What a Turnaround

Back on Oct. 10, when the Bears were 1-3 and coming off a 20-10 loss the day before to the last-place Browns, even their most avid supporters had shovels in hand and were tossing dirt on the team's playoff hopes.

Coach Lovie Smith called a staff meeting that day -- not to bury the Bears, but to praise them. That meeting was recalled late Sunday night on the bus from O'Hare Airport to Halas Hall after the 11-4 Bears clinched only their second playoff berth in 11 years with a 24-17 victory over the Packers at Lambeau Field. Quarterbacks coach Wade Wilson, defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, defensive backs coach Perry Fewell and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake were basking in the glow of success and reminiscing about that get-together 11 weeks ago.

Smith told his staff: "Guys, at the end of the year, we're going to look back at this meeting, and we're going to laugh and say we made the playoffs and we were 1-3."

Since then, the Bears have gone 10-1, and regardless of what happens Sunday against the Vikings at the Metrodome, they will have a first-round bye and host a second-round playoff game, making a prophet out of their coach.

"I'm telling you, he said that," Rivera said. "Wade reminded us of it, and we all kind of chuckled about it. He never stopped believing. You look at those things and the things that coach Smith has done for us this year, and you most certainly have to say he is coach of the year."

Offensive coordinator Ron Turner credits Smith's attitude at that meeting as a turning point in the season. The Bears had been held to 10 points or less in each of their three losses and were starting rookie Kyle Orton at quarterback and another rookie, Mark Bradley, at wide receiver. But Smith, who spent Monday attending funeral services for James Dungy, the son of Colts coach Tony Dungy, wasn't discouraged after his team's poor start.

"I remember that meeting," Turner said, "and to me that's a tribute to Lovie, and Lovie being positive, being confident and basically telling us, 'What we're doing is good. Let's just stick with it. Let's just keep doing what we're doing, and we're going to weather this storm and get through it.' I think that was a huge message that Lovie sent to all of us.

"You're sitting at 1-3 after that Cleveland loss. Everyone (on the staff) could have been down, and we could have stayed down, and the team would have reacted that way. But Lovie didn't let that happen. He believed that we were going to get it turned around. He believed that we were good a football team and it was just a matter of getting everything going, and he sent that message to us loud and clear. I think because of that, we sent it to the players loud and clear, and we just kept battling through and won eight in a row."

Back then, there were plenty of Bears critics who anticipated the team going in the opposite direction and living down to the preseason expectations. But, according to his top assistants, Smith never believed the doubters and never lost faith in his organization or his personnel.

"We were supposed to be 3-13 according to a lot of people," Rivera said. "We were supposed to be last in the NFL and the 32nd-ranked team. But he never stopped believing, and he got us to believe in ourselves and believe in each other. To accomplish what we did this year, and to not have a lot of people behind us, is a great testament to coach's belief in the players and in the team and the systems that we have. It really is kind of an eerie feeling to be in our position right now when there were so many doubters."

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