Six members of his coaching staff were fired on Jan. 6 and roughly two weeks later, he was still struggling to find someone to fill the vacant posts of offensive and defensive coordinator. Several coaching candidates sized up Smith’s tenuous standing in Chicago and declined the invitation to join his staff, including one of his former coaches, Perry Fewell, whom many considered Smith’s friend. Fewell instead chose what appeared to be a more stable working environment, taking the defensive coordinator’s job with the Giants.
There were few places to turn for optimism. The Bears did not have a first- or a second-round pick in the 2010 draft. The franchise was not well known for spending money in the free-agent market, and a few days after the season, the team president, Ted Phillips, told reporters: “It’s clear nobody did a good enough job in the organization. Nobody.”
Smith, in the final year of his contract, was asked if he had been told he would be fired if the Bears did not make the playoffs.
“No one has to tell me that,” he answered.
Then a funny thing happened. The Bears, from top to bottom, decided to go out with guns blazing. If this was the culmination of the Lovie Smith era, the final chapter was going to be something resembling a Daniel Snyder- flurry of cash-happy free-agent signings and bold offensive overhauls.
The stoic Bears would be the busiest team in the league during the 2010 spring off-season. They would push all their chips to the center of the table, staking the season, and perhaps several future years of the franchise, on a handful of risky bets.
, the inventive if sometimes showy mastermind of the ’ Greatest Show on Turf, hoping he could meld with the mercurial and mistake-prone quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears signed perhaps the top free agent on the market, defensive end Julius Peppers, for six years and $91.5 million. They added two other free agents, tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor. And while those moves made smaller ripples across the league, they committed the Bears to $55 million more in guaranteed money.
The Bears had spent more in one off-season than the team had spent in the previous eight off-seasons combined.
“It was a busy time but it began with the belief that we had a good team regardless of some obvious disappointments,” Smith said on Wednesday, recalling last spring. “There were some adjustments we had to make. We met and we made a plan and then we did just what we decided to do.”
It is not uncommon for teams to revamp and try to spend their way out of mediocrity. But pro football is not like other sports, and it is unusual for such a plan to succeed so spectacularly. On Sunday, Smith’s remade Bears will try to advance to the with a victory over the in the N.F.C. championship game.
“No one saw this coming outside of our locker room, that’s for sure,” said Brian Urlacher, the Bears’ physical middle linebacker and spiritual leader. “Most people said we would win five or six games. I didn’t agree with them but I knew that’s where people were coming from.”
The centerpiece to the revival has been Peppers, who other Bears said changed the culture of the defense from the first day of training camp.
“He came out right away and made a couple moves against our offensive line in practice that had us looking around at each other in amazement,” defensive tackle Anthony Adams said. “We were saying, ‘Did you see that?’ ”
Added Urlacher: “We had watched him on tape at North Carolina and we thought we knew how good he was, but then when you see him day after day and game after game, you get a whole higher level of appreciation.
“He draws double teams which frees up the other guys on the line. He is always in the backfield, and not just to bother the passer, but to bring down running backs too. The guy really is incredible.”
And what drew Peppers to Chicago? Other than the $91.5 million?
“The Bears were on the cusp of a run,” Peppers said. “Sometimes it’s about timing. Sometimes going to a top team isn’t the right thing and nobody wants to go to a team that has no chance. Sometimes it’s finding the right team at the right time. I felt this team was bubbling.”