A win on Monday night against the Green Bay Packers not only would be another step in that direction but make their Chicago Bears legitimate championship contenders.
Since reaching the Super Bowl following the 2006 regular season, the Bears finished a combined 23-25 and missed the playoffs in each of the following three seasons.
That put Smith, the coach, and Angelo, the general manager, on the hot seat.
That NFC championship team ranked second in points scored and third in points allowed. Since then, the offense ranked 18th, 14th and 19th in points scored and 16th, 16th and 21st in points allowed in 2007, 2008 and 2009, respectively. One of a head coach's most important duties is filling out his coaching staff. While stability has been the rule in Green Bay under coach Mike McCarthy — aside from the purge of the defensive staff following the 2008 season and some changes on special teams — it's been a revolving door throughout Smith's staff. Smith is on his third offensive coordinator and third defensive coordinator, including changes at both positions for this season.
Angelo's fanny must have felt particularly hot. Even after signing quarterback Jay Cutler last year, Chicago managed just a 7-9 record. His drafts have been mostly horrendous. During this year's final cuts, Angelo jettisoned his first two picks of the 2009 draft, defensive end Jarron Gilbert and receiver Juaquin Iglesias. Over his last five drafts, Angelo made 42 picks. Only 22 made this year's roster.
This time, the early read is Angelo and Smith have righted the ship.
Let's start with Smith, who made a bold move on offense by hiring pass-happy coordinator Mike Martz.
"I wouldn't necessarily say bold," Smith corrected this writer during his conference call with Packers beat reporters on Thursday. "It was the right move to make. Mike and I worked together before (at St. Louis). He was available, I needed an offensive coordinator and it was a good fit."
Martz's last two stints as a coordinator, in Detroit in 2006 and 2007 and San Francisco in 2008, were dismal failures. His selection by Smith seemed a curious choice, given Smith's traditionally conservative approach. Martz is renowned for seven-step drops and putting his quarterback in harm's way in exchange for big plays down the field. Recall Cutler's complete unwillingness to stand in the pocket during both games against Green Bay last year, when Cutler threw three touchdowns and six interceptions.
Mike Martz with Jay Cutler.
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Through two games this season, it's been a great fit. Cutler has five touchdowns, one interception and league bests for passer rating (121.2) and yards per pass attempt (whopping 10.2).
"(The) guys have hit it off like I thought they would and I knew they would from the start," Smith said. "Knowing both guys and Jay being a football junkie and wanting someone to really challenge him with a great offensive mind. From the start, there was mutual respect and they spend a lot of time together. We're making progress but we have a long ways to go."
Defensively, Smith replaced himself as coordinator by promoting defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. Marinelli is running the same Cover-2 scheme that the team has been running since Smith was hired as coach in 2004.
"You know, just a dominant — a four-man front relying on pressure from the four-man rush, so you need a dominant pass rusher and we have that in Julius," Smith said. "I've been very pleased with what he's done, being a new veteran free agent coming in. One of our team captains, comes to work every day, just a pleasure to coach. He's someone that you have to deal with. Opponents have to have a plan for him because he's a great player."
Peppers has just one sack in two games but it already shook up the NFC North. His sack of Matthew Stafford knocked the Lions' quarterback out of that game with an injured throwing shoulder. Stafford missed last week's game against Philadelphia and is expected to miss Sunday's game against Minnesota. Stafford and the Lions visit Green Bay next week.
Like the Packers do with Clay Matthews, the Bears switch Peppers from left to right sides to take advantage of matchups and make it more difficult to double-team him. McCarthy said the Bears' scheme is "tailored" to Peppers' skills, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he'll have to account for Peppers' whereabouts on every snap.
"I already took a big shot from Peppers a couple of years ago on the sidelines," Rodgers said. "It was one of those deals, I ran out on the right side, kind of eased up right at the sideline and drilled me, got the penalty. It was when he was with Carolina. I know how that felt afterwards.
"You know what, you can't have happy feet in the pocket, you can't be looking over your shoulder at that guy, you just have to trust that Chad (Clifton is) on him and Bryan (Bulaga is) on him, they're going to get the job done."
At 2-0, the Bears have shown signs of waking up from their lengthy hibernation. Cutler is off to a great start and the defense has allowed 56 rushing yards and a ridiculous 1.4 yards per carry. In the last 10 matchups, the Bears have allowed the Packers just 17.3 points per game. Even in last year's sweep, the Packers scored only 21 points in each game.
To keep this season's momentum going — and to keep Smith and Angelo off the hot seat — the Bears need to show they're for real by winning on Monday.
"I have a short memory on what happened last year," Smith said. "I know it's a tough offense to keep down — averaging over 30 points right now. Just looking at all the different weapons they have receiver-wise, of course Aaron Rodgers one of the best in the game. When you play a rivalry game like this, division opponent, both teams know each other fairly well. It's just about execution. Who can make plays at that time. Hopefully, we're going to make a few more plays this time around."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.