Clearly the Bears have a ways to go until they're as good as they thought they were before the Panthers humbled them Sunday.
But after taking some huge steps this season, they're a whole heck of a lot better than anybody outside the organization thought they were last August. Coach of the year Lovie Smith told his players that at their exit meeting Monday morning.
"I talked to the team about taking steps," Smith said. "We took a big step, but there are more steps we have to take to ultimately get to the top. We're not there yet, but we will be."
The 29-21 divisional-round loss to Carolina highlighted some of the Bears' shortcomings and will give Smith and his coaching staff, along with general manager Jerry Angelo, plenty to think about in the offseason. Still, Smith said the Bears are progressing at a pace he envisioned after taking the job from Dick Jauron following the 7-9 finish in 2003. Last season the Bears fell to 5-11, but finished 11-6 this season.
"We're definitely on pace," Smith said. "I wouldn't say necessarily ahead (of pace) based on where we started. But progress has been made."
The Panthers showed the Bears how far they still have to go, but they've already come a long way.
"Winning 11 games, turning it around, winning an NFC North title, establishing ourselves as one of the (top) teams in the NFC," Smith said, listing the accomplishments. "We'll build on this effort and this season. We have our core players in place. So there's no reason to think we can't accomplish more next year."
The Bears won't have to replace a lot of key players because of departures.
Of the defensive starters, all are expected back. They're all are under contract through next season, except for strong-side linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason but is not expected to leave.
"I want to be a Bear," said Hillenmeyer, who was seventh on the team with 71 tackles. "I don't see any reason why I wouldn't be."
Offensively, right guard Terrence Metcalf is an unrestricted free agent who the Bears will not get into a bidding war over, especially after recently getting a six-year extension done with Roberto Garza. Although Metcalf was the starter and Garza the backup, there was little if any difference in their performance.
According to Smith, most of the changes to the roster will be minor.
"I think we'll tweak our roster this year," he said. "I don't see any major upgrades that we need. When you win 11 games, you're headed in the right direction with what you're doing scheme wise, personnel wise, everything. But those 11 wins aren't enough, and I think just adding a couple guys will hopefully get us over the top."
Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith exposed the Bears' need for better cover cornerbacks.
After watching Smith post one of the top five receiving games in NFL playoff history, the Bears' search for improvement is likely to begin on the corner.
Nate Vasher made the Pro Bowl on the strength of eight interceptions and some exceptional returns, but one isn't enough. Charles Tillman was up and down during the regular season and bottomed out against Smith. Nickel cornerback Jerry Azumah is an unrestricted free agent with an arthritic hip that kept him sidelined for much of Sunday's game. If he gets a big offer in the offseason, it won't be from the Bears.
"In the secondary, yes we could use a few more guys," Lovie Smith said. "But I'll say that about a couple of other positions, too. We need some depth at quite a few positions."
The Panthers were able to take advantage of weaknesses in the Bears' secondary by moving Smith from side to side and occasionally lining him up inside in the slot.
"They do a god job of moving him around, and he made plays at all the different positions," Smith said. "That's why you need at least two or three good corners where (opponents) can't get that (unfair) matchup, and our system isn't set up that way. Ideally we would like to play a corner to the left and a corner to the right and have two good guys we feel comfortable doing that with."
Sunday the Bears were short one corner.
Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera interviewed with Rams and Packers, but Green Bay chose Mike McCarthy.
"They made their decision and they went the direction they had to," Rivera said. "But you appreciate the opportunity that you're given and Green Bay gave me and opportunity and so has St. Louis. If they all go the other way, I have the opportunity here in Chicago and it's a tremendous situation for me.
"Everybody in this organization has helped me prepare (for interviews). Just the fact that I got the interviews is a statement about this organization and what this organization has accomplished in two years under coach (Lovie) Smith and (G.M.) Jerry Angelo. It's a tribute that I'm getting these type of opportunities."
"They protected the quarterback better this time, they got the ball off a little quicker, and they made the big plays," Rivera said. "Last time we didn't give up big plays; we did this time. You're not going to win too many games that way. We learned from that when we played Cleveland (a 20-10 loss), and we learned form it when we played Cincinnati (a 24-7 loss), and we'll learn from it this time and we'll carry it into next year."
"It's just like coach (Lovie) Smith said, ‘There's nothing wrong with talking trash as long as you back it up,' and I don't think we backed it up. That's all it comes down to. Sorry Chicago, sorry to everybody."
Since the Bears' last playoff victory on the first day of 1995, they had compiled an overall record of 18-9 at home in December and January.
New names continue to pop up and the interview process continues, but the coaching candidate that seems to hold the most intrigue for Lions fans and media is Russ Grimm, the assistant coach and offensive line coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Grimm, 46, has no head coaching experience, as do fellow candidates Dick Jauron (Chicago and interim head coach with the Lions) and Jim Haslett (New Orleans).
He has no experience as a coordinator, as do Maurice Carthon (Cleveland), Gary Kubiak (Denver), Jerry Gray (Buffalo), Al Saunders (Kansas City), Tim Lewis (New York Giants), Ron Rivera (Chicago) and Jim Schwartz (Tennessee).
And there is nothing to indicate that Lions president Matt Millen sees Grimm as anything more than another qualified candidate for the job, despite the fact the two were teammates on the Super Bowl champion 1991 Washington Redskins team.
Except for a few general comments a week ago regarding his plans to conduct a thorough coach search, Millen has been invisible and unreachable. The Lions have neither confirmed nor denied meeting with candidates rumored to have been interviewed for the job.
After being roundly criticized for making an impulse hire with Marty Mornhinweg in 2001 and being fined $200,000 for ignoring minority candidates in his rush to get Steve Mariucci on board in 2003, Millen has obviously learned his lesson.
The question lingering in Detroit's football community is whether - even in a process shrouded in secrecy - Millen will finally make the right choice for a coach to bring the Lions out of the five-year tailspin in which they have managed only 21 victories in 80 games.
Millen clearly has focused on a number of top candidates and each day seems to bring a new name to the surface. Mostly recently San Diego offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli have been projected into the competition by the media.
Yet it is Grimm who seems to hold a fascination, perhaps because of his tough, disciplined approach, which has been missing in the Lions since Bobby Ross retired and Millen fired his replacement, Gary Moeller, at the end of the 2000 season.
Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, a former Lion, plays for Grimm at Pittsburgh and raves about him, although admitting he'd prefer Grimm remain with the Steelers.
"He knows more about the game than anybody I've been around," Hartings said, "so that's obviously going to be a credit to him if he becomes a head coach.
"But the most important thing for a head coach is being a leader. Whatever your personality or attitude is as a head coach, that'll be the team's personality and attitude. Obviously, he's led our offensive line in that manner very well the last five years. I would kind of just assume that would carry over to being a head coach."
Millen was expected to have a preliminary interview with Grimm this week but can't do anything more as long as the Steelers remain in the playoffs.
Green Bay defensive end Aaron Kampman felt the same way about his high school coach, as did Jacksonville center Brad Meester and Kansas City center Casey Wiegmann.
All four current NFL players were coached by Edwards in the Aplington-Parkersburg Consolidated High School in rural central Iowa.
The four players nominated Thomas, 55, for the NFL award, which he won and will accept during Super Bowl XL festivities at Ford Field in Detroit, presumably with his four NFL players in attendance.
DeVries, who attended the University of Iowa after playing on the first of Thomas' two state championship teams, said it is no coincidence that Kampman, Meester, Wiegmann and he were able to move on to NFL careers after playing for Thomas.
"Everything he preached was, ‘Good things happen to good people,' " DeVries said. "It wasn't just all about football. He included everybody. Everybody went out for football. Everyone wanted to be part of that group."
The Lions pooped out early and finished with their fifth consecutive losing record (5-11), but the city of Detroit is not only getting into the Super Bowl mood but is also trying to make a good impression for the thousands of visitors expected for the festivities.
Although it is likely the city will take its share of heckling and insults - some good natured, some outright nasty - the locals are doing their best to put a good face on the city.
Instead of apologizing for the cold, wintry weather likely to greet visitors, the planners are doing their best to highlight the fun part of northern winters - ice skating, skiing, sledding. And the partying is not likely to be affected by cold or snow.
The last time the NFL brought its championship game to Detroit - Super Bowl XVI in January, 1982 - the Midwest experienced one of the worst winters ever and travel to the Pontiac Silverdome was a nightmare.
With Super Bowl XL set for Ford Field in downtown Detroit, the travel will be less treacherous.
Neither has been as productive as the team had hoped, but both have been working under less than ideal circumstances. Harrington was clearly a bad fit in former coach Steve Mariucci's West Coast offense and got very little support from Mariucci; Rogers missed all except five games and three plays of his first two seasons with broken collarbone injuries and got very little playing time after coming back from a four-game drug suspension during the past season.
Lions president Matt Millen has indicated the new coach will have a major role in determining the fate of Harrington and Rogers. Until a coach is hired, Millen has indicated no action will be taken.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't want to say anything great because I want him to stay here." - Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings, on Steelers line coach Russ Grimm, who is considered a top candidate for the Lions vacant coaching job.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Plucking a young-fortysomething offensive coordinator from San Francisco by the name of Mike — haven't the Packers been down this road before?
In a momentous move that has raised eyebrows among the team's passionate fan base, the Packers tabbed 42-year-old Mike McCarthy as their 14th head coach Thursday.
McCarthy, coming off his first season directing the offense with the rebuilding 49ers, was perhaps the least heralded of the seven candidates general manager Ted Thompson interviewed in the past week. Yet, McCarthy's familiarity with the organization, a satisfactory track record of developing quarterbacks in the West Coast offense and the possibility of enticing quarterback Brett Favre to continue playing apparently won over Thompson.
"He's just a good, solid, down-to-earth guy. It was a long shot, but he must have impressed. This is an opportunity of a lifetime for him," said Larry Beightol, who has been the Packers" offensive line coach since 1999, the one year McCarthy previously spent in Green Bay as quarterbacks coach.
McCarthy made a name for himself as offensive coordinator with New Orleans from 2000-04 before assuming the same post in San Francisco last season.
Regarded as personable but with a hard edge from his blue-collar upbringing in Pittsburgh, McCarthy was among five young, up-and-coming NFL assistants targeted by Thompson in a whirlwind process to replace Mike Sherman, who was fired Jan. 2 after six years at the helm.
Thompson interviewed Dallas assistant head coach/passing game coordinator Sean Payton, Cleveland offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon and Chicago defensive coordinator Ron Rivera before meeting with McCarthy on Sunday. Thompson subsequently interviewed New York Giants defensive coordinator Tim Lewis, as well as longtime coaches Wade Phillips and Jim Bates, the respective defensive coordinators for San Diego and Green Bay.
Bates, 59, was receiving strong consideration for the job after an auspicious first season with the Packers, which garnered high praise from his defensive players and the fans. Bates felt good about his chances of earning a promotion, only to be told by Thompson that he was out of the running.
Thompson had decided to focus on McCarthy, and the contract negotiations with agent Gary O'Hagan began Wednesday night.
"He has a relationship with people there who know what he's capable of," O'Hagan said of McCarthy.
Thompson was the Packers' personnel director under then-general manager Ron Wolf when McCarthy was on Ray Rhodes' coaching staff during an ill-fated 1999 season. Rhodes lasted only a year as the successor to Mike Holmgren, who bolted to Seattle following a successful seven-year run.
It was Holmgren — a hot-shot young coordinator molded by Bill Walsh with the 49ers — who transferred the West Coast offense to Green Bay. Favre was Holmgren's prized pupil upon their joint arrival in 1992, and the quarterback has flourished as a starter for 14 years in the heavily involved system.
Favre, 36, said during the past season that he would be averse to returning for another year if a coaching change was made and he had to learn a new offense. The hiring of McCarthy, a West Coast advocate going back to his formative coaching years under Walsh disciple Paul Hackett at the University of Pittsburgh and with Kansas City, could convince Favre to again put off retirement.
"I think that's going to be big in getting Brett to come back," Packers running back Tony Fisher said. "We need him. I'd hate to see Brett go out on a year like we just had. That could be really, really big."
As much as Favre was quietly lobbying for the Packers to hire close friend Steve Mariucci, who was his first quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, he probably won't find fault with Thompson's decision to go with McCarthy. Favre and McCarthy were believed to have hit it off during their lone year together. McCarthy helped Favre get through one of his worst seasons, when he played with a badly sprained right thumb from the outset and threw 23 interceptions with a lowly passer rating of 74.7.
McCarthy subsequently turned Aaron Brooks, a former backup to Favre in Green Bay, into a respectable quarterback for five years in New Orleans. Jake Delhomme, who was an understudy to Brooks for a time with the Saints, credits McCarthy for his early development as a pro quarterback that led to a starting gig with Carolina.
This past season in San Francisco, McCarthy was charged with working with Alex Smith, the top overall pick in last year's draft. Smith's indoctrination to the NFL was dogged by injury, and the talent-thin 49ers had the league's worst offense.
Whether or not Favre returns, a big reason McCarthy was deemed to be a good fit as Green Bay's next head coach is the immense role he can play in taking quarterback Aaron Rodgers under his wing. Rodgers fell to the Packers in the latter half of the first round of the 2005 draft and instantly was dubbed Favre's heir apparent.
McCarthy, though, undoubtedly will try to convince Favre to come back. Not unlike the influential role Mariucci played in coaching Favre for four years, McCarthy's noted no-nonsense personality is what Favre would need if he does return and attempts to make amends for his career-high 29 interceptions last season.
Speculation is McCarthy is eyeing Hackett, the quarterbacks coach with Tampa Bay, or Atlanta offensive line coach Jeff Jagodzinski as his offensive coordinator. Jagodzinski was the Packers" tight ends coach from 1999 to 2003. In his two years with the Falcons, Jagodzinski has taken to the zone-blocking scheme implemented by former longtime Denver line coach Alex Gibbs.
The inductees will be selected by the Hall of Fame's Board of Selectors on Feb. 4 in Detroit, the eve of Super Bowl XL.
White is considered the biggest coup for the small-town Packers in the era of free agency. He played in Green Bay from 1993 to ‘98, helped the Packers win the Super Bowl after the 1996 season and is the franchise's all-time sacks leader with 68 1/2.
The Packers retired White's jersey number, 92, during their 2005 home opener on Sept. 18. He is one of only five players in the team's celebrated history to have a number retired - the others are Tony Canadeo (3), Don Hutson (14), Bart Starr (15) and Ray Nitschke (66).
The cornerback started 44 games for the Packers from 1987 to ‘89 after being acquired in a trade with Seattle. He had 12 interceptions, including a team-high six in 1989.
Brown's 62 interceptions in a 16-year career rank him sixth on the NFL's all-time list.
The recipients were selected by their teammates for displaying a commitment to the principles of courage and sportsmanship while serving as an inspiration in the locker room.
Driver, a seven-year veteran, posted career highs of 86 receptions for 1,221 yards this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't really remember that much about him. I hate to say that. I know he was a good evaluator." — Retired Packers general manager Ron Wolf reflecting Wednesday night on Mike McCarthy, who was Green Bay's quarterbacks coach in 1999 when Wolf still was in charge of its football operations. McCarthy is set to be named the 14th head coach in Packers history.