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 Synder- 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.
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?’ ”
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.”
The 2009 Bears had struggled mightily to stop their opponents in obvious passing situations, especially on third down. The consensus was that they tried to overcome this deficiency by blitzing, perhaps too often. That opened up the middle for more short and medium-range pass plays.
This season, Peppers has elevated the defensive line play so that blitzing is less necessary to create pressure on the quarterback. Bears opponents in the 2010 regular season converted the first down 25.4 percent of the time on third down and six yards or more.
Offensively, things did not click immediately in Martz’s new scheme. But in private meetings at midseason, Smith was persuaded to instruct Martz to run the football more often, easing some of the pressure on Cutler. The net result was a more productive offense and a more reliable Cutler.
Bears players have also credited a mind-set change, one introduced early by Smith. When the players arrived for training camp, each found a T-shirt on his bed that read, “.”
Smith worked hard this summer to get his players, many of whom were born after the Bears last Super Bowl championship season in 1985, to understand and embrace the history of the franchise. At training camp, he gathered the team and played classic video clips of intimidating Bears defense play and of sensational Bears running backs like Red Grange, Bronko Nagurski, Gale Sayers and .
“We liked the idea of going old school,” cornerback Charles Tillman said. “Those Monsters of the Midway were a force, man. We’re trying to bring that to the modern day. Play tough man-to-man, be accountable.”
There was a final undercurrent spurring the revival in the Bears’ locker room — a solidarity to support Smith, and along the way, save his job.
“You know, Coach Smith is the kind of guy that never rips his players to the media, never says anything publicly about any player,” Urlacher said Thursday. “So if people were saying things about him we wanted to rally behind him. I think he’s been the coach of the year.”
Smith, the man with the most to lose in the Bears big off-season gamble, stood before reporters Friday afternoon after his team’s last full practice. He offered a small smile.
“Things have worked out well for us,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot to complain about.”