How the Bears could avoid starting over

Mike Martz might not return to Chicago when his contract expires after this season. Jerry Lai/US Presswire

Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith turned down two opportunities this week to support offensive coordinator Mike Martz, once in a teleconference with Minnesota reporters and a second time when queried by Chicago-area media. Smith, in fact, angrily questioned why the topic was germane before the season ends.

Smith's rare loss of public composure suggests Martz's status is a sensitive subject, both for him and within the Bears organization. I suppose it's possible that Smith hasn't begun the process of evaluating Martz, whose contract expires after the season. But generally speaking, it's not a good sign for an assistant coach when his boss won't say anything comforting about his future.

So as the Bears presumably mull a future without Martz, they'll have to weigh his performance versus the value of continuity. They'll need to decide which is more important, and if there is a way to maintain what they did well this season even while hiring a new coordinator.

As rumors of Martz's demise swirled this season, I wrote several times about the collateral damage of regularly swapping offensive coordinators. The value of continuity within a scheme is reflected annually in the NFL's best teams. As the chart shows, eight of the nine teams who have qualified for the 2011 playoffs have employed the same offensive coordinator and/or used the same scheme for at least the past three seasons.

Martz has certainly displayed some pocks since the Bears hired him in 2010, most notably by opening each season with a skewed pass-run ratio that needed substantial adjustment by midseason. Would Martz's well-known stubbornness outweigh the detriment of starting over? Remember, the Bears' offense was humming in November before quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a season-ending thumb injury. In a subsequent interview, Cutler made clear he doesn't want to start over.

"If you look at the offenses around the league that are really good -- Green Bay, the Patriots, the Saints -- there is consistency there," Cutler said. "They've been in the same system. They've had the same offensive coordinator. They've had the same receivers, tight ends, guys around them that have grown up in the system.

"If you want to be an elite offense in this league, that's what you have to do. You can't keep shipping guys in and out. You can't keep doing different offensive coordinators left and right. It's hard on quarterbacks and it's hard on everyone to learn that kind of stuff."

Cutler offered the quintessential argument for maintaining continuity, and the Bears have had enough success under Martz to make it a reasonable possibility. But if Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo decide to hire a new offensive coordinator, is it possible to maintain most of their scheme?

The answer is maybe, with several caveats and an acknowledgement that I don't know how interested the candidate would be. But if the Bears elevate offensive line coach Mike Tice, they'll have a chance to build off their midseason success in 2011 and minimize the teardown that usually occurs in coordinator transitions.

Tice and Martz have much different personalities and personal histories, but their football backgrounds aren't as dissimilar as you might think. They both have roots in the Don Coryell "three-digit" offense, a scheme Tice learned while playing for ex-Washington Redskins coach Joe Gibbs. Similar to Martz, Tice likes to throw downfield and isn't interested in the shorter passing routes featured in West Coast offenses. With Tice as their offensive coordinator, the Bears could build off the terminology and scheme they have installed over the past two years.

And if his time as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach is any indication, Tice also values some of the adjustments the Bears have made in the past two seasons: Balance with the running game and more liberal use of tight ends to block and provide important outlet receivers against pressure.

Over four seasons with the Vikings, Tice's teams produced 8,140 rushing yards, an average of 2,035 per season. And in half of those years, Tice's leading receiver was tight end Jermaine Wiggins, who caught a combined 140 passes in 2004 and 2005.

Based on Cutler's public request for more balance, quicker drops and better protection, my guess is that he would be on the same philosophical page as Tice. And after being on the same team for the past two years, they should have at least some level of personal acquaintance and be ahead of where a coordinator from outside the building would start.

And now, the caveats. Tice was a quarterback at the University of Maryland, a tight end for 14 seasons in the NFL and has been a long-time offensive line coach. But despite that pedigree, he has never been an offensive coordinator and has never been the primary playcaller of a team. That's not to say he couldn't do it. It's just that after 15 years as an NFL coach, he hasn't done it yet. (We should note that the same was true for current Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli when he was installed in 2010.)

Second, Tice has restored his reputation over the past two years as an exceptional offensive line coach. Elevating him to offensive coordinator almost certainly would rob the Bears of that drill-by-drill expertise. It's difficult, if not impossible, to do both jobs. They would have to hire a new offensive line coach to replace him.

The Tennessee Titans were prepared to offer Tice their offensive coordinator job last offseason. The Bears denied the Titans' request for an interview, giving Tice a new contract instead. For that reason alone, I would imagine the Bears would at least discuss Tice as a possibility if they let Martz go. It wouldn't be a slam-dunk hire, but it would fall well short of starting over. That alone would make Tice worth careful consideration.