Lovie Smith remembers the precise moment he wanted to be Brian Urlacher's coach. It was Sept. 10, 2000, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, and Urlacher was playing in his second NFL game. Smith, then the Buccaneers' linebackers coach, was standing on the sideline when the Bears' rookie middle linebacker announced himself with a bone-jarring thud. "They threw him into the game, and almost immediately we ran a toss play," Smith recalls. "The back turned the corner right in front of me, and Brian came flying out of nowhere, beat a block and smacked the guy along the sideline. I just remember thinking, Man, if I only had this guy. Because I knew how good he'd be in a system like ours."
Four years later Smith has a chance to fulfill his fantasy. In taking over a Chicago team that finished 7-9 in 2003, a second consecutive losing season that led to the firing of Dick Jauron, Smith has no illusions about which player holds the key to the Bears' immediate fortunes. With a starting quarterback, Rex Grossman, who has played in three games, Chicago will have to win with defense. That means Urlacher, whom many Bears fans hail as the heir to Hall of Famers Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, will be under increased pressure to produce.
Though he led the team in tackles (115) in 2003 and made the Pro Bowl for a fourth consecutive season, Urlacher lacked his usual penchant for big plays. He had a career-low 21/2 sacks and went without an interception, forced fumble or fumble recovery. He attracted more attention for an alleged romantic liaison with Paris Hilton (the notorious heiress was spotted in Urlacher's luxury box during the Bears' 38-23 loss to the Packers on Monday Night Football last September) than for any play he made on the field.
Urlacher figures to enjoy a simple life under the guidance of Smith, who, as the Rams' defensive coordinator in 2003, presided over a defense that forced a league-high 46 turnovers (tied for the NFL's second highest single-season total in a decade). With a pair of promising rookie defensive tackles in Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, Smith envisions a fast, aggressive unit that swarms to the ball without getting bogged down by assignments, all within the context of the Cover 2 scheme that Smith has favored since his days under Tony Dungy in Tampa.
"The total team atmosphere has changed," says cornerback Jerry Azumah. "There's a new attitude, new style and new life around here. Brian, in particular, is energized, because Lovie's going to bring out the best in him and will put him in a better position to make plays. It's going to be Brian's defense, basically."
It's no coincidence that Smith tabbed former Bears linebacker Ron Rivera as his defensive coordinator and brought in Hardy Nickerson, who excelled at the position for the Buccaneers, as a special training camp assistant. "Everything in this defense is defined, so it's easy for a middle linebacker to thrive," Nickerson says. "You know where you're supposed to be, so all you have to do is just go get the ball."
Raring to go since he learned of Smith's hiring, Urlacher suffered a severe right hamstring pull in the first practice at training camp. At press time Urlacher was still sidelined, but he was scheduled to be back in time for the Bears' opener. The ever-optimistic Smith proclaimed the setback to be an opportunity for other players to shine, especially hard-hitting second-year linebacker Lance Briggs, who was shifted from the weak side to the middle during Urlacher's absence.
If young players like Briggs, Harris, Johnson and defensive end Alex Brown continue to improve, they'll join a nucleus of veteran defenders (along with defensive end Adewale Ogunleye, the AFC sack leader last season who was acquired in an Aug. 21 trade with the Dolphins) who led the Bears to a 13-3 record in 2001. But beginning with a humbling home playoff defeat to the Eagles that year, Chicago has gone 11-22 since. If the Bears hope to reverse their course in 2004, they'll have to be Monsters of the Midway once more.
"With a new offensive system, it's going to take them awhile to get the timing down," says veteran safety Mike Brown. "As a defense, we know we're probably going to have to play at a high level until the offense can catch up, and that all starts with Brian."
That's just fine with Smith, who says, "I've had this vision for a long time."
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> The Bears had a league-low 18 sacks last season, but defensive end ALEX BROWN was one of the few bright spots along the line. At the behest of new coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, Brown dropped 20 pounds, to 262, and the coaches hope that his improved quickness will help him double his 2003 sack total of 51/2.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
If you consider that they won the division three years ago with many of the same guys, you'd have to say they have a lot of potential. It's a talented group on defense; the question is how quickly they can transition into Lovie Smith's scheme.... The key for this defense is the two young tackles, Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson, because they have to keep the heat off Brian Urlacher.... Charles Tillman had a good rookie year, but they set things up for him so he always had help. The Cover 2 scheme is similar, so he should continue to develop.... Mike Brown is a special player. He's not the biggest and not the fastest, but he's always around the ball making plays. And one of the other safeties, Mike Green, covers even better than Brown does.... Rex Grossman is a typical Steve Spurrier quarterback: He doesn't have real good arm strength or mobility, but he's smart, gets rid of the ball in a hurry and puts it in the right places.... Thomas Jones jumps out at me, because of his versatility. Last year with Tampa Bay he showed what he's all about--a guy who not only can take it to the house but also can run inside and catch the ball.
"Mike Brown is a special player--not the biggest or the fastest, but he's always around the ball."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 7-9
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Lovie Smith; first season as an NFL head coach
19 at Green Bay
26 at Minnesota
10 Open date
24 at Tampa Bay
31 SAN FRANCISCO
7 at N.Y. Giants
14 at Tennessee
25 at Dallas (T)
12 at Jacksonville
26 at Detroit
2 GREEN BAY
NFL rank: T-21 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .496 Games against playoff teams: 4