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updated: 12/25/2012 7:16 PM

Stakes couldn't be higher for Smith, Cutler

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  • Coach Lovie Smith, left, and quarterback Jay Cutler have plenty on the line when the Bears travel to Detroit for the regular-season finale Sunday.

      Coach Lovie Smith, left, and quarterback Jay Cutler have plenty on the line when the Bears travel to Detroit for the regular-season finale Sunday.
    Associated Press

 
 

Earlier in the week Lovie Smith perfectly summed up the situation heading into Week 17.

"This time of year you want to be in it," the Bears' coach said. "You want to be relevant, and we are."

But there will be a lot more than relevancy at stake for Smith and the Bears on Sunday against the Lions at Detroit's Ford Field (noon, FOX).

First and foremost is Smith's continued employment.

With the Bears' playoff berth hanging in the balance, losing to a 4-11 team should guarantee Smith's departure. A victory and a postseason appearance should ensure that he is back for the final year of his contract, even if he isn't rewarded with an extension. If the Bears win and don't get in, it's anybody's guess on Smith's future.

Sidebar:I don't agree with the majority who say the Bears can't allow Smith to return next season as a lame duck coach in what would be the final year of his contract.

Why not? The league is full of players with fat contracts who earned those big bucks by coming up huge in the final year of their previous contract. Why can't that incentive work for a coach?

The common argument is that players won't work hard for a coach with one foot out the door. But having the respect of his players has never been a problem for Smith. The concept of players going all out to save a coach's job is overstated, but in this case, that's a more likely scenario than players taking advantage of Smith's tenuous position and quitting on him.

On Sunday, it will also be about players saving their own jobs, and that starts with Jay Cutler. If the Bears' quarterback can't lead a victory over a team that has lost seven straight and has shown signs of mailing it in for a month, then he's not the franchise quarterback the Bears thought they were getting when they mortgaged their future to acquire him.

And it doesn't matter if the Bears line up five folding chairs in front of him. If Cutler is the quarterback to eventually get the Bears to a Super Bowl, this is a game where he has to elevate the entire offense to a higher level. If he can't do that against the Lions, he doesn't deserve an extension of his current contract that expires after next season -- and it's time for the Bears to start looking for his successor.

This is a Lions defense that has allowed at least 24 points in seven straight games and more than 30 points in five of the seven. With so much at stake for the Bears, if Cutler can't light it up against a poor defense with nothing to play for, when will he ever be able to?

Mike Tice's future as a play-caller and an offensive coordinator is also at stake. If he can't figure out an effective way to attack a defense that gave up 44 points to the Titans, it's time for a different approach.

"We have a chance, and that's all you can hope for," Smith said. "It's not an ideal situation that we're in. But hopefully we can take care of business."

If they don't do that Sunday, Bears ownership and general manager Phil Emery must begin the business of reconstruction.

rlegere@dailyherald.com

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