I wrote a piece just a relatively short time ago, back when the Chicago Bears were 7-3, that suggested that Lovie Smith was very likely going to return to coach the Bears, probably signing an extension after the season.
But a lot has happened since then—most of it bad—so the outlook is not as clear as it once was.
Smith is not a bad coach, but if the Bears continue to flounder, what kind of message is that sending to fans and players alike—that mediocrity is rewarded?
Look, if the Bears don't make the playoffs after starting out by winning seven of their first eight games, GM Phil Emery may not be able to justify bringing Smith back. Since head coaches in the NFL often are not allowed to be lame ducks, the decision to either extend or fire Smith should happen after this season.
If Emery decides to fire Smith, one thing I would insist upon is to either hire a head coach who understands offense or has the presence of mind to hire the right man to lead the offense. For example, if the Chargers fire Norv Turner, he might make a good candidate to be an offensive coordinator for the next head coach.
I realize the Bears are steeped in defensive tradition as the Monsters of the Midway, but the game has changed. No longer does defense alone win championships—you have to score in today's NFL to win.
With that in mind, let's take a look at five potential candidates to replace Smith as the next head coach of the Bears. We all know the Bears have never hired a head coach with experience, but maybe Emery has other ideas.
The Dream Team (probably not going to happen)
1. Jon Gruden
Whether or not you like Gruden as a television analyst, one thing is clear—the man is all about preparation, and he stays current on all the trends in the modern game. Therefore, I feel he has an advantage over other former coaches who have been out of the league for a while.
Some media outlets are suggesting that the Dallas Cowboys may be looking to hire Gruden, so it is true that it will take a boatload of money and potentially say-so in front office matters for a team to lure Gruden away from his Monday Night Football gig.
It can be done, but it's doubtful the Bears would be willing to a) pay Smith and Gruden next year, and b) give the next head coach any GM responsibilities.
But if it can be worked out, I think Gruden is worth strong consideration. The 49-year-old former coach of the Buccaneers (with whom he won Super Bowl XXXVII) and Oakland Raiders has an overall record of 100-85 as a head coach in the NFL.
Again, this would be nice but probably will not happen.
Optional: If they can't land Jon, perhaps the Bears would be interested in Jon's younger brother, Jay Gruden, who has done a nice job with young QB Andy Dalton in Cincinnati.
2. Sean Payton
Another choice that is not highly likely, but since this is my article, I'm picking the guys I would want to coach the team, not the men most likely to do it.
If the Saints don't reward him with a huge contract, he will become a much-sought-after free agent, and once again I would expect the Cowboys to be interested. While he would come with the same cost as Gruden, which wouldn't appeal to the Bears, he would be a great replacement for Smith.
Payton is 67-37 overall as a head coach, including winning the 2009 Super Bowl. He worked with Gruden in Philadelphia and was once the offensive coordinator (OC) for the Giants and Cowboys, so he understands offense well and especially the QB position.
But again, like Gruden, he will want a lot of money, and he will be in high demand. Unlike Gruden, he will definitely want to coach somewhere next season. Still, I expect him to return to the Saints, though I would love to see him with the Bears.
3. Brian Billick
Billick is another bright offensive mind who works well with QBs. I don't know how much he would like to work with Jay Cutler, however, since he has said some not-so-kind things about him in the past, even comparing him to Jeff George.
He won Super Bowl XXXV with the Ravens, and although he has not coached in a while (since the end of the 2007 season), he stays intensely involved in the NFL through his role as an analyst on Fox.
He's a bit older than the other guys at 58, but he was also the OC for the Minnesota Vikings when they broke the scoring record in 1998.
Since he played tight end, perhaps he would finally allow the Bears to get one that can actually catch the ball and be a vital part of the offense.
Billick's overall coaching record is 85-67, and although he is known as an offensive-minded coach, his defense was what led the Ravens to their Super Bowl title, so he knows the importance of a strong defense, which should sit well with Bears fans and hierarchy.
Again, this is not likely, as we do not know if he wants to coach or what his salary and other demands would be. Then there is that ever-present understanding that the Bears have never hired a coach with previous head coaching experience.
The "Real" Candidates:
4. Tom Clements
I can hear Bears fans shaking their collective heads, exclaiming that no Packers coach can become the next head coach of our Bears. But as much as I join you in my despise of all that is green and gold, Clements will be a hot coaching commodity after his work as the Packers OC.
Yes, he has Aaron Rodgers, who actually has regressed slightly this season, although he is still one of the top two or three QBs in the game, if not the best.
But Clements would have the advantage of knowing the Packers and how to beat them. And he has an offensive background that the Bears need. And like Smith, Clements is a mild-mannered coach. But he is known to be a teacher, and unlike Smith, he knows offense.
Clements is a smart guy with a law degree. I would let him lay down the law for the Bears next season. He also would come at a price that would appeal to the Bears brass. Clements also served as the offensive coordinator for the Bills for two seasons.
5. Bruce Arians
Arians is the current interim head coach for the Indianapolis Colts, and since he got the gig, the Colts have gone 8-2. Yes, he has a terrific young QB in Andrew Luck to work with, but what he has done has been nothing short of remarkable.
And he is another offensive-minded coach. Brian Billick himself says that Arians should be a hot coaching commodity, according to this article by CBSSports.com's Clark Judge, who quotes Billick as saying the following:
"What he's done in Indianapolis exemplifies or expands on the idea that he can win, and he's proven it under extreme circumstances," said former coach Brian Billick, now an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network. "I would think if you're putting a list together his name would be high on it—especially if you're looking for an offensive-minded guy."
Well, the Bears just so happen to be looking for that kind of guy, while the Colts are likely to bring Chuck Pagano back when he's ready to return from cancer.
6. Dirk Koetter
Koetter is the OC for the Atlanta Falcons, but he also has significant college experience. In addition to his current gig with the Falcons, he served as Jacksonsville's offensive coordinator and/or QB coach from 2007-2011.
Before coming to the NFL, Koetter was the OC for five colleges and the head coach at Boise State and Arizona State. He is known for installing a vertical passing attack and was instrumental in improving the Jags offense while with the team.
Former Jags coach Jack Del Rio was fired back in 2011 after he threw Koetter under the bus, blaming him for his game-calling and use of timeouts.
He's known for his expertise in the passing game. In his first season with the Jaguars, Koetter directed a record-breaking season by the offense, setting team records for points and TDs (including most TD passes)
7. Mike McCoy
McCoy has served as the OC for the Denver Broncos since the 2009 season. He is currently working with Peyton Manning, so he is starting to get some notice as a head coaching candidate.
McCoy would be a young coach (40) to build around, and he was a former QB. He has previously interviewed for the Miami and Oakland head-coaching vacancies.
8. Chip Kelly
Would the Bears take a chance on a college coach? Well, consider that he would be coaching the Tampa Bay Bucs this year if he hadn't gotten cold feet and that he is considered an innovative offensive guru.
The current head coach for the Oregon Ducks has no NFL experience. There is a strong risk with his hire, as we don't know how his up-tempo spread offense will work in the NFL. Plus, we know that several high-profile college coaches have failed at the next level.
But he will be a hot commodity after the season, and I wouldn't be surprised if he's coaching somewhere in the NFL in 2013.
His coaching is the stuff of legends. He runs his players to the point of vomiting. He employs a no-huddle offense that uses just one word to signify everything involved in the play. According to The Boston Globe, even Bill Belichick has sought his advice.
That's good enough for me.