It’s universally understood that when a coaching change is
made, change is inevitable, the extent of that change is unpredictable, and
often those changes are welcomed. New coaches are usually granted what is
commonly called a “honeymoon period,” during which some poor play from the team
will be tolerated.
After a somewhat protracted coaching search in January 2004,
during which Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo traveled coast-to-coast to
offer the job to two men that turned him down, the Bears hired Lovie Smith as
the 13th head coach in their history on January 15th.
Being that Smith is a career defensive coach, many could
have expected his defenders to mold more quickly than the offense, much as Dave
Wannstedt’s first team did in 1993. However, none could have predicted the
Bears would finish dead last in eight offensive categories in the NFL. Thus the
epilogue for Smith’s first season as an NFL head coach is an offensive offense.
“No offense to Bears fans” might be a fitting headline with a dual meaning.
Given the Bears’ history of being the final team to complete
their coaching search, Smith went to work quickly in January to find his
coordinators and assistants. First to be hired was Ron Rivera as defensive
coordinator. Rivera was a 1985 Bear, played for the team from 1984-1992, and
was at the time serving as linebackers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles. The
hire was made after Tampa would not release Smith’s top choice, their defensive
line coach Rod Marinelli. Rivera promised to bring his own blitz-heavy
philosophy back to the Bears, in addition to implementing the cover-2 scheme
Smith had taught in St. Louis when he was their defensive coordinator.
On the offense, Smith looked to find a coordinator that
would implement a hybrid St. Louis/Kansas City attack, as he promised to bring
with him at his interview with the Bears. His top choice-who held out for more
money and delayed the process-was Terry Shea, former college head coach and
current quarterbacks coach at Kansas City. Shea finally agreed to terms in late
January, and may have needed a Ryder truck to bring his playbook into Halas
Hall shortly thereafter. Shea promised the press and fans that his attack would
stretch the field, something that audience felt his predecessor John Shoop had
Along with playing much cover-2 and reintroducing the blitz
to Chicago, Smith’s defense also required a different type of defensive
lineman. Smith’s predecessor, Greg Blache, made a profound statement when he
said “sacks don’t matter,” and his line was built to reflect that. Instead of
sleek, fast linemen, the line the new coach inherited was designed to stop the
run first and contain the quarterback at the expense of pressuring him. The new
scheme would require slimmer, faster linemen that would play a “one gap”
scheme, instead of one that tied up linemen to allow linebackers to make plays.
In fact, the new “Lovie Ball” defense would encourage all defenders to get up
the field to the ballcarrier.
During the free agency period in February, the Bears struck
quickly to arm Shea with the offensive players he would need in his scheme.
First signed were running back Thomas Jones from Tampa, and backup quarterback
Jonathan Quinn from Kansas City. Jones had the breakaway speed Shea needed in
his system, and the offensive coordinator assured his bosses that Quinn would
not only help teach his system, but be a reliable backup if need be. After
waiting a week for the Chiefs to decide not to match the Bears’ $33 million
offer, Chicago acquired right tackle John Tait. This money was steep for a
right tackle, but Shea claimed in his system “two left tackles were needed.”
Last to be picked up were fullback Bryan Johnson in a trade with Washington,
and all-pro guard Ruben Brown.
To the end of acquiring a new breed of linemen, the Bears
first cut end Phillip Daniels and later tackle Bryan Robinson. In the April
draft-which fell perfectly for the Bears,-the top tackle in the draft fell into
their laps. Tommie Harris of Oklahoma, predicted to be selected in the top 10,
was available to the Bears at 14. Chicago jumped on him and surprised some by
selecting another tackle, Washington’s Terry “Tank” Johnson, in the second
round. In the third they selected receiver Bernard Berrian from Fresno State,
the fourth cornerback Nathan Vasher from Texas, and Ohio State quarterback
Craig Krenzel in the fifth. Two draft choices-fourth round linebacker Leon Joe
and fifth round defensive end Claude Harriot did not make the team.
Through a series of extra minicamps and “organized team
activities”, Bear players were conditioned as many of them admitted they never
had been in their lives. Smith’s staff set weight-loss goals for virtually
every player, to which most of them complied. Star linebacker Brian Urlacher
even trained in the mountains of Nevada to condition and meet his goal.
In an ominous sign of what would befall the Bears during the
2004 season, in the first no-contact practice of that season’s training camp,
Urlacher badly pulled a hamstring, and it was announced he would be out at
least through the preseason. Angelo piqued the interest of the media when he
proclaimed “we’ll be OK without Brian for some time.” Urlacher’s hamstring
injury was the first but certainly not the last during camp; almost a score of
players hurt that muscle, calling into question Smith’s weight loss regime as a
possible contributor. Cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Jerry Azumah was
also lost early in the preseason to a neck injury, for which he underwent
In the preseason, the Bears finished 2-2, winning the first
duo and losing the last. What mainly stood out was Shea’s offense, which did
indeed move down the field at will. Running back Jones showed speed and cutback
ability not present in Illinois since Neal Anderson’s career. Aside from the
aforementioned training camp injuries, the Bears left the preseason without any
more significant health setbacks.
Prior to the second preseason game, Chicago also pulled a
stunning trade, something the club is not known for doing. Throughout the
afternoon of August 21st, unbeknownst to those attending the contest, Angelo
was negotiating with the Miami Dolphins and the agent for defensive end Adwale
Ogunleye on a contract. When the numbers finally were met with agreement, the
Bears sent their best wide receiver-Marty Booker-and a third round draft pick
to Miami to make the Nigerian royal a new Bear. “Wale” as he was known led the
AFC in sacks in 2003 and it was believed he would bring a needed pass rush with
him to Chicago.
On September 12th, a blazing hot day on Chicago’s lakefront,
the Bears opened Smith’s rookie season facing the Detroit Lions. The matchup
was noteable for several reasons, first being that the visitors had lost an
NFL-record 24 straight games on the road. Also interesting was Dick Jauron’s
visit back to the city in which he coached for five years. In this opener, Rex
Grossman looked sharp and indeed a good 2003 first-rounder. He threw for 227
yards, while even more significantly David Terrell caught 5 passes for 126 of
the yards. Thomas Jones rushed for two touchdowns, the defense held Detroit to
262 yards, but due to turnovers and a blocked field goal returned for a
touchdown, the Bears lost 20-16. Grossman had his team in the red zone with
seconds left, but threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted.
Overall the team was positive in that Urlacher had returned
from his injury, and the first victory simply slipped through their hands.
In week two, it would be hard for one to imagine any more
pressure being placed squarely on the shoulders of Smith. The Bears faced a
game at Green Bay against the Packers, who had beaten them seven times
straight. Just minutes into his introduction as coach, Smith declared his
number one goal was to beat the Packers, to the chagrin of the media and fans.
On that September 19th, the Packers jumped out to a 3-0 lead
until the Bears scored to make it 7-3 in the second period. With less than two
minutes remaining, Green Bay looked as if they would make it a 10-3 game with
the ball inside the Bears’ 20. So many times over the past decade the Bears had
led Green Bay only to lose. Then suddenly, as Packer running back Amhan Green
carried toward the goal line, Urlacher applied a hit, knocking the ball loose.
Sprinting safety Mike Brown snared the ball and raced 95 yards for a touchdown,
making the score 14-3 at the half.
The Bears would not look back in the Packer game, winning
21-10. They had achieved their top goal for the season, but hauntingly lost
Brown for the season with an Achilles tear. Also lost for much of the rest of
the campaign was cornerback Charles Tillman with a knee injury. To top it off,
Urlacher aggravated his injured hamstring and would miss the next two games.
Those next two games were against offensive powerhouses
Minnesota and Philadelphia, which the Bears would play with backups at
cornerback, safety and middle linebacker. The results of both games were
In that September 26th game at Minnesota, the Bears played
remarkably close, losing 26-22. On their final touchdown of that game, the
wheels officially came off the 2004 campaign. As quarterback Grossman was
diving for the end zone on the Metrodome field turf, he heard as he described
an “ugly, sickening pop,” as his knee ligaments went out.
Grossman’s injury signaled perhaps the most comical parade
of backup quarterbacks in Bears, if not NFL, history. This is including the
Bears’ 1984 season. The team would start three more quarterbacks before the
year was out, never finding one that could consistently run Shea’s offense.
They started with Shea’s man-Jonathan Quinn-who was rarely
able to throw the ball near a Chicago receiver, let alone complete passes.
Quinn lost starts against Philadelphia, Washington and at Tampa, all fairly
winnable games thanks to great defensive performances. The season turned
slightly when on Halloween night rookie Craig Krenzel started against the
bottom-dwelling San Francisco 49ers. Krenzel’s first pass of the night floated
perfectly into the hands of rookie Bernard Berrian for a touchdown, then later
rookie Nathan Vasher returned an interception for a touchdown to seal the win.
What followed were an improbable two more victories at New
York (Giants) and Tennessee. In the Giant game, defensive end Alex Brown
recorded four sacks, earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. The
following game, the Bears fittingly won 19-17 on a safety in overtime. Krenzel
was playing competently but not good, as in the Titan game the offense managed
only 176 yards. The defense and special teams accounted for 16 of the teams’ 19
Following the Tennessee win the Bears were again without
Urlacher, as he nearly lost his leg after being kicked late in the game. After
emergency surgery, he would play in just one more game in the campaign.
Urlacher’s presence was sorely needed November 21st against the top-ranked
Indianapolis Colts, when the Bears were blown out 41-10.
Thanksgiving day the Bears made their return to holiday
football for the first time since 1999, and were embarrassed 21-7 by the Dallas
Cowboys. The Bears wore orange uniforms claiming to be from 1946, even though
they were a composite of jersey, pants and helmets from 1935 through 2004.
Krenzel injured his shoulder and Quinn entered to ensure no one in Chicago
would watch the completion of the game.
In one final bright spot for 2004, new quarterback Chad
Hutchinson started the next week against the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings.
Hutchinson threw for 213 yards and three touchdowns as the Bears upset the
Hutchinson was serviceable at the quarterback position the
rest of the year, but the Bears lost their final four games to finish 5-11,
despite being in playoff contention as late as Thanksgiving. Two days after the
season was over, coordinator Shea was fired, obviously taking the fall for his
unit that led the league in finishing last, committing penalties, and giving up