Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011
By John Mullin
A Lovie Smith contract extension is a virtual certainty if the Bears advance to the NFC Championship game with a win over the Seattle Seahawks. It becomes a virtual lock if they reach a second Super Bowl in four years under Smith. The only real question sets up as when. Along with the obvious, how much.
Two things will hold it up, however.
The first is the the market. It is one of the reasons why the Bears held off on any substantive look at an extension before this season. Until the collective bargaining situation is resolved, teams wont be rushing into huge financial commitments.
The number of first-time coaches (Leslie Frazier, Jason Garrett, Jim Harbaugh, Ron Rivera) is generally in line with that, with Harbaughs deal at 5 million per year a bit out of the inexpensive pattern. Fold the Dolphins retaining Tony Sparano at a modest NFL money number in here also.
Teams are cutting back financially, not giving out substantial raises as a rule. Smith already is in the 5 million range and no one is bidding against themselves in a rush to bump the pay grade to 7 million-8 million.
Best case for Smith, and for the Bears, would be to add years to Smiths deal but not real dollars, in the manner done with Sparano. The Bears dont have the guilt factor that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross introduced with his flirtation with Harbaugh.
If Smith will extend for 5 million-5.5 million for perhaps two more years, both sides should have what they want, at a figure both can work with: more than most teams are paying at this point but less than Smith might have hoped for in an uncapped coaching year.
Smith doesnt need to sign an extension. Hes got a contract. And hell have little trouble landing his next gig if its not in Chicago.
The Bears dont need to do an extension. Smith has a year to go and the Bears arent likely to collapse in a lame-duck year under him. John Fox suffered a nightmare final year in Carolina and Marvin Lewis went out with another dip in his mercurial run in Cincinnati.
But Fox lost his best defensive player (Julius Peppers), his quarterback (Jake Delhomme) and had one winning season since his Carolina Panthers upset the Bears in the 2005 playoffs.
Lewis tenure was marked by character embarrassments for the franchise, he had two four-win seasons in his last three and, like Fox, just one winning season since 2005.
On the other hand
A problem for Smith and agent Frank Bauer is that extensions havent worked out well for the Bears, including Smiths own after the Super Bowl season. Before this season and since Mike Ditka, the Bears had never reached the playoffs after giving a coach an extension.
And significantly perhaps, President Ted Phillips has been intimately involved in all of the recent ones. As a finance guy, he will not be in any rush to extend a pattern that he has seen produce little, particularly when Smith has little real leverage in terms of options (hes still under contract) and market conditions.
And there is the matter of Phillips particular experiences:
Michael McCaskey gave Dave Wannstedt a multi-year extension after the 1995 season. Wannstedt had just come off a second winning season in three years, a playoff near-miss. The Bears thought a pre-emptive strike was in order to keep Wannstedt from again hitting the market as the hot coach, the way he was when the Bears had to beat the New York Giants to him in 1992.
The Bears immediately nosed over from 9-7 to 7-9, 4-12 and 4-12. The Bears fired Wannstedt and ate the final years of his deal. That experience so scarred the Bears that it led to the blowup of the subsequent Dave McGinnis negotiations. McCaskey wanted a buyout added to McGinnis four-year contract proposal, allowing the Bears an out after two years. (Theres more to the story but suffice it to say that McGinnis didnt walk because of any premature press release).
After Dick Jaurons 13-3 high-water mark in 2001, the Bears were forced by market practice to extend Jauron with a year remaining on his contract. It was a negotiation filled with severe acrimony as neither Phillips nor Jerry Angelo wanted the extended presence of a coach they had no real role in hiring.
Jauron got his extension and the Bears got an 11-21 record over the next two seasons before Jauron was jettisoned. Keeping Jauron hadnt been Phillips choice; paying his final years wasnt a positive on the balance sheet either.
Phillips and the Bears dallied in extending Smith the first time, when they had the NFLs lowest-paid coach with time on his contract and willing to extend for a reasonable raise. Then Smith went to a Super Bowl and the price went dramatically up.
The extension was done and Smith was in the 5-million pay class. The trouble is that the Bears were two games under .500 with zero playoff appearances in the first three years after Smiths extension.
John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.