LAKE FOREST, Ill. – A year ago, fans were calling for Lovie Smith to be fired. Now, he's in line for a contract extension.
General manager Jerry Angelo made it clear Monday he'd like to keep the coach around after the Chicago Bears advanced to the NFC championship game.
"We very much want to extend Lovie for the job that he's done and his staff," Angelo said. "Our focus, our intent, is to extend Lovie. As I said, we wanted to wait until the season's over. The season is officially over for us, and that will be part of the business at hand the next several weeks."
A wild season in which the Bears made a dramatic turnaround to get to the playoffs for the first time in four years ended Sunday with a 21-14 loss to Green Bay at Soldier Field.
The way they were struggling early on this season made it hard to envision the Bears going so far, but a 7-1 run saved their season and, possibly, their coach's job. It now appears unlikely Smith will go into next season with an expiring contract.
Smith has one year left on the extension he signed after the 2006 Super Bowl season, and the Bears appear to be in better shape after winning the NFC North with an 11-5 record and earning a first-round playoff bye. That gave them three division titles and a 63-49 record in seven seasons under Smith, who had little to say about his contract.
"I've loved being the head football coach of the Chicago Bears every day I've been here and hope to be here for many years to come," he said.
There are other issues for the Bears to address besides their coach's contract.
Six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz's deal is up. The same goes for defensive tackle Anthony Adams and linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, safety and kickoff returner Danieal Manning and punter Brad Maynard.
Asked if he'll be back, Kreutz said, "That's not my call. I'll keep trying to play. I've said it a million times when you're not good enough, the NFL will let you know. So if no one wants me, I'll retire. If someone wants me, I'll play."
Adams made it clear he wants to stay, saying, "Definitely. My kids were born here. I have a great group of guys, great coaching staff." And he expects to be back.
Tinoisamoa isn't sure what's in store for him. He was limited this season by a knee injury after sitting out almost all of 2009, and the possibility that his career is winding down after eight seasons is hitting him.
"I'm a little emotional about that," he said. "Kind of insecure, too, honestly. I'm like, 'Man, is he looking at me like I'm going to get cut?' These are my teammates, I'm talking about. ... That's my own thoughts in my own crazy head that I have to deal with. The truth is I only signed a one-year contract. It'll be up soon. I'm getting older. I don't know what the situation is going to be, but I know this team is going to be all right."
A year ago, the Bears were a mess.
Fans were calling for Smith and Angelo to be dismissed after a seven-win season and third straight playoff miss, but instead of a pink slip, they got a reprieve.
Smith retooled his coaching staff, particularly on the offensive side, hiring Mike Martz as coordinator and Mike Tice as the line coach.
He also stripped himself of play-calling duties on defense and promoted Rod Marinelli from defensive line coach to coordinator.
All those moves were overshadowed in free agency.
The Bears made a huge splash, signing Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers to a six-year deal worth up to $91.5 million, and he paid big dividends. It didn't hurt that Brian Urlacher regained his old Pro Bowl form after missing most of last year with a wrist injury.
Suddenly, the Bears' defense was among the league's stingiest — just as it was when Chicago made the playoffs in 2005 and 2006.
The offense? Well, that took time.
Quarterback Jay Cutler got pounded, particularly in the early going, and was sacked a league-leading 52 times. The offensive line was a mess early on, injuries and poor play forcing the Bears to juggle the lineup. The running game was ignored, and three ugly losses in four games left Chicago stumbling into its break at 4-3.
It was hard to envision the Bears going on a playoff run, yet that's exactly what they did, winning seven of eight before closing out the regular season with a loss at Green Bay.
They committed to the run. The blocking improved. Even so, the offense ranked 30th this season, and that long-running disparity with the defense remains.
"It hasn't gone without effort," Angelo said. "We brought in Pro Bowlers in the (unrestricted free agent) market, veteran offensive line, receivers, running backs, you name it. And we went out and traded for Jay Cutler. So it's not a lack of effort. It's just got to come together, but I will say this: I feel good about what the offense did given we had a first-year coordinator come in and a new offensive line coach, a whole new offense, a new cast of young players.
"It wasn't a veteran offensive group," he said. "I thought the guys came together pretty good. ... We won a lot of football games and it wasn't solely because of the defense. The offense did their share and special teams, too."
So was it a successful year?
"It was a success," Angelo said. "I'm still here."