Phil Emery clearly stated that his intention is to win now by trading for Brandon Marshall and doubled down today with the signing of Michael Bush. When asked in his first press conference about Lovie's future with the team, Emery gave the expected "I want to help Lovie win Championships" response. If Lovie doesn't win now, though, Emery might be inclined to find someone else to "help" sooner rather than later. It is win-or-else for Lovie Smith this season? I'm sure I'm not the only one who says yes.
Phil Emery doesn't strike me as the guy who would let Lovie hang around as a lame duck in 2012, though. Even Jerry Angelo knew that a coach with one year left on a contract is a major red light for potential free agents, which is why he twice resigned Lovie before Smith entered an actual "contract year." Plus, if given the chance, what new GM would pass up a chance to get "his" guy as a head coach? While I wouldn't say Lovie's seat is hot just yet, it'll get awful warm if the season gets off to a bad start.
Here are some things to watch for as the season moves forward:
Does Lovie get his guys? Do they stay healthy?
The Lovie Smith brand of Tampa Two works. Much like the Martz-fence, though, it doesn't work without the right pieces in place. If Phil Emery goes out and drafts a defensive end in the first round - or makes some moves in free agency to shore up the defense - it will give Lovie Smith one less excuse should things go awry. Say, however, that Emery doesn't make any more major defensive additions, the defense wears down over the season due to injury, and the Bears end up a game short of the playoffs. Would a near-miss count if it wasn't Lovie's "fault"?
Which side does Lovie take if Forte holds out?
During the players' strike of 1987, Mike Ditka famously sided with management and the "Spare Bears." The Spare Bears did win some games for Iron Mike and helped get the Bears into the playoffs that season. But, for a coach who preached loyalty, his lack of it when it mattered caused a deep rift in the locker room that never really healed. If Matt Forte does hold out this off-season, who will Lovie side with? If he urges Forte to sign his franchise tender, he risks losing the locker room. But, if Lovie encourages the Bears to pay the man, he risks upsetting his boss. Lovie knows how important Matt Forte is to the team's offense, even with the addition of Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush. I'm sure we won't get much more than a "Matt Forte is our running back, and we hope he shows up" out of Lovie any time soon, but if the Forte contract remains an issue through training camp, Lovie will have quite a tight rope to walk.
Even if the Bears do win, does Lovie get the credit?
Imagine this scenario: the Bears' offense (finally!) comes alive and carries the team into the playoffs. Then, the Bears get overwhelmed in the first playoff game because of a weak defense. Would Lovie get the credit for the team's offensive success, or will he be judged primarily by the performance of the defense? Mike Martz was fired last season when his offense couldn't get the job done down the stretch, after all.
Is it really Emery's decision?
As best as I can tell, the McCaskeys love them some Lovie. If Smith's re-signing wasn't a clear cut decision - say the Bears make the playoffs but are eliminated in the first round - would Virginia attempt to tip the scales in Lovie's favor? While the Bears claim that the decision is "contractually" Emery's to make, you have to think that Emery would listen if Virigina made a polite suggestion to keep Lovie around a little longer.
My final analysis? Lovie's got to get it done this season. After 2006, his teams have been somewhat underwhelming. The Bears can and should do better than one playoff appearance every three seasons, especially given the talent currently on the roster. Yes, it's a tough division, but Lovie came in saying the number one goal is to beat the Packers. If he can't even do that, much less win the division, it might be time for the team to find someone else who can.