"This is a very exciting day for me and for everyone here because free agency started a little bit early for the Bears," Phillips said on Thursday at Halas Hall. "In my opinion, two of the most important contracts that needed to get finalized are done, and that's Jerry Angelo as our general manager and Lovie Smith as our head coach. I am extremely proud to be able to sit here today and announce that Jerry and Lovie are both going to be with the Bears a very long time."
Smith signed a four-year, $22 million extension on Wednesday that will keep him in Chicago through 2011, and Angelo is now under contract through 2013. Both deals took a little longer than expected to get done, hence subjecting the organization to some negative publicity along the way. Nevertheless, Phillips looked extremely pleased in knowing that the team now has stability at the top and will for the foreseeable future.
Angelo admitted that sometimes it's hard to get everyone on the same page, but he's confident that the Bears are in a great position going forward.
"There's a real comfort level with all of us sitting here, and that's very, very important," Angelo said. "[It's] important for me personally. I'm sure I'm speaking for Ted and Lovie, as well. And it takes time to get that feel-good so to speak and that continuity that I'm alluding to."
Smith was the lowest-paid coach in the NFL this past season at $1.35 million and slated to have that dubious distinction again next year at $1.45 million. He directed the Bears to back-to-back division titles before getting them to the Super Bowl for the first time in 21 years, and it was time for him to be rewarded accordingly. New Atlanta head coach Bobby Petrino, for example, signed a deal paying him roughly $4.5 million per season to leave Louisville, yet he's never won a game above the college level.
Smith did not hide the fact that he wanted to be in Chicago for the long-term, and now he will get the chance to do just that.
"I have a great job," Smith reiterated. "I get an opportunity to coach a great group of players, so we couldn't be happier. I've made it known throughout this process how much I wanted to be he head football coach of the Chicago Bears."
Smith's agent, Frank Bauer, caught the Bears off guard last week when he went public with his frustrations regarding the negotiations. Bauer claimed the two sides were at a stalemate and that Smith was prepared to become a free agent after the 2007 season when his original contract expired. The Bears have been fighting a reputation as a tight-pursed franchise since it was founded by George Halas in 1920, and it was reported that Smith was being lowballed.
Phillips disputed some of those media reports and claims that Bauer's public criticism did not speed up the process.
"There were some factual inaccuracies which probably lent itself to some of the negative impressions of the organization," Phillips said. "The reality is, once the Super Bowl ended I talked with Lovie's agent and put a very significant offer, much larger than has been reported in the paper. So I knew in my heart despite the negative press that we weren't as far apart as everyone thought we were, and the meeting with Lovie was not precipitated by Frank's comments."
Fortunately for the Bears, this is all done and they can go back to the business at hand. With the NFL Combine just completed and free agency scheduled to begin on Friday, now is the time to start preparing the roster for the 2007 season. The Bears have a fairly short list of free agents to worry about, but they do have some holes to fill.
Angelo admitted that he's a little behind because of the recent contract squabbles, but he'll be back on track soon.
"We're talking [and] still in the process of evaluating our team," Angelo said. "We've got a little bit of a late start for the obvious reasons and what our plan will be going forward in free agency. We're about a week away from being where we want to be, but we're in the process of getting there right now."
Smith seems relieved to finally have all this behind him and is looking forward to focusing on football once again.
"We wanted to get something done," Smith said. "I wanted to move on to more important things. We have free agency coming up. Just our football team in general. We just came off being able to play in the Super Bowl and there were a lot of other things that were more important, and I was anxious to get that part out of the way."
He won't have too much time to relax because free agency begins at 12:01 A.M. on Friday.