Disappointed Bears expect to be back

The Bears came up short in Super Bowl XLI, but they fully expect to be in the mix again next season, writes Len Pasquarelli.

Originally Published: February 5, 2007
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

MIAMI -- The last time the Chicago Bears enjoyed a season like the one that concluded here Sunday night, in 2001 when coach Dick Jauron led the team to a 13-3 record but lost the playoff opener, they followed up a disappointing postseason appearance by going back into hibernation for three years.

No one expects such a monumental collapse this time around.

This team appears to be built for the long haul. The Bears clearly possess superior talent in the NFC North, and now they are motivated to advance the one extra step in 2007 that they couldn't traverse in Super Bowl XLI.

"You never want to squander a chance [to win a Super Bowl], because you don't know when you'll get another opportunity," said defensive end Alex Brown after the Bears were physically dominated by the Indianapolis Colts. "But I think we'll learn from this. I mean, the team that beat us, it's had a lot of setbacks in the playoffs. But from talking to some of their guys, every one of those [playoff] losses made them hungrier, because they used them as a learning experience. And now that's what we have to do."

It was legendary Bears tailback Walter Payton who once noted, "Tomorrow is promised to no man." Although the 2006 Bears understand that and departed Dolphin Stadium late Sunday night unfulfilled, they also exited with a sense of unfinished business.

The Chicago mantra all season, one hammered home by coach Lovie Smith and even conspicuously displayed on posters throughout the team's hotel here last week, was "Finish." It was a reminder of the 2005 season, when the Bears failed to complete the task, losing to Carolina in the divisional round.

One can expect the credo to be reprised by Smith in 2007.

And one also can expect the Bears, who won 15 of 19 games in 2006, counting the postseason, to return to the playoffs as a Super Bowl contender next season. Even if some coaches and players don't return.

"I don't really think," said tailback Thomas Jones, "that there are a whole lot of question marks hanging over this team."

There is, however, the very prominent question of how the Chicago brain trust will address the quarterback position, where Rex Grossman performed poorly on Sunday and provided his legion of critics considerable fodder. A victory over the Colts might have cemented Grossman in the eyes of Bears officials, perhaps earned him a contract extension.

Now there is a chance the Bears will force Grossman into semi-lame duck status next season, to play under his original rookie contract, and evaluate him as the year wears on. There also is a chance that, despite the public support Grossman enjoys from Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo, he might have to compete with Brian Griese and Kyle Orton for the starting job in training camp.

On Sunday night, Grossman spoke more of the carnage that had just ensued, rather than looking at the future. But every quarterback wants security and every franchise wants security at the game's most important position. And, looking forward, Chicago's most glaring shortcoming for 2007 clearly is the uncertainty surrounding Grossman.

It is the position that demands a long offseason evaluation and more clarification moving into the 2007 campaign.

In terms of free agency, Angelo has done a terrific job the past few years of locking up nucleus players for the long term. That said, the Bears do have three key starters, most notably two-time Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, who are eligible for unrestricted free agency.

Briggs is a superb player, an emerging star, and the Bears attempted to sign him to a long-term extension last spring, and failed. While the consensus is that Chicago might not ante up the kind of money it takes to retain Briggs, and feels it has some promising youngsters who can step in if he departs, club officials may still be inclined to use the franchise marker to keep him.

Said Briggs: "They know I want to stay, but it's not my call."

The other key players eligible for unrestricted free agency include defensive tackles Alfonso Boone and Ian Scott, and venerable guard Ruben Brown, who continues to defy the ravages of age to play at a very high level.

Chicago is rarely a big player in acquiring free agents, with Angelo always preferring to build through the draft, but the Bears are a projected $23.4 million under the cap if they decide to do a little shopping to fill in some pieces or address issues of depth.

As is characteristically the case with a successful team, there will be some veterans with time remaining on their contracts who will want their deals upgraded. Jones, who lost his starting tailback job to Benson late in the season, made some noise last summer about his contract, and could be vocal in that regard again.

The contracts that most need attention, however, are those of Angelo and Smith, and both figure to sign lucrative extensions. Smith was the league's lowest-paid coach in 2006, with a salary of just $1.35 million, and much has been made of his status. Unless his demands are exorbitant, the Bears' brass won't let him go into 2007, the final year of his original contract, negotiated in 2004, minus a new deal.

Chicago players simply love working for Smith, who, on the NFL's biggest stage last week, demonstrated to those who might not have known him well before Super Bowl LXI what a class act he is. In three seasons, Smith has compiled a 31-21 mark (counting playoffs) and led the team to consecutive division titles. No Chicago coach has accomplished the latter feat since Mike Ditka in 1987-88.

To even allow any uncertainty to exist over Smith's long-term future with the franchise would send a bad message, and the Bears won't do that.

One coach who could depart is defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who will interview with the Dallas Cowboys, and could become the head coach or even coordinator there. Rivera is making just $500,000 and his contract with the Bears has essentially expired. The Bears have a two-week exclusivity period in which they can negotiate with Rivera as coordinator, but the sense is that Chicago will not overpay to retain him.

There are several defensive coordinators earning double Rivera's salary and Miami coordinator Dom Capers recently signed a new contract that pays him about $2.7 annually. Chicago officials indicated on Sunday night, however, that they will not get into a bidding war with Jerry Jones if the Dallas owner pursues Rivera with a big-money offer.

They pointed out that the Bears' defense is more Smith's brain child and that there might be a ready replacement already on staff in linebackers coach Bob Babich. And so it appears the Bears could have one significant staffing change in 2007.

Odds are, though, this team will be tweaked more than turned over in '07. Angelo and Smith have done a estimable job building the roster and, even with the uncertainty at quarterback, the Bears don't figure to show much slippage next season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer at ESPN.com.