As Bears general manger Phil Emery stood beneath an immaculate white gazebo on the eve of training camp at Olivet Nazarene University, he resisted the urge for blind optimism.
Did Emery believe that the Bears could be a playoff team and a Super Bowl contender?
Well, sure, he did. But what difference did it make whether he believed so or not?
“We have to earn it on the field,” Emery said.
Today represents the final opportunity to earn it on the field. Even then, they’ll need help.
But losing today’s game against the Detroit Lions would kick off an uncomfortable offseason that could include plenty of personnel changes to a franchise known for its continuity.
The Bears (9-6) need to beat the Lions (4-11) at Ford Field to preserve their hopes for a NFC wild-card playoff berth. In addition to winning against the Lions, the Bears need the Green Bay Packers to beat the Minnesota Vikings to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
Talk about high stakes.
Everyone on the Bears could have something to gain – or something to lose – today.
No. 1: The head coach
In nine seasons on the lakefront, Lovie Smith has done plenty of good things for the Bears. He has posted an 80-63 record while overseeing a defense that has been No. 1 in the NFL in takeaways (306) and No. 4 in fewest points allowed a game (19.2) since 2004.
However, nine seasons is a long time for a head coach to stay in one place without winning a championship.
If the Bears’ season ends today, they will have missed the playoffs five times in the past six years. And missing the playoffs after a 7-1 start to the regular season might be enough for Emery to decide that the franchise needs a change of direction.
No. 2: The coordinators
Mike Tice is a nice guy and a terrific quote, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Bears have the No. 28 total offense and have showed no signs of a late-season surge. Expectations were much higher for the offense after Emery acquired Brandon Marshall and re-signed Matt Forte, but Tice has not figured out a way to jell each piece into one cohesive unit.
Rod Marinelli’s future as defensive coordinator likely depends on whether Smith stays or goes. Marinelli and Smith are in lockstep when it comes to the “Tampa 2” defensive scheme that has helped the Bears establish the league’s No. 5 defense this season.
No. 3: The face of the franchise
Brian Urlacher is listed as doubtful to play today because of a hamstring injury, which means that the Bears probably will have to make the playoffs for him to play another game with the only franchise that he has known in 13 seasons. Urlacher is 34 years old and will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Urlacher has said he wants to continue playing, but will the Bears want him back or decide to go with younger alternatives? Much like Marinelli, the guess here is that Urlacher’s future is tied to that of Smith.
No. 4: The quarterback
Few people would argue that Jay Cutler is the most talented quarterback in the history of the Bears, but that doesn’t mean the 29-year-old is immune to being replaced after his contract expires at the end of next season. Cutler has thrown 63 interceptions in 55 starts since arriving in 2009, and he has appeared in only two playoff games in his career.
If the Bears replace Smith with an offensive-minded head coach, what is to prevent him from drafting and developing a young quarterback? The San Francisco 49ers did so with Colin Kaepernick. The Packers did with Aaron Rodgers. And on and on.
No. 5: The rest
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton will become a free agent at the end of the season. He is a perfect fit for Smith’s 4-3 defense, but not so much if the Bears change course and adopt a more modern 3-4 scheme.
What about Devin Hester? He could be traded for a draft pick if the Bears’ season ends badly and Emery looks to shake up the roster. J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi could be challenged for playing time if the Bears decide to bolster the offensive line in the draft. Pending free-agent D.J. Moore might head elsewhere regardless of today’s outcome. Those who wish to stay with the Bears would be wise to listen to Emery: Earn it on the field.