Extension or no extension, Lovie Smith still needs to win next year

Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith (R) greets tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Devin Hester after Olsen scored on a 58-yard touchdown reception during the first quarter of the NFC divisional playoff at Soldier Field in Chicago on January 16, 2011. The Bears won 35-24. UPI/Brian Kersey

The Bears made a wise decision on Friday by giving coach Lovie Smith a two-year contract extension. He had one year remaining on his contract and it wouldn’t have been prudent to make him a lame duck coach in 2011 after the success the team had last season.

The team had to show a little commitment to a man that led the Bears to an 11-5 record and an appearance in the NFC title game. Regardless of whether or not you thought the Bears’ season was a fluke, Smith coached his ass off last year. He and Mike Tice were responsible for making mid-season adjustments to the offensive line, which paid off in the second half. He also had a hand in making Mike Martz his offensive coordinator when other teams stayed away, and promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to coordinator (a move that worked out despite many people believing it was made out of desperation because there was nobody else to assume the role).

Smith also seemed to hold his players more accountable last year, which is something that hadn’t happened in the past. He’s always been a mild-mannered coach and he’ll never be someone that rules with an iron fist (a la Mike Dikta), but the players certainly responded to his change in temperament.

But with all that, Smith still needs to win next season. The fact that the Bears won a division title and hosted the NFC Championship Game only puts more pressure on Smith to succeed next year. Let’s not forget that he was on the hot seat heading into 2010 and had a poll been conducted on whether or not fans wanted him gone after the ’09 season, I’m willing to bet that over half of Bears Nation wanted him replaced.

Just because he’s compiled a 63-49 record and has taken the Bears to the Super Bowl doesn’t mean that fans are willing to forget the three-straight years of mediocre football between 2007-2009. He and GM Jerry Angelo seemed to amp up their games last season and the results earned Smith an extension. But make no mistake, Smith, and possibly Angelo as well, is still on a de facto hot seat heading into 2011. The Bears need to win again.

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Is this a make or break year for Matt Forte?

After Matt Forte racked up 1,715 total yards and 12 touchdowns his rookie year in 2008, the Bears felt as though they had a star in the making. He drew comparisons to Edgerrin James, given the backs’ similarities in balance, body control and burst.

But then something happened in Forte’s second year. His play dramatically fell off and while some like to chalk it up to a sophomore slump, the issues were deeper than that. The offensive line struggled to open holes for him and somewhere along the way he lost his confidence. He also had his knee scoped after the season, which might suggest that he played hurt too. It wasn’t just one thing that affected his play – it was a culmination of factors that limited him to fewer than 1,000 rushing yards and only four total touchdowns.

Whether Forte is due for a bounce back campaign or not, there will be one significant change this year than there was in 2009. And he goes by the name of Chester Taylor. The Bears didn’t have an answer for a slumping Forte last year, but this season Taylor is ready and willing to take over at the drop of a hat. The former Viking isn’t a one-man wrecking crew, but he has proven to be an effective back over his career and won’t hesitate to seize the moment if Forte struggles.

While suggesting that this is a make or break year for Forte is a bit extreme (after all, he’s only in his third year), he now has competition for touches. And maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe the presence of Taylor will help Forte stay fresh throughout the season and instill some of that confidence that he lost in ’09.

Of course, no matter who runs the ball, the offensive line must do a better jump opening up holes. There’s reason to believe that the Bears’ O-line will be just as bad as it was last year, as GM Jerry Angelo did nothing to address the massive issue in the offseason. The additions of Taylor, defensive end Julius Peppers and safety Chris Harris certainly make this team better, but sliding Frank Omiyale from guard to right tackle doesn’t constitute fixing the offensive line. So it’ll be interesting to see if Forte can build off the success he had in his rookie year, or if the Bears’ running game will once again fall apart at the feet of their offensive line.

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Gale Sayers rips Jay Cutler, Lovie Smith

When asked for his opinion on the current state of his former team, Gale Sayers recently took the opportunity to bash several key members of the Bears.

From the Chicago Tribune:

“Cutler hasn’t done the job,” Sayers said. “(Brian) Urlacher, I don’t know how good he’s going to be coming back. He’s 33 years old. They need a couple wide receivers, a couple defensive backs. They haven’t done a good job.

“If Lovie doesn’t do it this year, I think he’s gone. He had a good team the Super Bowl year. Nothing came together for him the last couple years.”

While I think he’s being closed minded when it comes to Cutler’s play (a lack of pass protection and poor production from the receivers played as much of a part in Cutler’s struggles last season as his decision making, plus he’s only been there for one year), it’s hard to argue with Sayers’ point about Lovie Smith. Outside of the 2008 season in which they were one win shy of making the playoffs, the Bears have regressed in each of the last three years under Smith since he led them to the Super Bowl in ’06.

While the Bears were aggressive this offseason in signing free agents Julius Peppers and Chester Taylor, as well as trading for Chris Harris and hiring Mike Martz to run the offense, they did very little to address their offensive line woes. Moving Frank Omiyale from guard to right tackle doesn’t constitute filling a hole. It merely creates a need for a legitimate right tackle and Cutler will more than likely fear for his life again this year. (Although he was going to have to do that anyway with the way Martz leaves his quarterbacks unprotected.)

That said, the Chicago faithful expect the Bears to win this year after the flashy moves it made this offseason. But the more likely outcome is that Smith will once again fail and will be replaced after the season. And if GM Jerry Angelo were ushered out the door with him, then that’s a scenario that Bears fans wouldn’t mind seeing.

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Bears to spend big this offseason?

Bear fans may finally get something they’ve been dying to see for almost a decade now: GM Jerry Angelo opening the team’s wallet.

According to a report by Sean Jensen of the Chicago Sun-Times, Angelo has been authorized to spend up to $25 million in guaranteed money this offseason. That kind of loot would certainly be enough to lure Julius Peppers to Chicago, if the free agent defensive end wants to play for the Bears that is.

Angelo has a history of being thrifty in free agency and building his roster almost solely via the draft. But after trading their first round pick in this year’s draft to Denver for Jay Cutler and their second round pick to Tampa Bay for the late Gaines Adams, the Bears don’t have a selection in this year’s draft until the third round. It’s hard for a team to fill voids along the offensive and defensive lines when they don’t make a selection until midway through the third round.

The problem for Angelo is that even though he’ll have the money to spend in free agency, there aren’t many attractive offensive line options. Bobbie Williams (Bengals), Kevin Mawae (Titans) and Chad Clifton (Packers) are all 33 years or older and wouldn’t offer Chicago long-term solutions. The real value at the position lies in the restricted free agent department. Jahri Evans (Saints), Logan Mankins (Patriots) and Jared Gaither (Ravens) are all young and productive players, but depending on what each player was tendered at, the Bears won’t be able to put a decent trade package together because they don’t have any draft picks.

Angelo has a long history of shopping in the clearance section during free agency and until he proves otherwise, I’m not buying that he’ll all of a sudden become Daniel Snyder of the 2010 offseason. That said, it’ll be interesting to see if the Bears do make a strong run at Peppers and what they’ll do to address their needs along the offensive line. Either way, it looks like it’ll be an interesting offseason in Chicago.

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Bears suffer another blow in search for OC

According to the Chicago Tribune, Chargers’ assistant head coach Rob Chudzinski has dropped out of the running for the Bears’ offensive coordinator job.

As the article notes, Chud’s contract is expiring and word has it that San Diego wants to retain him. There’s a possibility that other teams may be pursuing him as well, so maybe he wants to keep his options open.

Whatever the situation is, this isn’t good news for the Bears. Jeremy Bates was GM Jerry Angelo’s first choice to replace Ron Turner as the offensive coordinator, but Bates is heading to Seattle to run the Seahawks’ offense under Pete Carroll. Angelo also missed out on Charlie Weis, who signed with the Chiefs, and Chudzinski becomes the latest assistant to steer clear of the “Windy City.”

The one logical candidate remaining is Mike Martz, who was linked to the Bears’ OC job a couple weeks ago. With Angelo running out of options, the mad scientist might be his last opportunity to hire a coordinator with experience. And with Chicago getting away from the running game now that Jay Cutler is under center, Martz might not be a bad fit.

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