Bears tackling expectations head-on
Offseason additions put Lovie Smith on hot seat to deliver playoff appearance
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- While Chicago Bears first-year general manager Phil Emery talked methodically about Phase I and Phase II of the transition period, joked about the upgrade in housing from when he was an area scout, complete with couch and easy chair, and reflected on an offseason that might even give him the right to sit back in that easy chair, Lovie Smith stepped into the hot white glare of expectation Tuesday.
Smith has a contract that runs through 2013 and has been given a roster heading into training camp that everyone, including his players, is saying is of Super Bowl quality, Smith does not have the luxury to talk about Phase I, Phase II or least of all, furniture.
But just when you expected Smith, in his usual stoic manner, to do his usual job of deflecting what everyone really wants to know, he actually heaped even more of a burden on his team in his opening news conference under the gazebo at Olivet Nazarene University.
"As we look at our roster coming into camp," Smith said, "it looks about as good as it has since I've been here. We realize that, we embrace that. We have a good football team."
He even threw in a "Why not the Bears?" reference, saying that as he spoke to Bears fans this offseason, he got a pretty good idea about what they expect.
"What you want to do when there is pressure and in a place there is pressure is to [carry] a big stick," Smith said.
No reason for Smith to dumb it down for us. Regardless of the reasons, the Bears have failed to make the playoffs in four of the past five years. But now they have surrounded Jay Cutler with the best weapons he has had since he has been here -- with a friend and Pro Bowl-Caliber wideout in Brandon Marshall, a familiar quarterbacks coach in Jeremy Bates and a new offensive coordinator in Mike Tice, who will actually try to make it easier for him to succeed.
Yes, the offensive line, though healthy, is unchanged and still undecided at left tackle. And defensively, they are counting heavily on a rookie defensive end in Shea McClellin and would be in trouble at linebacker if Brian Urlacher or Lance Briggs went down.
Only Emery seemed to be trying to lessen the load Tuesday.
"I think we've made progress, OK, but to say Super Bowl contender? It has to be earned on the field," he said. "Do we have good, talented players who can contribute towards a winning team and moving toward our goal to win a championship? Yes, we do. Are we there? No, we're not."
He even went so far as to say it is possible to move toward that goal and not win the championship -- not even make the playoffs -- which is dangerous ground to be sure.
"It's possible because it depends on what the health of the team is," he said. "It depends what has happened during the course of the season, what's happening with the rest of the NFL. I was with the Chiefs last year, everyone counted us out. ... It came down to getting a blocked kick against Oakland in the last game [or] we would've made the playoffs.
"Seasons can roll that way. What I'm looking for is where we are as a team, and have we moved toward our goal?"
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The players are well aware of Smith's contract situation and this won't be the first time he has had a Bears team playing for his survival.
"Lovie seems to be one of those guys that they say is on the hot seat every year," Cutler said. "We like having Lovie around and we're going to do our best to keep him around here."
Emery said among the reasons he has always liked Smith is that "he doesn't create cliques, he creates unity," and there is no reason to expect any of the same tension that often developed between the coach and former GM Jerry Angelo.
For now, nothing to be tense about. They are devoid of their usual distractions with Matt Forte signed. Smith has a roster that most coaches would love, and it might get better before opening day. And he has an offensive coordinator in Tice to whom a balanced offense will actually be the goal.
"Right now as a football team, we're just ready to see everyone on field do their job," Smith said. "And that's the message. We don't have any catchy phrases or anything like that. The message is pretty simple. We're a good football team, and let's just see how good we can get before we play the Colts."
No mention of the Green Bay Packers. But then, why ruin a perfectly good day?
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