Charles Tillman, Maurice Jones-Drew
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Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Tillman, one of the leading proponents of the Lovie Way at Halas Hall, never envisioned the end of an era.
Not in previous losing seasons and not in the midst of a November-December funk, when the Bears lost five of six.
“I never thought I would have to play for another coach,” Tillman told the Sun-Times. “Never crossed my mind. Never one time.”
Tillman viewed everything optimistically, refused to point fingers and remained even-keeled in good times and bad times.
Just like Lovie Smith.
So there was collective shock Monday morning, when Smith’s ouster was reported, then confirmed, ending his nine-year tenure as coach.
“Shocked like everyone else,” Tillman said. “I was like, ‘Why?’ ”
Perhaps because the Bears missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons or because the Bears struggled throughout Smith’s tenure to develop a competent offense or because after a 7-1 start, they missed the postseason again.
That clarity won’t be provided until Tuesday, when general manager Phil Emery is scheduled to address reporters.
Clearly, though, Emery determined that Smith wasn’t the man to lead the Bears to his stated goal of multiple championships.
Despite an 81-63 record, Smith’s teams lost eight of the last nine to the NFC North rival Packers and staggered to the end of the regular season, going 2-7 in the last two Decembers.
As they did nearly a year ago, the Bears acted swiftly after another disappointing season.
Two days after the finale in Minneapolis, the Bears fired longtime general manager Jerry Angelo. This season, a day after the finale in Detroit, the Bears fired Smith and immediately initiated a search for his replacement.
That’s a wise decision after six other coaches were axed Monday and with some others possibly on their way out soon.
The Bears already secured permission to interview three candidates: Broncos offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, Falcons special-teams coach Keith Armstrong and Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan.
Smith, meanwhile, is rumored to be drawing interest from other teams, and Matthew Smith, a client manager for IMG, said his father is “ready to be a head coach in 2013.”
The Bears surely wouldn’t mind if Smith landed elsewhere; any salary he draws from another team would be deducted from the $5 million-plus they owe him as part of his contract through the 2013 season.
Those particulars, though, didn’t ease the minds of players, some of whom were so devastated by the news that they were reduced to tears during Smith’s emotional five-minute farewell address.
Quarterback Jay Cutler and Tillman said they were responsible for the Bears’ poor finish.
“I take a lot of pride in the way that I play, and offensively, we didn’t show up in the last four years for him,” Cutler said.
“A lot of that blame is going to be on me.”
Added Tillman, “We started off 7-1, and we should have won way more than 10 games.
“Then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We, as players, let coach Smith down.”
And so the search begins for the Bears’ 14th coach.
There will be some big shoes to fill. Smith was the 2005 AP NFL coach of the year and consistently oversaw some record-breaking defensive units and performances.
At least on Monday, though, the players focused more on the past than the future.
“Right now,” captain Roberto Garza said, “all I can think about is the end of an era. It was an honor to play for him.”