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“Not physically, but mentally,” Hester said.

He wasn’t ruling out playing next year, either.

While Smith was dismissed, there was no official word on the status of assistant coaches.

“I think we’re going to get the best available coordinator, head coach, assistant coaches,” Cutler said. “(I’m not going) to speculate where they’re going to go. I have no idea. But I trust Phil and everyone involved in the search, and they’re going to make the best decisions they can make.”

Known for solid defenses, Smith oversaw a unit that was consistently effective and at times ranked among the league’s best with stars such as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and later Julius Peppers. Smith emphasized taking the ball away from the opposition, and no team did it more than the Bears with 310 during his tenure.

But on the other side, it was a different story.

Smith went through four offensive coordinators in Terry Shea, Ron Turner, Mike Martz and Mike Tice. He never could find the right formula, even as the Bears acquired stars such as quarterback Jay Cutler and receiver Brandon Marshall over the years.

Smith had no bigger supporter than team matriarch Virginia McCaskey, but the fans seemed split on him.

“The media, the false fans, you all got what you all wanted,” Hester said. “The majority of you all wanted him out. As players we wanted him in. I guess the fans _ the false fans _ out-ruled us. I thought he was a great coach, probably one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around. He brought me in.”

History suggests fans hoping for a high-profile replacement such as Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden might be disappointed. The last time the Bears went with an experienced NFL head coach was when Halas returned to the sideline in 1958.

They might, however, go with an offensive-minded coach for the first time since Mike Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, given the issues in that area.

That the Bears would be in this spot seemed unthinkable after they won seven of their first eight games, but the schedule took a tougher turn. Injuries mounted and so did the losses. It was similar to last season when they finished 8-8 after a 7-3 start, a collapse sparked by a season-ending injury to Cutler.

Dismissing Smith was the first move in what looks like a busy offseason. Urlacher has an expiring contract and was limited by knee and hamstring injuries this year.

The Bears might have a decision to make on Cutler, who has one more year left on his contract.

“I think, first and foremost, their concern is going to be with finding coaches, and we’ll address it from there,” he said.

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