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If it were up to the players, Smith would be back with Bears

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- A day after their disappointing season ended, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith met with his team and huddled with management.

One thing he apparently didn't do: Act like a guy on his way out.

Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said Monday that Smith talked about goals for next season and what players need to do in the offseason. He also gave his coach an endorsement.

"We think that he should be here," Hillenmeyer said. "I'm under the impression that he will be. I certainly hope he will be."

The Bears are expected to make changes after going 7-9 and missing the playoffs for the third straight year since their Super Bowl run, but exactly how drastic the makeover will be remains to be seen. Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and president Ted Phillips didn't make themselves available for comment Monday.

The Bears had high expectations after the arrival of quarterback Jay Cutler in a blockbuster trade with Denver in the offseason, only to come apart after a 3-1 start. They dropped eight of 10 before winning their final two games, and with each loss, speculation mounted.

Angelo only added to it before the game at Baltimore on Dec. 20 when he shot down an Internet report that the organization had decided to bring back Smith. He did praise the roster makeup and said money would not be an issue in deciding the future of a coach with two years left on his contract.

The Bears then delivered an ugly 31-7 loss to the Ravens before finishing with back-to-back wins over NFC North leader Minnesota and lowly Detroit, leaving Smith with a 52-44 record over six years.

The strong finish might be enough to save the coach. What happens to offensive coordinator Ron Turner is another question, as is what happens to the defensive coordinator position, since Smith was calling those shots after stripping Bob Babich of the play-calling duties.

"Three years really in the scheme of things isn't that long," said defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, who broke his left leg late in the season. "Anything can change in a heartbeat. And next year could be the year. So for the way that he's taken this organization to the Super Bowl and to the NFC championship, I think he deserves a little bit more credit than he's getting.

"We're not going to be on top all the time. Even if you're Bill Belichick or Lovie Smith, you're going to have your ups and downs. Right now, he's in a little bit of a down but I'm sure he can get it up."

Cornerback Charles Tillman also endorsed Smith, calling him "a guy you want to play for."

"He's a hell of a coach," said Tillman, who missed the final game with broken ribs and a lung contusion. "He's a good person, and I think we all like him for what he's done for this team."

Turner, meanwhile, said after the Detroit game that he expects to be back and that he was "pleased with what we did the last couple of weeks."

The problem was what happened the first couple of months.

Star linebacker Brian Urlacher dislocated his right wrist in the opener at Green Bay and needed season-ending surgery, and things only got worse from there.

Cutler found himself running for cover behind a struggling line and wound up with a league-leading 26 interceptions -- the most by a Bears quarterback since Sid Luckman's club record 31 in 1947 and the most in the NFL since Brett Favre threw 29 for Green Bay in 2005.

On a more positive note, Cutler's 3,666 yards passing were second most by a Bears quarterback behind Erik Kramer's 3,838 in 1995, and an inexperienced receiving corps showed some promise.

Johnny Knox ranked seventh among rookies with 45 catches for 527 yards. Devin Aromashodu came on strong over the final month and finished with 298 yards, perhaps persuading the Bears to make Devin Hester a full-time return specialist again. Then again, maybe Hester's 44-yard kickoff return on Sunday did the trick. If nothing else, it brought back memories of his first two seasons.

Of course, everything starts with the protection, and the Bears have some decisions to make on two veterans, center Olin Kreutz and tackle Orlando Pace.

They also have issues on defense, where former Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommie Harris struggled for most of the year. Ogunleye has an expiring contract. The secondary has question marks, too. And can the Bears count on having a healthy Urlacher, who battled neck and back problems in recent years?

That's one of many questions facing this team.

On Monday, the Bears took out full-page ads in the city's two biggest papers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, thanking fans for their support while apologizing for what happened this season. The big question now is where they go from here.

"We had a bad year," defensive lineman Israel Idonije said. "It would be a shame to make a scapegoat of one person."

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