Coach Dick Jauron was sitting in his office with his two top assistants -- defensive coordinator Greg Blache and offensive coordinator John Shoop. Out of public view, they were making a candid assessment of the quality of talent with which they would enter the 2001 season.
"And we all agreed we were a pretty good team," Jauron recalls. "I didn't know what that meant in terms of [total] wins and losses, but I knew we could win."
I would venture a guess that a lot of other people -- yours truly among them -- would have disagreed, if only because -- after their 5-11 finish the year before -- the Bears seemed so unproven in so many areas.
Jauron, Blache and Shoop were right, of course. The Bears not only won, but also had the sort of season that put them among the NFL's elite teams. And with a perfectly straight face, Jauron will tell you that he was not the least bit surprised by their 13-3 record and NFC Central championship, and that he fully expected them to advance well beyond the divisional round of the playoffs, where they lost to Philadelphia, 33-19.
Jauron also will tell you with a perfectly straight face that the Bears are quite capable of repeating that record, or even improving on it, this year.
"I would never say, 'Don't expect thirteen wins,' " he says. "How do you say that? Hopefully, you want to have sixteen. I know it's hard to win a game, but if you don't believe it [as a coach], then I don't know why anybody else should, including the players."
And there you have one of the primary reasons why the Bears did a very smart thing recently by extending Jauron's contract, which had only one season remaining, through 2004. Many observers saw it as a no-brainer, especially after Jauron earned NFL Coach of the Year honors over deserving candidates such as Bill Belichick, Herman Edwards and Bill Cowher.
But accolades for a single season's accomplishments aren't always enough to convince management to make a long-term commitment to a coach. With the forces of salary-cap restrictions and free-agent movement dramatically changing rosters from one year to the next, coaching plays a more vital role than ever in determining a team's fortunes. As a result, owners and general managers need to be as certain as possible that they have the right man and the right staff before locking up a coach for the long haul.
The Bears are right to feel that way about Jauron, and not simply because of last season's remarkable turnaround. It also is because of the way he can connect with his squad and the winning attitude he carried through eight seasons as an NFL defensive back and 14 years as an assistant coach in the league. By his very nature, Jauron is overflowing with hope and optimism. His gift is the ability to transfer those feelings to his team -- to make his players believe in themselves and in how he and his staff are leading them.
True, the 2001 Bears clearly didn't receive enough credit for their talent level, especially on defense. Linebacker Brian Urlacher emerged as one of the best players in the game at any position, and the free-agent additions of massive tackles Ted Washington and Keith Traylor gave Urlacher the space to make big plays while also helping the Bears to rank second in the league against the rush.
But it was Jauron's power of persuasion that proved to be one of the largest factors in their amazing season. A team that wins eight games by seven points or less -- including back-to-back overtime victories on interception returns for touchdowns by the same player (safety Mike Brown) -- isn't merely relying on talent or proper execution.
Was there a little luck involved? Sure. But these were players who consistently maintained composure under highly stressful, pressure-packed conditions. They were players who were convinced that, regardless of how uncertain the outcome seemed in those final moments, they would find a way to prevail.
That doesn't just happen. For the most part, players react the way coaches prepare them to react. Players also take many of their emotional cues from the man in charge on the sidelines. If he unravels or demonstrates even the slightest doubt in his team or himself, they will pick up on that in an instant, and the consequences are rarely good.
The steely-eyed Jauron doesn't flinch in the face of extreme pressure. He exhibits no extremes of any kind. His approach is as cerebral as one would expect from a Yale graduate with a degree in history. He trusts that his players will know what to do. His players trust that they have been taught well and that Jauron has the confidence in them, as well as in himself, to lead them to success.
"I thought we'd win last season and I thought we'd keep winning," the 51-year-old coach says. "The final loss, that was not easy. But I thought that any one of those twelve [playoff] teams could win it all, and that included us.
"If you have a team of young players at critical positions, I think your odds of going to the Super Bowl are not very good. That's not what we had last year. We had our second and third-year players stepping up, and we had a core of older players -- [defensive linemen] Ted Washington, Keith Traylor, Phillip Daniels, Bryan Robinson, and our offensive line.
"Our skill people on offense were very young, but our quarterback (Jim Miller) was a good decision-maker and had experience playing. Not a lot of experience playing, but he knows the game."
One of Jauron's biggest challenges this season is keeping his players from getting carried away with last season's achievements. The Bears might have been an underrated team, but they still aren't good enough to stand pat.
They have some important areas to shore up, such as the secondary, which lost starting cornerback Walt Harris and strong safety Tony Parrish in free agency. They need better offensive production, which means the oft-injured Miller and his equally fragile backup, Chris Chandler, must stay healthy. It also means immediate contribution from at least one and possibly two offensive linemen selected in the draft -- first-round tackle Marc Colombo of Boston College and third-round guard Terrence Metcalf of Mississippi.
Second-year running back Anthony Thomas needs to build upon a strong rookie season. And the receiving corps, led by Marty Booker's 100 receptions for 1,071 yards and eight touchdowns, has to see big gains by third-year pro Dez White and 2001 first-rounder David Terrell.
"Obviously, if you could have Marty take another step, which he's definitely capable of doing and he'll work at it, and have Dez take the step that Marty took from his second to third year, which was phenomenal, and then have David step up, it'll be tough [for opponents] to deal with," Jauron says. "We hope that's what happens. I anticipate it will. I know they're all hungry.
"I think [overall] we have really good guys who will keep working. Now, if they think they've done it and they say, 'That's it; we're done,' then we've got problems. They'll certainly be reminded enough [to avoid that].
"But I would never say, 'We haven't done anything yet.' I will say, 'There's only one team that won it all last year.' But [these players] did something. They stepped up and won that NFC Central the last year it'll ever exist. That was a big deal for us, and they should be proud of themselves, but now it's over.
"Maybe the best thing about our most-publicized player, Brian Urlacher, is that he feels like he has a long way to go. And he works at it all the time. You know how good he is right now, but he knows he has a lot of room and he wants to get better."
The rest of us still are likely to be at least a little skeptical about the Bears' chances of matching or improving on last year's record.
We expect that more opponents will be gunning for them. We expect that it will be difficult to cope with the added burden of playing 16 games outside of Chicago (including eight in Champaign, Ill., while Soldier Field is renovated). We expect that it will be hard to stay focused while being bombarded by the many demands and distractions that didn't exist at the start of last season.
We just shouldn't expect Jauron to agree with us.