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As a challenger, Lovie Smith is no champ

Bears coach Lovie Smith chucks challenge flag onfield. His success rate this department is frustrating 31 percent. | JSall~Sun-Times

Bears coach Lovie Smith chucks a challenge flag onto the field. His success rate in this department is a frustrating 31 percent. | Jon Sall~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 23, 2012 3:40AM

Lovie Smith, with the fifth-longest tenure among current NFL coaches, has compiled a 67-52 (56.3 percent) record with the Bears. But during his tenure, Smith has flummoxed fans and reporters with his challenges. The Bears are 19-for-61 (31 percent) in challenges since Smith took over in 2004 — fifth-worst among NFL teams during that span. The worst team in terms of challenges in that span is the Cleveland Browns (21.3 percent).

Smith took some time recently to explain his challenge philosophy.

‘‘First off, we start upstairs,’’ he said, referring to the coaches in the press box. ‘‘If we think we have a legitimate gripe, or we think we’re going to win, that’s a part of it. But if it’s close, and it’s a critical situation, I’m going to challenge it.’’

So even if there isn’t much confidence, Smith is going to use a challenge if the play is significant enough.

‘‘Most of the time, if it’s whether a touchdown or not, we’re going to challenge that,’’ he said. ‘‘There are no guarantees that you’re going to get it the next play. We use that as much as anything.’’

In London last Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher intercepted a pass from Josh Freeman. But he lost the ball as he was falling to the ground, and Bucs receiver Arrelious Benn recovered.

Smith got an indication from one of his coaches upstairs that they had a case.

Then he asked Urlacher.

‘‘Brian didn’t know for sure,’’ Smith said.

Smith challenged the play. After a review, the officials overturned the initial ruling.

‘‘We had all the checks and balances,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Luckily, it worked out our way.’’

It’s hardly a perfect process, knowing when to challenge a play or not. Last year, Smith admittedly regretted not throwing a challenge flag against the Washington Redskins when quarterback Jay Cutler fumbled the ball near the goal line.

‘‘Normally if there is a critical situation, I throw it whether I have a good look or not on it,’’ Smith said at the time. ‘‘Didn’t have a great look on it. I understand the reason why, but that was a critical play in the game. I need to be able to make that call.’’

For perspective, Smith had challenged the spot on the play before, a 48-yard completion to receiver Earl Bennett. A successful challenge of the Cutler fumble would have given the Bears a 21-10 lead. They lost 17-14.

Ultimately, Smith suggested too much is made of his use of challenges.

‘‘Even if you lose a challenge, you look at the end of the game,’’ he said. ‘‘Did you need the timeout at the end of the game? If you didn’t, it’s no biggie if you miss it.

‘‘You can’t carry them over. They don’t let you keep accumulating them.’’

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