Reward for a Job Well Done

The Bears took a lot of steps toward becoming a respected NFL power, but they ultimately stumbled when it was time to take the biggest step. When it comes to the future of coach Lovie Smith, it gives GM Jerry Angelo something to think about in the off-season.

Even though Angelo delivered his state of the team address two weeks before the season came to a disappointing end with a 29-21 loss at home to the Panthers in a divisional-round playoff game, his assessment of the season was right on.

While acknowledging that the turnaround from 5-11 last season to 11-5 in 2005 was enough to make this season a success, Angelo wasn't satisfied.

"You can't minimize the fact that we won our division and we're the second seed," he said. "(But) it'll certainly be a downer if we don't win that first playoff game. For me, that's the key. That's the focus of everybody. It all starts and stops with that. That would be a huge step for us."

Instead, the Bears tripped over a more mature, more playoff-ready Panthers team that came into Soldier Field bent on avenging a 13-3 defeat during the regular season. Not only did the Panthers thoroughly outplay the Bears, but John Fox and his staff appeared to give coach of the year Lovie Smith and Co. a lesson in preparing a team for playoff football.

Nevertheless, the Bears' general manager said the regular season demonstrated Smith's value in his second year as a head coach. Angelo selected Smith based on their relationship in Tampa, where they spent five years together from 1996-2000, while Smith was the Bucs' linebackers coach and Angelo was at the end of a 14-year run as director of player personnel.

"When we went out and started our search for our head coach, (I said) it starts with leadership," Angelo said. "With Lovie, there were never any doubts about that. I knew that firsthand from when I had the benefit of working with him down in Tampa and only saw all that come to fruition even more so now that he's in charge."

Now it's time for Angelo to step up with an extension for Smith, even though Smith has two years left on his original four-year deal. He is among the five lowest-paid head coaches in the league.

"I want Lovie to be our coach for a long, long time, and I think he and his staff have done a great job," Angelo said. "Those things take care of themselves."

Wrong. The GM takes care of those things, and if he really believes Smith proved his mettle this season, Angelo needs to do the right thing. Because, all things considered, Smith did do a masterful job this season, with the exception of the playoff loss.

Rookie quarterback Kyle Orton, a fourth-round draft pick who wasn't even supposed to play this season, started in 10 victories, managing games well while relying on a strong and deep running game led by Thomas Jones, and a dominant defense. Then, when it seemed he had hit a wall and the offense stagnated late in the season, Rex Grossman was ready to come back. Grossman's ascension from the depths of a third injury in three seasons appeared to give the Bears' playoff chances a boost just in the nick of time, but he showed the rust accumulated in 15 months of inactivity. He still makes the team's promising future seem even brighter because of his leadership, decision-making and work ethic following a fractured ankle on Aug. 12.

"We have a lot of confidence in Rex," Angelo said. "He is our future. That's why we drafted him in the first round. That probably was about as frustrating for me as it was for him and his family. But it's good to see. He's taken a step, and he's got a lot more steps to take."

But, coming off a 5-11 season, losing a starting quarterback and then having his backup (Chad Hutchinson) fail, Angelo was subject to a lot of harsh criticism. He said he doesn't hold a grudge against his critics, since he came into the Bears' job with his eyes wide open.

"It just goes with the business," he said. "This is a big market. This is a tough market. I'm understanding of that. I knew that when I came here. In this business, you don't get respect by (having) quality and character. You get respect by winning. You have to win, and until we win, I've got to keep my mouth shut. We've got to find a way. I don't feel vindicated. We've always felt good about our plan. I feel gratified and real happy for all of us this year."

Chances are Angelo will continue to feel good about the Bears' situation as long as he can keep most of the components intact from a defense that many considered the best in the league. The Bears allowed 202 points, 45 fewer than the next-best team, the Colts. They also finished first in yards per play, second in total yards allowed and third-down efficiency, fourth in interceptions and fifth in passing yards allowed.

Five of the Bears' six Pro Bowl players are from the defense - linebackers Brian Urlacher (pulled out with injury) and Lance Briggs, defensive tackle Tommie Harris, cornerback Nathan Vasher and strong safety Mike Brown (pulled out with injury). All the defensive starters are under contract at least through next season, except restricted free agent linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who isn't planning on leaving.

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