LAKE FOREST – The lack of postseason action this week at Halas Hall prompted the Bears’ primary decision-makers to take one of their boldest actions of the past decade.
On the second floor of the team’s headquarters, above an empty practice field and a vacated locker room, Bears president Ted Phillips and chairman George McCaskey conferred.
McCaskey signed off on Phillips’ plan to shake up the team’s front office: Jerry Angelo was out as general manager. Lovie Smith would return for his ninth season as head coach.
Also gone were offensive coordinator Mike Martz and quarterbacks coach Shane Day.
Phillips said change was necessary after the Bears missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons. He informed Angelo of his dismissal during a meeting Tuesday morning.
“Today is a difficult day,” Phillips said in an auditorium packed with reporters. “It’s almost 11 years ago that I hired Jerry Angelo as our general manager. I was proud of that decision then, and I think Jerry achieved a lot as our general manager over the past 10-plus seasons.
“I’m going to miss him,” Phillips continued. “But at the same time, we need more.”
That became evident this season as the Green Bay Packers won 15 games and tightened their stronghold in the NFC North. The Bears slipped to third place in the division and finished in the bottom half of the NFL in total offense (No. 24) and total defense (No. 17).
McCaskey spoke with urgency about the need for the Bears to catch up to their rivals.
“The goal is 2012,” McCaskey said. “And it’s not just the Packers. The Lions finished ahead of us this year, so we need to target them. The Vikings have a good coach [and], they played us pretty tough just a couple of days ago.
“I think we’re the only division in the NFL that has had every team in the playoffs sometime in the last three years. So we’re one of the toughest divisions in the NFL, and we need to close the talent gap in order to compete in the division.”
Phillips said he would lead the search for Angelo’s replacement. He said Smith also would meet with candidates and McCaskey would have the final say on who the team hired.
One of the first candidates to pop up in speculation was former Indianapolis Colts vice president Bill Polian, who was ousted this week. Packers director of football operations Reggie McKenzie also could receive strong consideration for the job.
“There’s some candidates in mind but not anywhere close to a final list,” Phillips said. “I’d rather not mention candidates now.”
Phillips said many attributes would be important in naming Angelo’s replacement.
“Talent evaluation is going to be key,” Phillips said. “[So will] chemistry with Lovie, understanding of the coaches, solid character and work ethic, and a clear strategy to get us to win a championship.”
Smith long has held clout at Halas Hall, but his importance increased with Tuesday’s moves. He will be in charge of naming Martz’s replacement, and Phillips said the team’s next general manager must agree to the condition that Smith remain in place in 2012.
In a statement, Smith said he always would be grateful to Angelo for hiring him as coach.
“We had an excellent working relationship, and he helped us win a lot of football games,” Smith said. “I have tremendous respect for him and am sorry to see him go. But I also will embrace the opportunity that comes with change.”
During Angelo’s 11-year tenure, the Bears went 95-81 during the regular season and won four NFC North division titles. Yet the Bears won only three playoff games in Angelo’s reign, and ill-advised personnel moves led to problems on the depth chart in recent seasons.
Angelo addressed his future before the Bears played Denver on Dec. 11.
“I’ve been in the league a long time,” said Angelo, who entered the NFL in 1980 as a scout for the Dallas Cowboys. “I enjoy what I do very much, and I work with a great organization, great people. I still want to make a run at this.”