Smith's return to Chicago sparks memories
Nov. 20, 2014
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) — The jabs kept coming from Lovie Smith, and all Lance Briggs wanted to do was prove his new coach wrong. A decade later, the seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker smiled as he looked back.
It was 2004. Briggs was in his second year and Smith was in his first as Chicago Bears coach.
"He challenged me all the time," Briggs said. "It was always, 'Lance, you're not gonna make that play' or 'he'll never make that play.' He'd always talk to Brian (Urlacher). He'd talk to some of the other guys, like, 'Lance can't make that play.'"
There was plenty of reflecting Wednesday as the Bears prepared to host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Smith's first game against them since he was fired two years ago.
Briggs recalled earning Smith's respect and the change in tone over the years. It went from those motivational shots to the coach expressing faith in his linebacker's ability to make plays, to help shut down opponents.
Briggs insisted Smith "should be remembered as one of the great coaches of Chicago" along with George Halas and Mike Ditka.
But it's not that simple.
Smith guided the Bears to an 81-63 record during a nine-season run from 2004-12 that produced three playoff appearances and a trip to the Super Bowl. But his stubbornness at times was a source of frustration in Chicago. So were the struggles in the second halves in each of his final two seasons that kept the Bears out of the playoffs.
While his defense consistently excelled, Smith could never solve the problems on offense.
That, along with the playoff misses ultimately led to his downfall, with the Bears firing him after they missed the postseason despite winning 10 games in 2012.
They're 12-14 under Marc Trestman, and at 4-6, they will likely miss the postseason for the seventh time in eight years. Smith, meanwhile, is trying to build a winner in Tampa Bay after a year out of the league.
The Buccaneers are 2-8 but just two games off the NFC South lead heading into Sunday's game. As much as Smith insisted he's simply another coach trying to win at Soldier Field, even he could not avoid reflecting just a little on his time in Chicago.
He called coaching there a "dream come true." He said he was "proud of everything we were able to do."
Only Halas and Ditka coached the Bears longer and won more games than Smith, who had never been a head coach. Before that, he was an assistant on Tony Dungy's staff in Tampa Bay and defensive coordinator in St. Louis.
"Being my first head coaching job, all of my philosophies and things that I thought I believed in, I got a chance to see," he said. "Every imaginable situation you can be in as a head football coach, I feel like I had a chance to be in there (in Chicago). Just about any game — coaching the Hall of Fame game to a Super Bowl. Besides winning a Super Bowl, I think as a coach I got a chance to witness and be a part of just about everything you could want to as a coach. So there were a lot of things that came around."
Smith said he "loved the organization." He mentioned the players and the "lifetime memories, the lifetime relationships" he forged with the Bears.
He did not seem too concerned about fans' reactions on Sunday.
"I don't need anything validated this week," he said. "Fans were great to me and my family while we were there, administration was."
Players remain loyal, too.
Bears defensive tackle Stephen Paea appreciated Smith's honesty. He also remembered getting the call from the Bears when they drafted him in 2011. On the other end was Smith, and the coach had a question for him.
"First thing he told me — 'How does it feel to play by Julius Peppers and Brian Urlacher?'" Paea said. "I was like, 'Hell, yeah, I'll come to Chicago and play.'
"It's gonna be an exciting game for us."
NOTES: The Bears downplayed a players-only video session held last week. DE Jared Allen said defensive coordinator Mel Tucker approached him about holding one "to give us an opportunity to take over as leaders and add some accountability to the defense." ... Briggs, RB Matt Forte and DT Jeremiah Ratliff sat out Wednesday's practice for non-injury reasons. DT Ego Ferguson (illness), WR Alshon Jeffery (hamstring), WR Brandon Marshall (ankle), DE Trevor Scott (knee), LB Darryl Sharpton (hamstring) and WR Chris Williams (hamstring) did not participate. OL Eben Britton (illness), RT Jordan Mills (ribs) and WR Josh Morgan (shoulder) were limited.
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