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Lovie Smith’s ‘gut feeling’ leads to release of former All-Pro Chris Harris

Lovie Smith said factor Chris Harris’ release was thhe couldn’t play special teams which Harris disputed. | Joe Shuman~Sun-Times Media

Lovie Smith said a factor in Chris Harris’ release was that he couldn’t play special teams, which Harris disputed. | Joe Shuman~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 4:10AM

Like many of his Bears teammates, Chris Harris booked travel plans for the team’s bye weekend.

He wasn’t thrilled with his play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — especially that he dropped an easy interception — but he returned from London with the team and prepared to fly to Little Rock, Ark, for a four-day break, after a light practice Thursday.

But when he arrived at Halas Hall on Thursday morning, Harris was directed by longtime equipment manager Tony Medlin to see coach Lovie Smith.

“It’s the bye week. They can’t tell me again I’m going to be benched,” Harris told the Sun-Times. “I thought I was going to be released.

“But it was definitely not something I was thinking about or seeing as a possibility.”

When the news spread, several players figured it was an elaborate joke, and they waited for the punch line.

“Coming in today, all of us were surprised,” rookie safety Chris Conte said. “I haven’t heard anything about it until this morning.”

But Smith said the decision was anything but hastily made.

“We don’t all of a sudden wake up one morning and just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to go this direction.’ It’s a pattern,” Smith said, “and I feel good about the decision we had to make.

“It is a business and, for us, it’s about production. We felt like we had some other options that we felt pretty good about, at the safety position.”

Harris led the Bears last season with five interceptions, and he received an All-Pro vote for his play. But he didn’t perform close to that level in three starts this season.

“It’s the body of work,” Smith said, “and just not one thing. Then it’s just a gut feeling, as a head football coach. I felt like we needed to go in a different direction.

“Again, I like our options we have here.”

What’s left

The Bears have five safeties on the roster: third-round picks Major Wright and Chris Conte, former first-rounder Brandon Meriweather, former fourth-round pick Craig Steltz and undrafted free agent Anthony Walters.

Smith said it wasn’t feasible to keep six safeties.

Indications are the Bears didn’t see Harris a part of their future, since he would become a free agent after this season. The club is assessing Meriweather, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, and he still is considered in the mix to start, despite a rough start with the Bears.

Harris said Conte, Wright and Meriweather are learning the playbook but added, “I think they’ll be fine.

“But they’ll definitely have to communicate a lot more.”

As Conte noted, Harris was the go-to player with any questions.

Asked about Harris’ leadership, Smith said, “We have other professionals in the locker room.

“It’s about what you can do on the football field.”

That Harris wasn’t an option, in Smith’s assessment, on the third phase of the game was also a key factor.

“Chris doesn’t really play special teams, can’t really play special teams; we have better options there,” Smith said. “We’re trying to win a championship. The guys we’re keeping here, I feel like give us our best chance to do it.”

Still wants to play

Harris took exception to Smith’s comments about his inability to play special teams.

“I played special teams in Carolina,” Harris said. “For someone to say I can’t play special teams is wrong. I wasn’t asked to play special teams, but I can play them.”

Harris insisted that the Bears never approached him about helping on special teams, although he noted that he stepped in for a few plays last season, when another player was injured in a game.

Asked if he’s lost a step, Harris said, “I don’t think that’s a legitimate concern, at all.

“My speed is the same at 2005; I was never a blazer. But the only thing that’s changed is, I’m smarter.

“Am I as athletic as other safeties on this team? No. But athleticism isn’t what got me drafted or into the starting lineup.”

Harris, though, insisted he’s not upset.

“It’s a business, and I handle it as such,” he said. “I don’t get bitter.

“Disappointed? Yeah. But not bitter. I take the punch, and I keep on moving.”

Harris, 29, believes he isn’t done playing by any means.

“I got a few years left. At least three or four years,” he said. “I got a lot of football ahead of me.

“I’m just hoping to get an opportunity somewhere, this year.”

Harris mostly listened during his five-minute meeting with Smith. He said he never got a clear explanation for why he went from starting Sunday to being released Thursday.

“I wish I knew,” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question everyone wants answered.”

Asked why he didn’t ask, Harris said, “Me getting answers isn’t going to change anything.

“I listened to what he had to say, then I thanked him for giving me the opportunity. I’m just moving on, man.”

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