BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – The smile was wicked, maybe even a little devious, not so much the smirk of a Cheshire cat. Instead, when Lovie Smith smiled, it was the expression of a physicist who just snuck out of a laboratory with the formula for nuclear fission tucked into his sock.
"We're changing the whole look of this thing, huh?" the Chicago Bears coach said, nodding toward the practice field.
It wasn't so much a question as a statement of fact. Consistently touted for defense and consistently trashed on offense, Smith thinks he has a hidden secret. While the rest of the NFL world talks offense and blathers on about the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, the Bears largely are forgotten. But if Smith's vision comes to fruition, Chicago will boast the league's most potent scoring unit next season.
"We caught a lot of crap over the offense," Smith said. "A lot, and we were the second-best scoring team (tied with the Colts) in the NFL last year. People keep talking about what we need to do on that side of the ball, but all we really need to do is build a little on what we did last season."
Chicago has attempted to do just that, adding first-round pick Greg Olsen to the tight end spot; getting former second-round pick Mark Bradley healthy; and plugging dynamic returner Devin Hester into the depth chart at wide receiver. The result is the Bears boasting the deepest set of skill position players the franchise has seen in years – possibly decades.
"On our side of the ball, we've never been this good," said wideout Muhsin Muhammad. "Honestly, it might be a little tough to satisfy the egos. Everybody is going to have demands about what they want stat-wise and ball-wise. But as long as we win, I think ultimately everyone will be happy."
The wide receiver spot is far and away the most intriguing position on the team, bolstered by the development of Bernard Berrian and the late-season contributions of Rashied Davis. But it's the experiment with Hester, who notched a league-record six returns for touchdowns in 2006, that might open eyes across the league this season.
Hester's installation on offense doesn't come without some consternation. The reality is that such a move almost never works for Pro Bowl returners, who historically have struggled to become consistent, if not significant, offensive weapons. The NFL landscape is littered with great return men who were little more than mediocre receivers. Mel Gray didn't cut it. Neither did Dante Hall. Eric Metcalf was close.
"Steve Smith did it," Lovie Smith pointed out. "That's what we're banking on with Devin. I know there are some guys that haven't been able to make that transition, but we don't know anything about them. The guy that we see is Steve Smith. He's been maybe the most electrifying player in the league the last few years. There's no reason in our mind to think that Devin can't do that."
And while the first inclination is to think Chicago's coaching staff has lost its mind, it's worth noting that Lovie Smith typically has read the temperature of his team correctly in training camp. Two years ago, he boasted that the Bears could have the best defense in football, and they made good on the statement. Last season, he claimed the team was Super Bowl-worthy, and indeed they were. Now he looks at Hester and sees Steve Smith.
Hester hasn't disappointed, becoming easily the biggest buzz early in camp. He already has showcased the ability to hold his own with Chicago's pair of highly paid cornerbacks, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, and shown the ability to make spectacular catches.
"He runs good routes," Bears offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "I've been pleasantly surprised at how quickly he's adjusted to that. Now it's just a matter of making all the adjustments to the coverages and blitzes he's seeing on offense."
The Bears have limited his packages in the passing game thus far, also working in reverses and some work with Hester lined up in the backfield. But he undoubtedly has gotten into the head of the defense. At one point Saturday, the offense ran a fake reverse to Hester and watched running back Cedric Benson break off a 40-plus yard run up the middle as most of the defense keyed on Hester.
"People better not underrate what we'll throw at them this year," Hester said. "We're going to be bringing all kinds of trouble."
Not that there aren't issues to be worked out. Although quarterback Rex Grossman has looked sharp in the early going – coaches say he's as good as he ever has been this early in training camp – he still throws off his back foot at times and can be erratic under pressure. But it's nothing that has the Bears sweating. Instead, Smith and Turner are pleased with the progress Grossman has built with new quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton.
After watching last season's tape – easily the best sustained base of film Grossman has produced – Hamilton has pushed Grossman to improve his demeanor in the pocket. In many of Grossman's worst performances, he wasn't consistently moving forward and into throws when pressure was coming off the edge. That led to some of the lofted "jump ball" passes that plagued him in losses.
Hamilton's response has been to push Grossman either to pull the ball down and run or move up into the pocket – or even outside it – in the face of pressure. The hope is to keep Grossman's momentum going forward to produce more crisp, accurate and strong throws against pressure.
"I can see some of that already," Muhammad said. "Rex's movement in the pocket is a lot better. He's running a little. He's flowing in and out of the pocket as plays progress. That's a sign of repetition and maturity."
And that fits with the overall mood of the camp, which has taken on a distinctly veteran feel. With so much of the drama eliminated – Thomas Jones and Tank Johnson are gone, linebacker Lance Briggs' contract issue is resolved – the coaching staff says it can't recall a more settled and businesslike atmosphere in July.
Even the positional controversies seem hushed. There's a burgeoning battle between Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye over who will start at defensive end opposite Mark Anderson. And there's some curiosity over Adam Archuleta's impact on the safety spot. But odds are both of those storylines will work out favorably for the Bears.
So what Chicago is left with is its best 53-man roster in ages, an offense that looks like it's ready to take a huge step forward and a top-notch defense loaded with veteran cornerstones. And best of all almost no drama to be found.
As Smith admitted Saturday, "It's hard not to look at it and smile."