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Lovie Smith: Bears can be better than last year

Lovie Smith believes his Bears will silence their naysayers 2011 because “our core is still place.”  |  Nam

Lovie Smith believes his Bears will silence their naysayers in 2011 because “our core is still in place.” | Nam Y. Huh~AP

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:25AM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — In a quiet moment during an otherwise hectic training camp at Olivet Nazarene University, Bears coach Lovie Smith takes a breath and readily admits to one of his most obvious characteristics.

‘‘Yeah,’’ Smith says, ‘‘my glass is always half full.’’

That perpetual optimism draws the wrath of outsiders of Halas Hall, yet endears him to the insiders of the Bears’ headquarters in Lake Forest.

Players come and go, games are won and lost, but Smith remains the same man: His words measured, his actions determined.

A year ago, despite many preseason projections that his club would finish last in the NFC North, Smith challenged his coaches and players to focus only on the next game, then celebrated his third ­division title at season’s end.

Now, hardly anyone projects the Bears to defend their NFC North title since the rival Green Bay Packers defeated them and the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl. But with training camp winding to a close, Smith and his players aren’t challenging the New York Jets for most grandiose boasts, opting instead — as always — to quietly go about their business.

Smith, though, can’t mask his excitement about the 2011 Bears, from his confidence in his players to his coaches and general manager Jerry Angelo.

The locker room

The question is as innocuous as they come: What makes Smith hopeful about this year’s team?

Smith gets animated, delineating his points.

‘‘I just think our core is still in place,’’ he excitedly says. ‘‘We’ve lost some good players who are playing for other teams. But our core is in place, and I think this team can be better than last [year].

‘‘There’s no reason to think it shouldn’t be. Reasons why?’’

On offense, Smith explains, the Bears are looking to get more production because the skill players are in their second season with offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and they’ve upgraded at receiver and running back.

‘‘Offensive line, I understand people want to wait and see on the offensive line,’’ Smith says. ‘‘That’s a fair statement to make right now. But we think this line will jell. We’ve added a first-round talent [Gabe Carimi] to the group, and Chris Spencer.’’

Unprompted, though, Smith mentions the loss of center Olin Kreutz, as well as tight end Greg Olsen. But he insists other leaders — and tight ends Kellen Davis and Matt Spaeth — will step up to fill the void.

‘‘So offensively,” Smith says, ‘‘that’s why I’m pumped up.

‘‘And defensively, we’re intact. Second year, again, with this group together. Our special teams, we feel we’ve upgraded. So to answer your question, yes, we feel we’re better.’’

There was outrage from players when the club didn’t re-sign Kreutz. But the players have since moved on, and they aren’t concerned there will be a leadership void.

‘‘We’re a veteran team,” linebacker Brian Urlacher says. ‘‘We know what’s expected of us and what needs to be done, and it starts with our head coach.

‘‘Lovie lets us be men. We ­practice hard, and guys do the right thing. The culture is set.’’

Smith says he cannot diminish Kreutz’s leadership, but he adds that his role hasn’t changed.

‘‘I’m the head football coach,’’ he says. ‘‘I set the tempo on everything. I realize that. But we also have a locker room full of veteran leaders.”

The coaches and GM

During his tenure, Smith hasn’t been shy about making changes to his coaching staff, noting his philosophy is the same now as ever.

‘‘To me, if he’s a bad coach or it just doesn’t work — he doesn’t fit your philosophy, he’s just not what you’re looking for — you make changes,’’ he says. ‘‘But the guys you have here and believe in, you let them coach.

‘‘This is a veteran staff. You go man to man, and you see why I’m so pumped up about the ­personnel.’’

There were some gut-check moments for the staff last season, when the team started 3-0, then lost three of the next four heading into the bye. But the Bears finished the season by winning seven of their final nine games.

‘‘We’ve been through some tough times,’’ Smith says. ‘‘But what you saw is guys back-to-back, working toward solutions.’’

That also applies to his relationship with Angelo. Smith insists there’s no friction between the two, posing a question as his answer.

‘‘Who has the longest tenure together, GM and head coach? Who is that?’’ Smith asks ­playfully.

Angelo hired Smith in January 2004, making this their eighth season together.

‘‘People say guys get along. But there’s a reason for that,’’ Smith says. ‘‘Jerry and I talk more than one time every day about things that are going on. There are no surprises.’’

Naturally, Smith says, the two don’t always agree on everything, raising an example of a married couple with a plethora of ­decisions that ultimately crop up.

‘‘But there’s a common ground,’’ Smith says. ‘‘And we’ve had no major differences in how we do things.

‘‘There are no issues. If there were, you could probably tell. You could see it when Jerry and I are around each other.’’

That’s because they have history, helping to turn around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Angelo as the director of player personnel and Smith as the linebackers coach. They worked together in Tampa for five seasons.

‘‘It’s not like we came here and said, ‘Let’s see what this guy is about?’ ” Smith says. ‘‘Most of the time, perception and reality are two different things. The reality is, Jerry and I have a great working relationship. We have since Day 1, and it’s only grown.’’

To be fair, Smith doesn’t have a reference point, which he readily acknowledges.

‘‘This is the only GM I’ve ever been with, so I don’t know how other guys do it,’’ he says. ‘‘But I just know that our working relationship works. I see it working daily.’’

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