Bears coach Lovie Smith is the quintessential glass-half-full kind of guy, and that attitude is never more on display than when his team first reports to training camp on the campus of Olivet Nazarene University.
Smith earned himself a four-year, $22 million contract extension after 2006, when he directed the Monsters of the Midway to Super Bowl XLI, meaning he is on the books through 2012. However, following three straight campaigns out of the playoffs and a cumulative 23-25 record along the way, the organization felt the need announce at its season-ending press conference this past January that Smith survived the coaching purge and would indeed return in 2010.
General manager Jerry Angelo bucked the trend that the Bears throw around nickels like they are manhole covers by making Chicago the league's epicenter on Day 1 of free agency, signing defensive end Julius Peppers, running back Chester Taylor and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna. In the NFL Draft, while Angelo didn't have a choice before Round 3 for the second April in a row, third-round safety Major Wright and fourth-round defensive end Corey Wootton both have a chance to contribute as rookies. Additionally, there are new coordinators on either side of the football, with pass-happy Mike Martz now running the offense and Cover-2 disciple Rod Marinelli taking the reigns on defense – he was the defensive line coach and an assistant head coach in 2009.
Throughout the offseason program at Halas Hall, the majority of the attention fell on Martz implementing his notoriously-complicated scheme, although he and quarterback Jay Cutler appear to be on the same page so far and expect big things from each other. Defensively, having a healthy Brian Urlacher back at middle linebacker has to be a refreshing site for Bears fans, as the long-time face of the franchise missed 15 of 16 games a year ago with a fluke wrist dislocation that required immediate surgery.
Cutler said upon his arrival in Bourbonnais that he supports his coach and doesn't like the idea of him being on the hot seat this season, although Smith himself downplayed the notion that players may have a "win just one for the Gipper" mentality.
"We need to win for the Chicago Bears," Smith said from the gazebo in the middle of campus. "They want to play their best. That's what we are going to talk about, players playing their best every time they get an opportunity to. Everything else takes care of itself. It's no more than that. You guys are going to talk a lot about that stuff."
While most of the experts feel the Bears are the third-best team in the NFC North, well behind the Packers and Vikings, Smith has welcomed the role of the underdog in the past and likes his ballclub at this point.
"For us, it's been a long time since we've been in the playoffs," said Smith. "We want to play our best football, and I have been in this game a little bit. I think I know what a good football team looks like. This is a good football team. Every week, everything will take care of itself."
Most of the media will spend their time in training camp focusing on the offense, as the Martz-Cutler marriage should prove to be good theater if nothing else, but Smith has no doubt the entire unit will have Martz's playbook digested cover to cover by Week 1.
"I'm very confident," he said. "As you talk with our football players, I think you're going to get the same message. A lot has been said about our offense and how hard it is. Are you going to be able to get it before the season? Our guys have picked up the offense well. Jay Cutler has good command of it, the receivers and all the way down the line."
Health-wise, all 80 players are expected be available for the first day of workouts, including center Olin Kreutz and defensive tackle Tommie Harris, a pair of former Pro Bowlers who have been hampered by injuries in recent years.
"We shouldn't have any issues with any of our players as far as injuries are concerned," Smith said. "We should have a full group out there ready to go."
The common sentiment blowing through the Windy City is that Smith needs to make the playoffs this season if he wants to keep his job, although, at least in front of the cameras Thursday, the seventh-year coach doesn't feel differently than he did every other time he reported to training camp.
"I feel the same pressure every year," he said. "The pressure to win the Super Bowl, that's what we feel right now. The pressure to put the best team on the field we can the first game. The pressure to have a good practice every day. No more than that, but that's enough right there."
Smith and his Midway Monsters take to the practice field for the first time Friday at 3:00 p.m.
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John Crist is the Publisher of BearReport.com, a Heisman Trophy voter and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
Smith: Pressure No More than Normal
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