Under Lovie Smith, the stretch has never been Bears’ time
BY MARK POTASH firstname.lastname@example.org December 8, 2012 1:36AM
The Bears’ 8-4 record is what matters to Lovie Smith, not three losses in four games plus several injured starters. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Lovie Smith’s glass is still half-full. He doesn’t seem to realize that a month ago, it was three-quarters-full.
It’s almost as if the Bears’ best chance to make the playoffs with enough momentum to be a factor is Smith’s resolute belief that they can. Some people see a Bears team that has lost three of its last four games, is 1-4 against opponents with winning records and just got beat at home by a 5-11 rookie quarterback drafted in the third round who ran Brian Urlacher and Co. into the ground with an offense ranked 27th in the NFL.
Smith sees a team in first place.
‘‘We’re 8-4,’’ Smith said, ‘‘in perfect position for this last quarter of the season.’’
The Bears are in perfect position, all right — perfect position for first-year general manager Phil Emery to decide if Smith is the coach to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
All he has seen so far is old news: Smith is an excellent NFL head coach when the wind is at his back. With a healthy team and a favorable schedule, the unique aggressiveness he instills in his defensive players is like a magic wand that reverses the aging process and turns anybody into a potential difference-maker.
But now comes the tough part. When the weather turns and the injuries pile up and three months of wear-and-tear start to show, it’s the head coach’s job to guide his team home.
And that has been a challenge for Smith since he became coach in 2004. Under Lovie, the Bears are 64-44 (.593) in the first three quarters of the season and 15-17 (.469) in the final quarter.
And it’s not a pretty 15-17, either. Only three of those victories are against teams with winning records. Five of his 10 final-quarter victories since 2006 came after the Bears had been eliminated from the playoffs.
Even the one time Smith has had a winning record in the final quarter is dubious. In 2008, the Bears beat the Jaguars (5-11), Saints (8-8) and Packers (6-10) and were 9-6 heading into Week 17. A win would have earned them a playoff berth, but they blew a 10-0 lead in a 31-24 loss at Houston.
In 2010, they were healthier down the stretch than any NFL team had a right to be — linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa was the only starter to miss games with an injury. The Bears were on a five-game winning streak and faced the 10-2 Patriots at home. A December blizzard challenged both teams to beat the elements of 53 mph winds, single-digit wind chills and a snow-covered field. The Patriots led 33-0 at halftime and won 36-7.
Three weeks later, the Bears had a chance to eliminate the Packers from the playoffs. Instead of resting his players with the No. 2 seed already clinched, Smith smartly played his starters all the way. But Jay Cutler was sacked six times, and the Packers won 10-3 at Lambeau Field to make the playoffs, then beat the Bears at Soldier Field on the way to winning the Super Bowl.
So therein lies the challenge for the Bears this season — to finish strong when times are tough. At least four starters will be out with injuries. The Bears have lost three of four. They’re on the road.
‘‘As far as times being tough — no, there’s just a lot of excitement,’’ Smith said. ‘‘To me, it’s easy to talk in front of the team when we’ve got ourselves in position where it’s all on this fourth quarter of the season. I don’t see that being tough at all. There’s a lot of excitement. Can’t wait to go.’’