The Bears, beginning this week, will make the decisions to shape their football operations for the next decade. They do so from an uncommon position. Normally a team conducting the final round of GM interviews is coming off a dismal season; ready to rebuild without a corp of winning NFL players. The Bears are coming off a season that at 7-3 looked to have potential for a deep playoff run but suffered the slings and arrows of Caleb Hanie’s unprofessional understudy work. (If this were the olden days of theatre fans would have been permitted to hurl tomatoes or other vegetables at Hanie during his grotesque performance against the Kansas City Chiefs.) The Bears, right now, are a good team. So why is this the most important off-season in more than a generations?
- 2012 is on the table. Look at what’s happened this postseason and it is more evident than ever that getting into the tournament gives you a legitimate chance to win the Super Bowl. The Bears were a broken thumb from having a shot at the big prize in 2011 and they could have an even better shot in ’12 with a few savvy moves. (Wide receiver, anyone?)
- Success in 2012, especially postseason success, will also lead to another extension of Lovie Smith’s contract. One can criticize Lovie’s game management (clock, challenges, timeouts) but it is difficult to argue Lovie does not get quite a bit out of his roster. And for all the criticism of Lovie as game manager, it is hard to criticize his actual management skills. He has been unafraid to populate his coaching staff with other head coaches and subsequently the Bears have a top tier defensive coordinator, the best special teams coach in the world and an offensive coordinator finally in-tune with Lovie’s (and Chicago’s) preferred run-first approach. Tom Coughlin won the Super Bowl with the Giants in 2007. He didn’t win another playoff game until three weeks ago. The Giants and Steelers have proven stability is the model for prolonged success.
- The defensive talent of the Chicago Bears may not be old but it is aging. And for the first time in what feels like a century the Bears have draft picks over the first couple rounds. With Urlacher, Briggs, Peppers and Tillman moving into the twilight of their professional careers the new GM is tasked with re-inserting youth into the defensive roster.
- If Ted Phillips gets this GM hire wrong, it is not a reach to believe the McCaskey family might reassign their money-making CEO to a non-football role within the organization and move to overhaul the whole of football operations. Would they look to emulate the Jets and promote a man like cap superstar Cliff Stein? Would they look to emulate the Dolphins (Parcells) and Browns (Holmgren) and bring in a prominent football man to rebuild things? Failure by Phillips to hire the right man this week might lead to a new powers structure at Halas Hall.
There is no element of the Bears organization not at stake this offseason. The present and the future will converge as free agency opens in March and the new GM prepares for the draft in April. If Phillips hires the right man, the Bears could find themselves deep in next season’s tournament with a roster of young players ready to contribute in years to come. If Phillips hires the wrong man, the dominos may begin to fall with Lovie next January but the last domino will eventually be Phillips himself.