Reporting Steve Silverman
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By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) This is a legacy season for Lovie Smith.
If all goes well for the Bears, they will challenge the Green Bay Packers for the NFC North title, earn a spot in the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl.
If all goes badly for the Bears, they will fall short of the .500 mark, the offense won’t reach explosive levels and they won’t make the playoffs.
In the first scenario, Smith should go over the 80-win mark for his career and clearly establish himself as one of the best coaches of the era and raise the possibility that he might be the team’s second-best coach after George Halas. If the Bears go on to make the Super Bowl and then win it, he would have a better coaching resume than Mike Ditka.
That’s clearly a big if, but the work the Bears have done in the offseason have given them a chance to go for the top prize. To win that honor, you don’t even need to have a dominating regular season. The key in recent years is getting hot during the final weeks of the season and then continuing that roll during the playoffs. It worked for the Giants last year as they were able to go on the road and knock out teams like the Packers and 49ers, even though they had much better regular seasons.
But if Smith can’t make it work with the moves that general manager Phil Emery has made in the offseason, Smith will almost certainly find himself on the outside looking in. Perhaps Smith would find a new head coaching job in 2013, but the guess is that he would take a year off or return to the league as a defensive coordinator.
So Smith is really at a crossroads. A season that ends with the Bears lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy is not just a pipe dream. However, the questions about the team’s offensive line and the age on defense could also leave the Bears as just another team that runs out of steam when the season reaches its most critical point.
The Bears have a chance because they have a quarterback in Jay Cutler who is capable of giving them one of the most explosive downfield passing games in the league. Cutler should have a go-to receiver in Brandon Marshall. Not only do the two have a track record from their days in Denver, both men have plenty to prove. Cutler had the Bears on track for a playoff spot last year before suffering a season-ending thumb injury and he knows that this he must produce. Cutler has seemingly outgrown much of his youthful churlishness and is ready to take charge of the offense.
The Bears helped his cause by getting rid of Mike Martz and letting a football lifer Mike Tice take control of the offense. This is classic addition by subtraction. Martz made his legacy on the backs of others. When he made a credit grab as Dick Vermeil’s offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams when they won the Super Bowl following the 1999 season, it was sad and offensive. Wide receivers coach Al Saunders had as much to do with the development of that offense as Martz. Good riddance to him.
Tice does not need to light up the scoreboard to satisfy his own ego. He simply wants to win. There will be games where Cutler passes for 400 yards and other games when the passing game is limited. Tice knows it’s all about the W’s.
He has a much greater understanding of the limitations of his offensive line than Martz did. He is likely to give them a much more workable gameplan.
In Chicago, defense still matters. While offense dominates in the regular season – see the 2011 Packers, Saints and Patriots – the Giants showed that defense in general and a pass rush in particular will pay dividends during the postseason.
The pass rush is the issue at hand for the Bears this season. Julius Peppers has been one of the best all-around defensive ends in the league for a full decade. He is athlete enough and strong enough physically to continue at a high level for at least two more years. But it doesn’t always work out that way. Peppers is 32 and not quite as quick as he was.
Brian Urlacher is days away from turning 34 and is in the same boat as Peppers. A player who was a monster physical specimen throughout the best years in his career is now a different kind of player. He can play a key role for the Bears and have a dominant game here and there, but he can’t dominate for a season. Fellow linebacker Lance Briggs should remain one of the most productive defensive players in the league, but he’s not going to be able to carry the defense if Peppers and Urlacher have significant slippage.
Smith’s tenure with the Bears is on the line during his 2012 season. So is his legacy as a head coach.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.