The Bears had to either pay the man who led a team that spiraled down the stretch, or enter lame duck status with Lovie Smith in the final year of his contract in 2013, a position that isn’t ideal for either side due to its uncertainty.

They chose neither, and Smith has now been fired.

This feels like a move that’s too reactionary, even in the inherently reactionary world of NFL coaching. Yes, Smith’s Bears faltered significantly this year. After a promising first half of the season in which they lost only one game and seemed to be cruising towards a playoff berth at the very least, disaster followed in the second half. They went through a stretch in which they lost five of six games, leading to the episode of despair we saw play out yesterday in which a win wasn’t enough to clinch a playoff berth, and the Bears needed help in the form of a Vikings loss that didn’t come.

So Smith joins the unemployed in what is the first mild surprise of Black Monday following the formalities of the Andy Reid, Chan Gailey, Pat Shurmur, and Romeo Crennel firings. But now an elite defensive team has jettisoned its elite defensive mind, all because of essentially one poor, isolated stretch.

There will be those who also cite last season, which is downright foolish. Sure, Chicago also collapsed a year ago after an encouraging start, but while making that comparison to this year, you’re taking a handful of oranges and stuffing them into an apple. How do you like those orapples?

A year ago both Jay Cutler and Matt Forte were lost for much of the second half of the season, leaving the offense to cope with the likes of Caleb Hanie. Yeah, that never ends well.

But even if we’re willing to disregard the failings of the past two seasons, the time for change may have come. Smith rode his Super Bowl appearance in 2006 through multiple mediocre seasons in which his teams hovered around the .500 mark, finishing with a combined record of 23-25 over three seasons between 2007 and 2009. They’ve made the playoffs only once since that Super Bowl appearance, winning just three post-season games during Smith’s nine-year tenure.

He won’t struggle to find employment elsewhere, though, especially with four other job openings already avaliable here in the just the early hours of Black Monday. The fear in Chicago is that a top five defense over two of the past three years may regress due to both Smith’s departure, and bones and muscles at key positions that aren’t getting any younger (hi, Brian Urlacher).