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Lovie Smith (1 Viewer)


Smith Sparked Bears' Drive From 1-3 to Playoffs

Reaction to Cleveland Loss Early in Season Began Chicago Turnaround


CHICAGO (Jan. 8) - They can smile about it now, of course.

The Chicago Bears lost at dreadful Cleveland the previous day, and this figured to be a rather miserable coaches meeting. It developed into a moment of defiance, faith - and a turning point.

There was coach Lovie Smith telling his assistants, point blank, "At the end of the year, we're going to look back at this meeting, laugh, and say, 'We made the playoffs and we were 1-3."'

Defensive coordinator Ron Rivera smiled as he relayed that story.

At a time when they could have easily crumbled, the Bears showed their resolve, and look at them now. They won eight straight and 10 of 12 to finish the regular season 11-5, win the NFC North and earn a first-round playoff bye.

And on Saturday, Smith became the fourth Bears coach voted The Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year, joining two-time winners George Halas and Mike Ditka and 2001 recipient **** Jauron.

"I think that part of the season was a perfect example of a team going back to work, hitting the practice field and getting something done," Smith said.

In his second season, the Bears improved from 5-11 to 11-5 and allowed the fewest points in the NFL - no surprise, considering Smith built his reputation as a defensive coach at Tampa Bay and St. Louis.

The Bears withstood the loss of starting quarterback Rex Grossman to an ankle injury that kept him out of the first 13 games, and a contract holdout that wiped out rookie running back Cedric Benson's preseason. He struggled, then suffered a knee injury.

Yet, the Bears prospered.

To the players and assistants, this is a perfect example of a team feeding off its leader.

In public, Smith rarely shows emotion. And the players say he's the same way with them. He's even-keeled, stoic, and the perfect antidote to a fiery group.

The anti-Ditka.

Rivera called it a "calming strength."

To defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, it's a balancing act.

"We have (middle linebacker) Brian Urlacher, we have (center) Olin Kreutz, (safety) Mike Brown," he said. "You kind of need somebody to balance that out, and Lovie's that guy. But he still finds ways to get under your skin, too."

Like when he told Ogunleye, "If you don't get double-digit sacks, I'll be disappointed." Ogunleye had 10 during the regular season.

"He said that even-keeled, but in the back of your mind, you're like, 'I can't be a disappointment. I've got to make sure I do that."'

It brought Ogunleye back to his childhood, when his parents would tell him: "This is a big responsibility for you. I'm going to let you do it."

"You feel like you don't want to let your parents down," he said.

And he feels the same way about his coach.

Defensive tackle Tank Johnson "gained a better sense of responsibility, being a man" from Smith.

"He taught me what it means to be accountable not only to your family and friends but your teammates and job," Johnson said.

Johnson was placed on 18 months probation, ordered to perform 40 hours of community service and pay a $2,500 fine after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor gun charge in November.

"When you have something special like we have here, you don't want to be the person that tears it down," Johnson said. "You want to be the person who builds it up."

Smith's calm appearance belies a competitive fire, one that burned through the morning after that Cleveland game. The Bears had just lost by 10 to a Browns team that finished 6-10.

"I think it was a defining moment for the season," Smith said. "When we were 1-3, that was definitely not the way I had it pictured finishing up the first quarter of our season. But I knew we had a good football team. The team knew we had a good football team. You can go one way or the other.

"You can complain or you can do something about it."

To offensive coordinator Ron Turner, Smith sent a message "loud and clear" during that meeting - a message that trickled down to the players.

And the Bears responded.

They defied expectations and logic and set themselves on a course for their first playoff appearance in four years.

They routed a Minnesota team that was rocked by a boat party scandal to start an eight-game win streak, and a turnaround that seemed so unlikely after that Cleveland game.

"Everyone could have been down," Turner said. "Lovie didn't let that happen. He believed we were a good football team; it was just a matter of getting everything going."

01/08/06 14:42 EST


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