Lovie Smith is the Bears' backbone
LAKE FOREST, Ill.
The soul and heartbeat of the Chicago Bears is a defense that is embedded as deeply into the franchise’s DNA as winter bringing the biting wind off Lake Michigan or back-room dealing that is part of the city’s political lore.
Any discussion of the Bears starts with defense – and stays with defense unless someone has the temerity to interject something about offense or special teams.
Gale Sayers and Walter Payton provided the offensive sizzle in different generations, but the franchise’s foundation is built on defense. The legendary names are Butkus, Singletary, the Monsters of the Midway and the 46 Defense of the 1985 season’s Super Bowl champs.
Lovie Smith is the defensive-minded head coach who led the Bears to first place in the NFC North with an 11-5 record and their first playoff berth since the 2006 team lost to the Colts in the Super Bowl.
It’s the Bears’ defense that should send the Seattle Seahawks crashing back to reality in Sunday’s NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field.
The Bears reflect their tradition of defense, and Smith’s stoic public persona.
On the sideline, Smith looks like he could exhale icicles in July.
Whatever fiery rhetoric Smith brings to his job is seen only behind closed doors.
“The team probably takes on a little bit of your persona,” Smith said as the Bears prepared for a rematch from their regular-season loss to the Seahawks. I just don’t see the benefit you get into being like that -- too high too low. You have to stay in the moment of what’s going on.
“I just never saw the benefit of trying to create a scene on the sideline. We motivate guys in different ways. It’s kind of who I am, who are football team is.”
The Bears are built to win on defense. In the offseason, they signed defensive end Julius Peppers, the No. 1 free agent on the market. The Bears have four players on the NFC Pro Bowl team. Three are on defense – Peppers and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. The fourth is return specialist Devin Hester. Hester does most of his damage on punt returns – he brought three back for touchdowns -- after the defense stops the other team’s offense.
“Everybody knows, no matter what the offense does, he’s going to put the game on the defense’s shoulders,” said cornerback Charles Tillman. “If they can’t score points, we win the game. That’s his motto.”
The Bears were ninth in the league in yards allowed in the regular season, second in forced fumbles (37), tied for third in total takeaways (35) and fourth in points allowed (286).
Smith’s coaching style makes him under-appreciated by fans, despite his 65-49 record in seven seasons. But Smith has locker room cred with his players.
“He’s very calm all the time, for us,” said Urlacher. “I know you guys don’t like his demeanor most of the time. Or the fans. We love it.
“He’s not that way on the field with us. He’s not that way in the meetings with us. He lets you know where we stand. He keeps us prepared all the time. We’re always prepared to play.”
If the public doesn’t know exactly what makes Lovie tick, Rod Marinelli, his long-time friend and defensive coordinator of the Bears, knows what ticks him off.
“There are a couple things,” Marinelli said. “Missed tackles.”
That drew laughs from a knot of reporters at a midweek practice. Marinelli turned serious.
“One of the things, and our team reflects that, is we don’t have a lot of major ups and downs,” Marinelli said.
“That’s consistency. It starts at the top.You want to be a consistent football team, which is the toughness of mind – to be consistent. Lovie shows that.”
This might have been a turning-point season in Smith’s career as a head coach. He has one more season left on his contract, with a base salary reportedly in the range of $5 million for 2011.
Had the Bears missed the playoffs for a fourth straight year, there is speculation that president Ted Phillips and general manager Jerry Angelo might have considered making a change.
Now the talk is whether Smith will get an extension. A victory over the Seahawks would certainly boost his stock.
This has been a bounce-back season from last year’s 7-9 record that left the Bears in third place in the North.
They had issues early this year, mainly on offense with poor pass protection and lack of commitment to the running game.
After winning their first three games, they lost three out of four and reached the bye with a 4-3 record. They were sitting on a precarious balance point, with a season that could go in either direction.
They responded with a 5-game winning streak that put them in position to win the North.
One of the early losses was 23-20 at home to Seattle, when the defense didn’t have a sack or a turnover. Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck took advantage of an un-Bearlike defense to throw for 242 yards and a touchdown.
There’s one way to correct that problem.
“You can’t throw the ball if you’re on your back,” Tillman said.
Lovie Smith would agree.
Mike O’Hara is a frequent contributor for FOX Sports Detroit.