Lovie not letting 'underdog' tag pass this time


Lovie not letting 'underdog' tag pass this time

Monday, Jan. 17, 2011
Posted: 11:28 p.m.

By John Mullin

Lovie Smith isnt the kind to share many of his innermost thoughts on internal issues involving his team. And he doesnt engage in a lot of word-warring where his team and an opponent are concerned.

But you had to wonder Monday if this time it really rankles him to see his guys win decisively a divisional-round playoff game, then be tagged as clear underdogs in their own house.

Particularly against a team they have handled pretty well since he became Bears head coach.

Some background: Smith restored the Bears to respectability and then some against the Green Bay Packers by going 6-2 in his first eight Packers games when Brett Favre was in charge up there. Aaron Rodgers has turned things back around with a 4-2 run over the past three years, leaving Smith 8-6 against Green Bay for his tenure.

But when I asked Smith on Monday how the Rodgers Packers differed from the Favre Packers, Smith used the moment to imply that making the Packers favorites next weekend, in Chicago, might be ignoring some things.

Its the same family of offense with what theyre trying to do, as far as how theyre trying to attack us, Smith said on the Favre-Rodgers differences. And we feel we match up pretty good with this branch.

Smith was very candid before this season started, before preseason, even before training camp, when he told CSNChicago.com that this was the best team hed had in his seven seasons as Bears coach. It wasnt in a press conference; it wasnt even especially intended to sway a media opinion.

He frankly just saw his team in exactly the position it is now, playing for a championship.

What also is very interesting as well is that he saw the Green Bay Packers as one of the elite teams in the NFC that he and the Bears would need to get by on their way to a Super Bowl. He seemed to suggest that he foresaw the Bears playing Green Bay in the playoffs.

Smith ran through the reasons why Green Bay was remaining a force in the NFC and concluded, So yeah, I saw them as being one of the teams at the end youd have to deal with.

And as he said, he thinks the Bears match up pretty well with this branch of the Packers family.

Bears-Packers playoffs are always big

The NFC Championship game Sunday between the Bears and Packers could eclipse this years Super Bowl in popularity. It wouldnt be the first time.

The last time the Bears faced the Packers in a playoff game was in 1941 and it preceded the NFL Championship. The game was a one-game tiebreaker for the Western Conference title and the Bears trampled Green Bay 33-14.

The game drew 43,425. The NFL championship between the Bears and New York Giants the next week, also in Wrigley Field, drew 13,341.

Contract watch

The market for head coaches and their salaries took another turn away from where Lovie Smith might like it to head.

Smith could land his expected contract extension sooner rather than later, particularly if he adds a win or two to his 2010 slate, and if hes willing just to add a couple years without a significant raise from the 5.5 million hes due in 2011, the final year of his current deal.

But the Oakland Raiders handing their head-coaching job to their offensive coordinator, Hue Jackson, puts another first-timer in charge of a team. Along with Ron Rivera in Carolina, Jason Garrett in Dallas and Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, hirings are going on the cheap and with guys whove never worn the A headset in an NFL game. (Jim Harbaughs 5-million-per is a separate situation with other factors).

The jobs are all filled now. And the going rate is going down. Casual guess here is that an extension at his current rate might be looking better and better to Smith.

Sod busting

The seeming almost weekly brouhaha over the Soldier Field turf is underway, and was Sunday after the Seattle game when Brian Urlacher noted that it stinks for both teams. Then Green Bay wideout Greg Jennings pointed out that the Bears field isnt the best.

Longtime Packers beat writer Tom Silverstein reports in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the NFL is taking a hard look at the playing surface and will be deciding if something needs to be done. Tom has some history on this kind of situation, which did come into play at hallowed Lambeau and elsewhere in the past. Worth a look.


Aaron Rodgers is a scheduled guest on The Dan Patrick Show on Comcast SportsNet Chicago at around 10:20 a.m. Tuesday morning. Guessing he wont get to deep into game-planning but hes rarely boring.

Thats the ticket

From the Bears:

A limited number of playoff tickets are scheduled to go on sale on Tuesday at 2 PM, through Ticketmaster. All playoff game ticket sales through Ticketmaster are via phone and Internet only. Fans may charge by phone at (800) 745-3000, or on-line at www.ticketmaster.com. Tickets are priced at 134.00 to 586.00.

There is a limit of four (4) tickets per customer or billing address. Tickets purchased through Ticketmaster are subject to a per-ticket customer convenience charge. Ticketmaster accepts Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and Diners Club cards.

Wheelchair seating is available for the playoffs through Ticketmaster. Should the wheelchair seating allocation through Ticketmaster become exhausted, fans with disabilities are encouraged to proceed with the purchase of conventional seating if available then call the Bears ticket office to arrange an exchange.

John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

No hard feelings between John Fox and Jay Cutler, but no clear future, either

Jay Cutler returned to practice as he left it before the Week 2 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, in which he suffered a thumb injury that sidelined him for the past five games. He was back as the No. 1 quarterback.

But the landscape changed over those five weeks, at least outwardly, with Brian Hoyer filling in with a succession of 300-yard passing games and coach John Fox indicating that as long as Hoyer was performing well, he could hold onto the job.

Now Hoyer is gone to IR with a broken left arm suffered in a Week 7 loss to the Green Bay Packers and Cutler returns to a situation where his head coach’s endorsement and support has appeared conditional.

“He doesn’t have a choice, I guess, at this point,” Cutler said on Tuesday. “Brian is out, so I’ve got to go. I’ve had good conversations with Foxy this week, last week, the week before. There’s never been any strain in our relationship. We’re both very open and honest, and we’re on the same page. We just want to win football games.”

Fox has been ripped in some quarters for what was taken as creating a quarterback controversy. In fact, consistent with a competition mantra that has applied to every position since the end of last season, Fox supported each quarterback when their time was at hand: Hoyer when Hoyer was performing well, and Cutler now that he is back.

Bill Belichick made it clear that, regardless of how well Jimmy Garappolo played for his New England Patriots, Tom Brady would be back as the starter when his four-game suspension was over. Cutler has not established a Brady lock on the position.

Speaking about the running back situation, where one-time starter Jeremy Langford is returning from injury to find Ka’Deem Carey and Jordan Howard in front of him, Fox laid out the NFL reality, which applies to the Cutler-Howard situation.

“Earlier in the season I mentioned that way back in the day, if you were the starter, when you got hurt, it was yours when you came back,” Fox said. “Well, that’s not really the case as much anymore. It can be; you’re going to play the best guy and there’s competition to be involved in that.”

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The broader issue overhanging Cutler is whether the Bears plan to bring him back in 2017. This season has been bluntly described as a prove-it year for Cutler, who has no guaranteed contract money after this year, and Cutler has not proven a great deal in seven quarters of football, with a 75.7 passer rating, one TD pass and two interceptions.

Whether that is regressing from last year to levels closer to his career standards is what the next several weeks will reveal. At this level, the Bears would be unlikely to pay Cutler $15 million in 2017.

“I think those are conversations for the end of the year,” Cutler said. “Right now I’m working with Dowell [Loggains, offensive coordinator] and ‘Rags’ [QB coach Dave Ragone] and we’re just trying to find first downs and get our third-down conversion rate back up, score more points. That’s all we’re really trying to do and that’s all my focus is.

“Whatever happens at the end of the year, it’s supposed to happen, and we’ll go accordingly. But right now it’s not something that I worry about. It’s my 11th year, my eighth year here. I’ve seen a lot of ups and downs, and it’s how it goes. At the end of the year, we can have those conversations. Whatever happens, happens.”

As far as the best way to handle the inevitable questions about the future, “I think ignoring it is,” Cutler said. “I think it's going to be there; you can't completely ignore it.”

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

Bears In-Foe: Vikings defense is Purple People Eaters, Part II

It's bad enough that Jay Cutler will be rusty and he may not have Kyle Long and Josh Sitton protecting him. But even if all the Bears' offensive hands were on deck, Monday night's challenge would've been formidable anyway.

The Vikings' defense leads the league in fewest yards allowed (279.5 per game), is tied for the league-lead in allowing fewest points (14.0), third in rushing defense (81.7), fourth in pass defense (197.8), and sixth in third-down defense (34.2 percent). And oh yeah, they lead the league in turnover ratio (plus-11), courtesy of their nine interceptions (tied for second), seven fumble recoveries and 19 sacks (seventh-most in the NFL).

It's nice to have quality and depth up front. That's where that push comes from, especially off the edges, with ends Brian Robison, Everson Griffen and sophomore Danielle Hunter supplying four sacks apiece. That trio combined for 21.5 sacks a year ago (when the Bears totaled 35 as a team). And while injury-prone Sharrif Floyd finds himself sidelined again since the opener, tackle Linval Joseph (three sacks) is back playing at the All-Pro level he was at a year ago before an ankle injury slowed him. And Tom Johnson contributed 6.5 sacks a year ago rotating in with Floyd at three-technique.

[RELATED: Bears In-Foe: Purple a fitting color for Vikings' battered, bruised offense]

Reunited UCLA linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks are in their second year together in a run the Bears will likely have to deal with for another decade. This is the 11th and final year they'll see Chad Greenway, who's more leader than playmaker now in the middle of that defense.

Ryan Pace, Vic Fangio and position coach Ed Donatell must also be jealous of the Vikings' deep defensive backfield. Top cover man Xavier Rhodes, last year's top pick Trae Waynes and Andrew Sendejo have two picks each. Waynes still hasn't taken a job away from ageless 37-year-old Terence Newman. The Vikes were trying to upgrade on Sendejo, who answered the challenge and should be able to play Monday after departing the Eagles game with an ankle injury he suffered almost taking an interception to the house. It's almost unfair that second-round rookie Mackensie Alexander can't even surpass fourth cornerback Captain Munnerlyn for playing time.

But we must not forget Harrison Smith. The humble Golden Domer, humorously nicknamed "Gangsta White Boy" by Adrian Peterson, became the NFL's richest safety by inking a five-year, $51 million deal this summer, is coming off a first Pro Bowl that probably would've come sooner if not for a couple injuries. Two of his four career pick-sixes have come against the Bears, and Pro Football Focus has him as the only safety to grade positively in coverage, run support, and pass rush over each of the last two seasons.

Special teams

Just as Robbie Gould fell under the microscope of the current Bears brass with last season's rough finish, the strong-legged Blair Walsh probably feels a few more eyes on him after missing the 27-yard game-winning attempt in the frigid playoff loss to Seattle. He's 10-of-13 on field goals this season, 11-of-13 on extra points.

But while the Vikings' kickoff coverage was burned by Josh Huff's return Sunday in Philadelphia, the Bears coverage units have to be disciplined and smart against Cordarrelle Patterson and Marcus Sherels. Both have burned the Bears more than once before. With more than his seven kick returns, Patterson's 29.9 average would lead the league. Sherels' 14.6-yard return average on punts ranks third in the NFL. He's already returned two for touchdowns this season after burning the Bears at Soldier Field a year to the day short of Monday's contest.