In a little more than a month, the Bears collapsed from contention to elimination.
They went from controlling their own postseason destiny to grappling with the reality of a promising season lost.
And while many fans are clamoring for a housecleaning at Halas Hall, numerous signs point toward the Bears’ brass maintaining continuity and gearing up for an all-in season in 2012.
George McCaskey is wrapping up his first year as the Bears’ chairman, and he hasn’t tipped his hand much about his management style. But dollars and sense will factor into the equation at some point.
First and foremost, the Bears are relatively healthy in terms of the salary cap, which is expected to be $120.37 million in 2012. One NFL executive said the Bears are projected to be $20 million below the cap, the most room of any team in the NFC North.
An estimated $7.7 million should be set aside for the franchise tender of Matt Forte. And with the salaries of most of their other top players locked in, the Bears can allocate some of the remaining $12 million to keeping some key free agents, a pool of players that includes Kahlil Bell, Corey Graham, Israel Idonije, Tim Jennings, Amobi Okoye and Roy Williams. In addition, the Bears could create more space by releasing some veterans, such as Marion Barber ($1.9 million) and Frank Omiyale ($1.8 million).
And while four key defenders under contract – Julius Peppers, Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman – are older than 30, each played at a high level this season and should be able to perform at a high level in 2012 (barring injury, of course).
General manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith are under contract through 2013, which would make firing either somewhat cost-prohibitive.
Then there’s the matter of high-profile assistant coaches, namely offensive coordinator Mike Martz and special-teams coordinator Dave Toub. Both are free agents.
Toub is reportedly a ‘‘dark-horse” candidate for the Jacksonville Jaguars’ head-coaching vacancy, according to ESPN, and he told me Wednesday he aspires to run his own team.
‘‘Sure, I do think about it,” Toub told me. ‘‘When the season is over, if people came to me, I would listen. .â€‰â€‰.â€‰â€‰ But right now, we have a game to prepare for.”
As for Martz, there’s a perception he’ll be let go next week. But Smith keeps any thoughts about his coaches to himself and likely hasn’t made a decision yet.
It also bears mentioning that before Jay Cutler and Forte were injured, the Bears’ offense was prolific in points and yards, looking like the unit that had been advertised when Martz was hired. Are the Bears willing to give all that up?
Ultimately, the Bears would be wise to seek the input of Cutler, who previously has stressed the importance of continuity for a quarterback. If they don’t bring Martz back, the Bears could maintain some continuity by promoting offensive line coach Mike Tice, whom they blocked from interviewing for the Tennessee Titans’ offensive-coordinator position last offseason. The Bears, in turn, rewarded Tice with a raise and an extension.
If they hire from outside the organization, the Bears likely would be handing Cutler his third offensive coordinator in four seasons.
On Thursday, Briggs said wholesale changes wouldn’t solve anything.
‘‘We were snakebitten,” Idonije told me. ‘‘People don’t understand that. They want to point the finger at somebody. They want to point the finger at Jerry Angelo or [Smith], but that’s uncalled for.”
In addition to some salary-cap space, the Bears have all their top draft picks, as well as an extra third-round pick they acquired by trading tight end Greg Olsen to the Carolina Panthers.
‘‘We have all the basic components to be a championship team,” Idonije said. ‘‘A piece or two, and we’re there. This core group of guys will do something special. There’s no question in my mind.”
SALARY-CAP UPDATE: Among NFC North teams, the Detroit Lions are projected to be about $5 million above the cap. The Green Bay Packers are about $7 million below and the Minnesota Vikings are about $8 million below.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are expected to be the team most above the cap, according to league sources. They might be $20 million above, which means they’ll have plenty of trimming to do.
The Panthers and Oakland Raiders also will have to pare down quite a bit.
Who is in the best shape?
The Cincinnati Bengals are projected to be $40 million below the cap. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs also will have significant cap space.