By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) This is neither endorsement nor indictment of Lovie Smith.
Rather, it is a plea for reason seemingly ignored by an intentional, needless raising of the stakes for the Bears’ coach with three games remaining. As the season teeters to one unhappy end or another – either missing the playoffs entirely or squeaking in just to be summarily ousted – the debate over Smith’s future is missing one option.
Currently, it sets up as an all-or-nothing call for GM Phil Emery. If he fires Smith, he eats the one year remaining on that deal and any left for departing assistants, then ventures into open-market chaos along with 10 other teams. Even if he has a successor lined up, the Rooney-rule kabuki dance has to go on, and then there’s the race to assemble an entire staff.
If Emery chooses to retain Smith, he’d then extend his contract, likely for two seasons beyond 2013. The team reached out to talk about such an arrangement earlier in the year, only to be rebuffed by Smith, who wanted more than two years tacked on. Discussions have gone dormant as 7-1 soured to 8-5, and threatens to curdle further.
The thinking that underpins the need for an extension, while held as convention by most franchises, is particularly self-defeating and contradictory for the Bears at the moment. There is no pressing need to double down on a commitment to Smith, and the best idea may be to simply let him fulfill his current agreement, and prove himself worthy of more.
There are two explanations usually given for not allowing an NFL coach into a contract year, and neither is especially convincing. First, teams feel that uncertainty about a coach’s future interferes with hiring anyone else, as assistant coaches with any leverage are understandably wary of joining an unstable operation. This undeniable dynamic resulted in the hiring of Mike Martz before the 2010 season, when less desperate offensive-coordinator candidates passed on tying themselves to Smith, who was extended a year later.
But they are not trying to hire anybody. Unless there’s an unlikely defection or a change forced by Emery, the coaches are set for next year. It does not appear to be an issue.
Second, teams are wary of the “distraction” caused by such status, worried that every outcome turns into a media-driven referendum on the coach’s future. This is a cowardly and disingenuous rationalization.
Coaches, players, and team officials regularly claim to pay no attention to the silly chatter that surrounds them, concerned only with what goes on inside their dark meeting-rooms. Smug disdain for reporters has been a specific trait of Smith individually, and Emery only breaks long stretches of silence to offer up deliberately featureless drivel. Any idea that the Bears would be somehow influenced negatively by the big, bad media goes directly against both the words and actions of a heritage franchise in a top-three market.
Now these tough guys are scared?
Guess what – speculation about the futures of coaches and players goes on regardless, and big money is paid to grown adults to handle that kind of pressure. You want nice things said and written about you? Win playoff games. Have parades with trophies.
If Emery’s vision for the Bears doesn’t include Lovie Smith, that’s fine. His power to make that call has vested, and he may indeed be right to decide that it’s just time for a change. He could move on with new purpose, while clearly satisfying a restive fan base.
The alternative to that, however, needn’t be a multi-year reaffirmation of the status quo.
At the very least, a do-or-die season for Lovie Smith should be a viable possibility. For a team that has long negotiated the tenuous balance between valued continuity and necessary evolution, every option must be considered.
All there is to fear is more seasons without a ring.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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