The team is holding its 10th annual Fan Convention at the Hilton Chicago on Michigan Avenue this weekend, and the event is sold out for the first time ever. Coming off a 13-3 campaign and an appearance in Super Bowl XLI, the Bears proved once again in 2006 that the Windy City is and always will be a football town. There have been some defections – both players and coaches – and next season's schedule is much tougher, but the Monsters of the Midway should be contenders again.
Smith was in good spirits on Friday and addressed the media before opening ceremonies.
"This is my fourth Fan Convention," Smith said. "The excitement is high. We're coming off a great season. Sometimes we tend to forget that a little bit. I know we have some things going on, but I just can't wait for the offseason to start. We're about a week or so away from all of our players getting here and getting started. I think we'll field the best team we've had right now."
The Bears have certainly had their fair share of problems to deal with this offseason, but none caught the public's eye quite like the Tank Johnson situation. His arrest in December on weapons charges has been well documented, as has the shooting death of his bodyguard and childhood friend, Willie Posey. Johnson pled guilty to parole violation and is currently serving a 120-day jail sentence.
Smith recently visited Johnson in the Cook County lockup and was asked about that experience.
"It's hard to answer that question," he admitted. "Jail is jail. It's nothing like my home in Lake Forest this year. Tank made a couple bad decisions. He's not a victim. He'll pay his debt to society, and we'll welcome him back after that."
The other major story that won't go away revolves around the team possibly trading Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs. GM Jerry Angelo slapped him with the franchise tag back in February and guaranteed him a $7.2 million salary for next season in the process, but Briggs is unhappy about not being able to test the free agent waters and vows never to suit up for the Bears again. There is apparently an offer on the table from Washington involving the sixth overall selection in the upcoming NFL Draft, and a few other teams are rumored to be in the mix.
It certainly seems like Briggs will be wearing a different uniform in 2007, but Smith doesn't sound convinced.
"I think time heals all," he prophesized, "and that's what I think will happen in this case. Lance Briggs is a Chicago Bear. I've enjoyed having the chance to coach him the entire time he's been here, and until something changes, that's my thoughts on the matter."
Getting back to actual on-the-field issues, leading rusher Thomas Jones was dealt to the Jets for a flip-flop of second-round selections. Cedric Benson will finally be given the starting job after waiting in the wings for two seasons, but now the team is dangerously thin on the depth chart at running back. The Bears could be in the market for a secondary ball-carrier, although special-teams ace Adrian Peterson might get the call.
If Peterson is looking for a ringing endorsement, all he has to do is ask his head coach.
"I definitely think Adrian Peterson can step into that role," Smith said. "Every time we've given him a chance to play, he's played well. I'm excited about the opportunity he has in front of him."
At the safety position, Angelo acquired Adam Archuleta – a player Smith coveted in free agency just a year ago – from the Redskins for a sixth-rounder. He is a hard-hitting strong safety just like the oft-injured Mike Brown, who has missed significant time each of the last three seasons due to lower-leg ailments. Danieal Manning played fairly well as a rookie free safety in 2006, so it appears that the Bears have three starters for only two spots.
Smith confirmed that Brown will resume his role as a starter, although he didn't say exactly where.
"We have a lot of options in front of us," he said, "and that's what Adam gives us – a chance to look at some different combinations. Mike Brown is our starter. From there, we're going to let it all play out and go from there. But Mike will start at a position – one of the safety positions – and we'll go from there."
Overall, the Bears accomplished an awful lot last season, but Smith knows there is still one box that needs to be checked.
"We haven't achieved our ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl," he said. "So of course that's a driving force for us this coming season."
|John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and Editor in Chief of BearReport.com. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.|