If there were an NFL Assistant Coach of the Year award, Mike Tice would win because he accepted a career suicide mission that's one victory from becoming a 60-point headline on his résumé.

A year ago this month, Tice was asked to climb aboard Lovie Smith's hot seat in Chicago. It was a job most 51-year-old former NFL head coaches would have run from kicking and screaming. But Smith wanted Tice desperately. So desperately that he ended up hiring Tice as offensive line coach 17 days before he hired Mike Martz as offensive coordinator.

Today, Martz gets the credit for making the Bears offense good enough to reach Sunday's NFC Championship Game against the rival Packers at Soldier Field. He's the ship's captain, dressed in white sipping champagne with the dignitaries. Tice is down below, covered in sweat and soot, shoveling coal into the creaky engine that was supposed to die but somehow didn't.

"What Mike's getting out of that line is nothing less than miraculous to me," said Fox NFL analyst Brian Billick, who coached Tice as a player and later worked with him on Dennis Green's Vikings coaching staff.

What Tice inherited was an offensive line in disrepair. And there would be no quick fix coming from the top of the NFL draft. No, it was up to Tice to find five guys, put them in the right spots and, as Billick said, "coach his butt off."

Tice has the ample butt of a guy who played 14 NFL seasons as a blocking tight end. But consider it mission accomplished for the former Vikings coach.

"I started out being known as a good offensive line coach [in Minnesota]," Tice told the New York Times this week. "Then I became a head coach and everyone decided I was a buffoon. Then I made a couple of mistakes and people thought I was a bigger buffoon. I'm still a good coach. More than anything, that's what you want your legacy to be."

Tice left Jacksonville after four seasons knowing things wouldn't be easy in Chicago. In the Bears' first five games, Tice used four different starting combinations. He dumped tackle Josh Beekman, a former promising fourth-round draft choice. He took right tackle Frank Omiyale and made him the left tackle. He took left tackle Chris Williams and made him the left guard.

"Mike is a general manager's dream," Billick said. "Most guys with Mike's résumé would come in and say, 'Are you kidding me? I can't work with these guys. Go get me a first-round draft choice.' But Mike came in and said, 'I'll work with what you have and make it work.' The Bears didn't do [anything] to improve that line."

Actually, that's not entirely true. The Bears used their seventh-round draft pick on a J'Marcus Webb, a giant from tiny Division II West Texas A&M.

And why did the Bears draft this nobody from nowhere? Because the 6-8, 335-pounder hit Tice so hard during a predraft workout that Tice chipped a tooth. Tice loved it. He was sold.

Today, Webb is the right tackle on a line that has had the same five starters in the same five sports for 10 consecutive games. Chicago is 8-2 in those 10 games.

The Bears' success overall can be traced back to their bye week 10 games ago. That's when Smith and his three former head coaches -- Tice, Martz and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli -- sat down and did some serious self-evaluation. It was determined that the pass-happy Martz needed to be the not-so-pass-happy Martz. Since then, he's called more runs (303) than passes (280).

The line's improvement can be marked by the difference in the two games against Seattle. In the Week 6 loss, Jay Cutler had no time to throw and was sacked six times as the Seahawks blitzed 21 times. In last week's divisional playoff victory, Seattle blitzed early in the first quarter. Tice's boys picked it up, Cutler threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen and Seattle went away quietly.

"Mike really is one of the unsung heroes for Chicago this year," Billick said. "And, frankly, it's been one of the greatest coaching jobs in the NFL this entire season."

mark craig • mcraig@startribune.com