If everybody is honest about it, Lovie Smith's disregard for the public aspect of his job can make it hard to say nice things about him.
But his football team makes it harder not to.
The Bears enter their off week 4-1 and rightfully considered one of the three best teams in the NFC, just behind the 49ers and Falcons. If their record was reversed, we would use all this spare time between games to debate whether Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden would win one or two Super Bowls as Smith's successor. So it only seems natural five impressive games into a playoffs-or-bust season to commend the Bears head coach — if not recommend Smith renegotiate a contract that already pays him handsomely.
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Fair is fair. Not everybody in Chicago who still owns a fake Ditka mustache has to like Smith to respect the way he has done business in 2012.
One of Smith's best and biggest moves dates back to Jan. 6, three weeks before general manager Phil Emery even arrived at Halas Hall. Empowered by former GM Jerry Angelo's ouster, Smith replaced offensive coordinator and buddy Mike Martz with Mike Tice — whose flexibility and affability made him ideally suited to run an offense impetuous quarterback Jay Cutler leads.
Offensively, the continuity Smith ensured in promoting Tice helped the Bears overcome unexpected early issues easier than another outsider getting to know Cutler would have. Defensively, when a unit full of basically the same players from last season dominates the way the Bears have so far, coaching cannot be ignored as a major reason why. It cannot be Lovie's Defense only when it fails.
But the examples of consequential impactful coaching decisions such as Smith's bold attempt to go for it on fourth-and-1 against the Jaguars go beyond game days.
When cornerback D.J. Moore criticized Cutler for bumping J'Marcus Webb, Smith contained the situation by calling Moore into his office to remind him the value of unity. Privately, several Bears still might wonder about Cutler. But publicly, players will say nothing that could raise their coach's eyebrow, or ire.
When Brian Urlacher looks every bit of 34 chasing running backs, Smith carefully supports the leader of his locker room who everybody can see is far from the player he was. When Cutler shows petulance, Smith keeps the focus on his play.
If the Bears lose, that will make Smith an enabler who wasn't tough enough on his team. If the Bears win, it will reinforce Smith's leaguewide reputation as a players coach who knows his team better than us.
Inevitably in Chicago sports, earning credit often gets confused with deserving a contract extension. We all start thinking like Drew Rosenhaus. There will be a time and place for Smith and the Bears to talk turkey, but the off week with 11 games left presents neither.
If tempted, the Bears need to remember this is the NFL, where teams constantly live within two weeks of prosperity or doom. A 4-1 start portends big things. It doesn't guarantee them. Keep the focus on football, not finances. With a year remaining beyond this season on Smith's contract worth just more than $5 million annually, the Bears have no rush to start negotiating, say, a two-year extension.
Would it save the McCaskeys money in the long run? Perhaps — but not if the season unravels quickly for whatever reason and they end up paying Smith through 2015 while potentially having to spend on an eventual replacement too.
It makes even less sense for Smith to agree to anything before Week 7. Signing a new contract now would contradict the supreme confidence Smith exudes. If the Bears win the NFC or even the Super Bowl — as Smith believes they can — he instantly moves into the $7 million-a-year neighborhood where Mike Shanahan and Jeff Fisher and even lesser-qualified Pete Carroll reside.
Agent Matthew Smith, as he indicated to the Tribune, seems sharp enough to grasp that reality. Even if the Bears merely make the playoffs but lose in the first round, Smith will have more leverage at the end of a successful season than he would in the midst of a promising one.
Any security an extension offers Smith hardly seems relevant. If the Bears fire Smith under the worst-case scenario, chances are the stability he provided in Chicago would put his name atop many lists of GMs seeking head coaches. If Smith waits until February to negotiate a deal, he possibly can dictate the terms.
Assuming the Bears finish the season the way they have started, Smith's price only will go up — and, in that case, would be money well-spent for a franchise wise to reinvest in his leadership.