LAKE FOREST, Ill. Not too long ago, Lovie Smith seemed primed to be forced out of Chicago.
Now, that doesn’t seem as likely.
The Bears are tied with for the NFC North lead at 7-3 after winning three straight, and the coach’s position is sure looking more secure.
Smith got a strong endorsement from general manager Jerry Angelo in Miami on Thursday before the Bears blanked the injury-ravaged 16-0.
With six games left, they’ve already matched their victory total from two of the past three seasons and are challenging for their first playoff appearance since the 2006 run.
Meanwhile, a coach who was under scrutiny is making good use of his reprieve.
“It’s been great for Coach,” linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. “He’s taken a lot of flack, a lot of heat.”
Angelo said that heat is unwarranted.
“We’ve seen the same thing we’ve seen every year from Lovie,” he said. “He’s always been a great leader for us. I keep going back to that adversity, those thorns, he continues to create hope and the guys rally around Lovie.
“You can say what you want to say, I’ve read everything that you’ve said, most of it to me is unfair because the guy has really done an outstanding job of keeping the team together. And I think that is critical for a head coach in this league.”
“You can’t minimize that and he doesn’t get enough credit for that,” Angelo added. “We talk about the Cover-2, we talk about sometimes the anemic offense, we talk about a lot of things, but nobody ever says the things that he really brings to the table and he has brought to the table in his whole tenure here and there has to be a lot of emphasis on that because it is a very difficult job.”
With one year and about $5 million left on Smith’s contract, the Bears could have a tough decision to make — particularly if they get to the playoffs.
If they retain him, would they let him go into next season as a lame duck? Or would they give him an extension, knowing it might not go over well with fans?
Many were calling for the dismissal of Angelo and Smith after the Bears went 7-9 last season, but instead of an overhaul at the top, there was what many interpreted as a win-or-else mandate from Ted Phillips.
There were also big changes to the roster and the coaching staff.
The Bears hired offensive coordinator hoping he could get Jay Cutler to cut back on his interceptions and Mike Tice to fix a struggling offensive line. Smith also promoted defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to coordinator, but the biggest moves came in free agency.
The Bears went on a major shopping spree, signing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers to a six-year deal that guaranteed $42 million and could be worth $91.5 million.
That was the biggest purchase in a haul that also included running back Chester Taylor and blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and ratcheted up the expectations in Chicago.
It also placed more focus on Smith. An 0-4 preseason only increased the heat on him and a 1-3 slide heading into the bye did nothing to cool it.
Yet inside the locker room, Smith has never lacked support.
“We believe in him,” Tinoisamoa said. “We believe in what he says. We believe in how he coaches. We believe it works. We’ve seen it work.”
Particularly the past few weeks.
“We’re making progress, but that’s what you’re supposed to do,” Smith said. “No team has peaked that early in the season, so it takes awhile. We knew the reasons. … There were things that were going on. We stayed the course, but I think each week we have identified problems and tried to fix it, and it’s good to see the results turn out that way.”
The Bears came out of their bye with a more simplified, balanced offense and Cutler is taking less of a pounding. They’re also converting on third downs, something they rarely did in the first seven games, but the schedule is taking a tougher turn.
The recent wins have come against Buffalo, Minnesota and Miami. When they get through with and the on Sunday, the Bears will still be looking at games against New England, the and Green Bay, meaning a run to the playoffs is far from a sure thing.
Even so, the recent developments are promising.
They’ve run the ball 108 times with 90 passes over the past three games, and even though they’re not getting huge chunks on the ground, they’re at least keeping defenses off balance.
Cutler’s 33 sacks lead the league, but with six in the past three games, he’s at least spending less time on the ground.
On third downs, the Bears are 28 of 49 during this run and have moved up from last to 29th.
As for Smith, suddenly, the ground beneath him doesn’t seem as shaky.
“Lovie’s a great coach, a great motivator,” said safety Chris Harris, in his second stint with the Bears. “Guys like playing for him. He’s not one that yells. He’s not one that screams. He talks to you like a man, doesn’t belittle you.”