BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – They are cruising past the cornfields in droves, as evidenced by the estimated 8,000 fans who flocked to Olivet Nazarene University to see the Chicago Bears practice Thursday night, most of them drawn to the man with the golden arm.
Hear that tight spiral zipping through the twilight? The honeyed hum of Cutlermania is in the air, and here in the heartland it is trance-provoking. Yet quietly, the Bears are struggling to recapture their identity on the less glamorous side of the ball, which will likely determine how well they do in '09 and whether their head coach returns in 2010.
"The buzz is extremely high – I think Jay Cutler(notes) can do that to any team," All-Pro outside linebacker Lance Briggs(notes) says of his team's new franchise quarterback. "But the cool thing is that buzz has affected us defensively. The trade for Jay reminded us that the window is short, and now we have a weapon we haven't had before. We can potentially be a great defense, and it's time to be great."
If the outside perception was that the Bears were a star passer away from championship contention – and that their April trade that sent a pair of first-round draft picks, a third-round pick and incumbent quarterback Kyle Orton(notes) to the Denver Broncos for Cutler and a fifth-rounder completed them as a franchise – Briggs and his teammates know it's not that simple.
Though Chicago still has many of the standout defenders who led the team to a Super Bowl three seasons ago despite Rex Grossman's(notes) inconsistency at quarterback, the Bears have been soft, sloppy and have struggled to stop opponents ever since. After ranking fifth in overall defense in '06, Chicago slipped to 28th in '07 and 21st last year, not coincidentally missing the playoffs each season.
"Once you get a taste of the good life, you don't want to give it up – but we did," veteran defensive end Adewale Ogunleye(notes) says. "We had a nice little run that got us to the Super Bowl, and then we kind of slacked off. For two years we had to sit home and watch the playoffs go on without us, and then we had two long offseasons. It's been quite disgusting and depressing, and we need to change that."
Bears coach Lovie Smith obviously agreed, initiating a staff shakeup that resulted in his seizing control of the defense. It was a bold move, and it may turn out to be a career-defining one for a man who is far less secure than he was 30 months ago.
In March of 2006, coming off the Super Bowl XLI defeat to the Indianapolis Colts, Smith signed a $22 million contract extension less than two weeks after having jettisoned highly regarded defensive coordinator Ron Rivera. Now Smith may be coaching for his job, and while Rivera's successor, Bob Babich, remains the nominal coordinator, it'll be the head coach making the important decisions.
"At the start of the offseason Lovie told us, 'This is my defense. I'm gonna run it. If you want to point a finger, point it at me,' " recalls middle linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes), a six-time Pro Bowl selection. "I think it's great. Lovie's calling the plays, and that means we're gonna play fast, take the ball away, get to the quarterback and be physical."
That's the theory, but the Bears, who went 7-9 in '07 and 9-7 last season, have had too many dubious moments during that stretch still to be considered an elite defense. In October of '07 Chicago gave up 224 rushing yards to Vikings rookie Adrian Peterson in a 34-31 defeat. Last September the Bears blew a 17-3 lead and lost to the Panthers. In October a defensive breakdown in the final seconds allowed Falcons rookie Matt Ryan(notes) to complete a 26-yard pass to Michael Jenkins(notes) that set up a game-winning field goal.
"Normally, we close out those games," Smith says. "None of us has performed the way we've needed to the last couple of years – I haven't done the job I've needed to – and Brian is a part of that."
Urlacher, 31, has been dogged by talk that he's on the downside of his career. The NFL's defensive player of the year in 2005, Urlacher says he's healthier than at any point since the Super Bowl, and he's determined to reestablish his credentials as an elite player.
"This is the best I've felt in a long time," Urlacher says. "I'm moving well, I'm strong enough to do what I need to do and my weight's up because I've been able to lift all offseason. It's exciting to feel good again. And yeah, I like it when people say I've lost it."
At least one of the players who supposedly eclipsed Urlacher doesn't buy it. Seahawks linebacker Lofa Tatupu(notes), a fifth-year veteran who made the Pro Bowl in each of his first three seasons, says, "Trust me: Urlacher's still on top of the game. He takes a lot of heat, but there are so many things they don't see on film that he does which allow other people to make plays. I mean, his sacks are down, but the guy's an amazing blitzer – they just choose not to blitz him in certain situations. And maybe he didn't get a lot of picks last year because if you throw the ball his way, he's gonna pick it off, so what's the point?"
Briggs, a four-time Pro Bowl selection who last year ended Urlacher's three-year run as Chicago's leading tackler – he has 871 over the past six seasons to Urlacher's 879 according to team stats – believes his partner in grime is headed for another monster year.
"The Big Guy, he's fought through a lot of stuff," Briggs says. "He doesn't cry; he doesn't complain. He just goes out and plays football, and I think he's going to do some damage this year."
Smith believes Urlacher and Briggs will benefit from the revamped coaching lineup that returns Babich to his pre-coordinator responsibility of coaching the linebackers. Smith fired all three of his defensive position coaches from '08, with Jon Hoke taking over the defensive backs and former Detroit Lions coach Rod Marinelli, one of his closest friends, assuming control of the defensive line.
"It's debatable whether Rod was our best offseason acquisition," Smith says, a statement for which he'll get no argument from his defensive players.
Says Ogunleye: "It's weird that he and Lovie are best friends, because they're opposites: Lovie never cusses and [Marinelli] never stops cussing. He calls one of our rookies [Henry Melton(notes)] 'Blind Dog' and the other [Jarron Gilbert(notes)] 'Iron Deer' – I wish we had more, so he could come up with more names.
"Most of all, Coach Marinelli brings a new attitude. It's like a brotherhood. We don't wait for the slowest guy anymore. The slowest guy has to catch up to the pack. It rubs off on our defense as a whole; we're not slowing down for anybody."
The last defensive coach who instilled that kind of faith in Chicago's players was Rivera, now the Chargers' defensive coordinator. Does Smith regret letting him go?
"That's not what this is about," he says. "We went in a different direction. It's been good for Ron and good for us."
The latter part of that statement isn't convincing – the Bears had the league's third-worst pass defense last season – but Smith, who became a hot coaching candidate after a successful stint as the St. Louis Rams' defensive coordinator from 2001-03, insists he has no regrets.
"Just because I'm calling defenses now doesn't mean we had a problem [at coordinator]," he says. "I'm disappointed with what we've done, position-wise, the last couple of years, and it hurt taking Bob away from the linebackers. When Ron was here, believe me, a lot of it was by committee. So when we play great defense this year, don't give me any credit – give it to the group."
Should the Bears get back to the playoffs, Smith knows that much of the credit is likely to go to the team's new marquee player, the strong-armed passer making fans swoon in the heartland.
"It's great having Jay here," Smith says. "But the reality is, he's just going to add to the mix. We were a 9-7 team last season and a Super Bowl team two years ago. He doesn't have to save the franchise."
He doesn't have to save his coach's job, either – Smith intends to do that on his own.
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- Lovie Smith
- Brian Urlacher
- Lance Briggs