- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Even now, with a potential Monday night humiliation in the offing, Jerry Angelo's refusal to give Lovie Smith the coveted vote of confidence and a bevy of suitable candidates in the wings, you don't hear much about potential replacements for the Bears' head coach.
Specifically, you don't hear much about the most obvious and most suitable prospect.
A close friend of Mike Shanahan's said the Chicago native and two-time Super Bowl winning coach with the Denver Broncos would be "extremely interested" if the Bears' head-coaching job were to become vacant.
"The job is really attractive to Mike," the friend said. "It's home [with relatives of his, including his dad, in the Chicago area, and wife Peggy's family still in the Bloomington area]. It's a great challenge because that roster needs to be made over, and the one guy there to build the team around is the one guy he has already built a team around and with whom he has a tremendous comfort level, Jay Cutler."
Among the misconceptions about Shanahan is that he has to have total control over football operations. But Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose first choice to replace Jim Zorn is believed to be Shanahan, hired Bruce Allen as executive vice president and general manager last week. Snyder said the Redskins are Allen's team to run, an arrangement that would be amenable to Shanahan. It is also an arrangement that has worked and does work with many experienced and opinionated head coaches.
As with most veteran coaches though, Shanahan would want final say on personnel decisions.
"Mike's contention," the friend said, "is, 'Hey if I'm working with a good GM, I have no problem with that. I want to be surrounded by a good GM, good scouting department, and I would gladly take recommendations and execute your recommendations but ultimately, I would like the final say.' If there's a disagreement between the three or four people in the room, Mike would like to be able to say, 'This is the guy I want.'"
Considering the Bears' track record under Angelo, the guidance of a Mike Shanahan could only be positive.
Angelo also made a special point in an interview with ChicagoBears.com this week to say he will evaluate his personnel department after the season. Pro personnel director Bobby DePaul and college scouting director Greg Gabriel have both been with the Bears for nine years and are approaching the end of their respective contracts, so changes there could be forthcoming.
"It's not just isolated to coaches and players," Angelo said.
The Bears have never hired a head coach with previous NFL head-coaching experience in franchise history. And this cannot be another Dave McGinnis/Dick Jauron debacle in which the team dragged its heels with McGinnis before offending him enough to have him scurrying back to the airport just minutes prior to his introductory press conference and then hastily hiring Jauron days later.
There is every reason to believe the Redskins will pounce on Shanahan with an offer the day after the season ends and exert considerable pressure on him to accept quickly. Shanahan is guaranteed $7 million a year for each of the next two seasons by the Broncos, but it is unclear whether his new team would be on the hook for any or all of it.
Shanahan has been inconspicuous since being relieved of his Broncos' head-coaching duties after the 2008 season, the third straight year the team had failed to make the playoffs and a span during which he had a .500 record. A Broncos' team beset with injuries needed to win one of its last three games to make the playoffs but lost all three. Still, his firing was a shock to many.
Shanahan was offered several network television jobs, said his friend, but preferred not to put himself in a position to have to say negative things about prospective employers.
Instead, Shanahan took an office not far from the Broncos' complex and spends three to five hours a day studying film. During the offseason, NFL and college coaches came in to confer with him. During training camp, Shanahan visited four or five college and pro teams -- including Urban Meyer's Florida Gators and Bill Belichick's New England Patriots -- to study what they were doing.
Clearly, Shanahan is prepared to hit the ground running, and if the Bears are smart, they will make up their minds on Smith and on their preferred candidates quickly, because no one will wait for them.
The single biggest reason why Shanahan would be a perfect and obvious fit for the Bears is Cutler, whose disastrous 2009 season now makes his further career development a precarious and urgent need.
No coach in the modern era has developed quarterbacks any more effectively than Shanahan. John Elway (in Denver) and Steve Young (in San Francisco, when Shanahan was offensive coordinator) have said it was only under Shanahan's guidance that they developed into Hall of Fame quarterbacks.
Arguably, Shanahan was starting to do the same with Cutler in Denver when he was replaced. Shanahan is innovative and clearly not afraid to follow his instincts, as he did when he benched Jake Plummer, who had taken the team to the AFC Championship, in favor of Cutler, who made the Pro Bowl in his third season.
Shanahan, who spearheaded trading up to draft the young quarterback from Vanderbilt, got along well with Cutler. Although he saw some of the same signs of immaturity that the Bears are now seeing, Shanahan thought Cutler was making progress with the Broncos.
With Cutler at quarterback, Shanahan and others believed the Broncos were a Super Bowl-quality team with a potentially record-setting offense.
What better situation for Cutler than to bring in his former coach and possibly coordinator as well, as Shanahan could hire Gary Kubiak, on shaky ground in Houston, and also bring in son Kyle Shanahan, possibly as quarterbacks coach.
Shanahan's closest friend in coaching, Mike Heimerdinger (the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator) is another potential coordinator candidate.
Defensively, Shanahan, like Bill Cowher, would undoubtedly employ the 3-4 defense, which would necessitate obvious changes in a smallish Bears defensive line. But that should be the least of their concerns.
Shanahan, 57, born in Oak Park and a graduate of East Leyden High School and Eastern Illinois, would not be a typical choice for the Bears.
Mostly because he's the right one.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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