets along

The No. 1 thing that costs a coach his job in the NFL is failure to win. Second comes simple revolt from players. In the old days, if there was a mutiny, you would hang the mutineers. In the modern NFL, you dump the coach. There never has been personal animus between Smith and his players. They want to perform for him and have certainly stepped up to make sure he keeps his job this season.

Why not again enjoy that advantage next year?

The biggest reason for not extending Smith this year is because there simply is no need. The Bears built a Super Bowl-contending team by rewarding young players with bright futures with contract extensions that proved salary-cap-friendly as those players budded into stars. That’s why not extending Smith before the Super Bowl year made no sense. It effectively forced the team into a bidding war for a free-agent coach, even if there wasn’t deemed to be another logical bidder for his services.

Now, Smith is one of the NFL’s highest-paid coaches, and he may be the highest-paid guy whose role is limited to simply coaching. General manager Jerry Angelo is ultimately responsible for all personnel decisions, not Smith. Credit or blame in that area rests solely with Angelo, even if he allows the coach a voice on all decisions.

Big bucks all around

When he was the lowest-paid coach in the league, Smith used to manage the lowest-paid coaching staff with one of the lowest player payrolls. As one of the highest-paid coaches, he has a highly paid staff of at least four assistants making close to or more than the $1   million a year Smith made on his way to the Super Bowl — Mike Martz, Rod Marinelli, Bob Babich and Mike Tice — plus another guy deserving a big payday in special teams coordinator Dave Toub.

The players’ payroll is among the highest in the league because of the highest-paid free agent, defensive end Julius Peppers, at $20  million for the season, as well as overpaid guys such as running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna.

There isn’t a lot of obvious youth in the program — certainly little on defense. Players are going to have to take a reduction in pay if the NFL’s collective-bargaining agreement with the players association is ever resolved. Word around the league is that the Bears aren’t in a hurry to spend more money on Smith. In fact, they may want to trim some salary off the coaching staff. That could be a lot easier to do after next season than this one.

Phillips negotiated a bad contract with Smith the last time out because his timing was awful. No need to blow it again when you already have the guy for an extra year.

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