Lovie: Urlacher will be difficult to replace

Lovie Smith said the Bears will miss Brian Urlacher, and not just for stats. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

CHICAGO – Former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith reflected on his nine-year run in Chicago for the first time publicly since the Bears fired him on December 31 after the club missed the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six years, despite a 10-6 regular season record.

Smith said it "was time for (the Bears) to go in a different direction" during an appearance Thursday on ESPN's "NFL Live."

"My nine years in Chicago were great," Smith said. "I met a lot of great people, my family loved it, and it was just time for them to go in a different direction and I'm going to do the same."

After his dismissal from the Bears, Smith interviewed with the San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills and Philadelphia Eagles but was unable to land another head coaching job in the offseason. Smith, 84-66 lifetime in the NFL, said he plans to again pursue head coaching opportunities next year.

"I think you have to have a plan on everything in life and our plan all along, eventually you are going to get that call where a team is going in a different direction," Smith said. "My plan was just to sit back, take a little time off, get to know the family a little bit better, study football and just have a chance to do some of the things I've never had a chance to do. That was just the base part of the plan, but I'm not retired. I'm just going to take this year off and get back in it next year.

"When you've been in something as long as I have, you're going to miss some aspects of it, but you look at it from a fan's point of view. You got minicamps going on, the draft is coming up, that's an exciting time. I can just enjoy it from a different perspective."

The Bears underwent a dramatic makeover in the offseason, not just to the coaching staff, but also in regards to the roster. Gone is the long-time face of the franchise middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who had a close relationship with Smith for the last nine years.

Smith said Urlacher will be difficult to replace.

"(You lose) so much," Smith said. "You look at every organization, every football team, there is a face of the franchise, and there couldn't be a better player to represent a franchise than Brian Urlacher on the field. During my nine years there he was our linebacker, of course, he did so much on the field, great guy ... so it'll be different not seeing No. 54 there. But with time things change and this is a different year."

Another change has been the Bears' decision to remove Devin Hester from the offense in order to allow him to focus more on special teams. Hester entered the league in 2006 as a cornerback, but following his initial success as a return man his rookie season, Smith supported the idea of converting Hester into a starting wide receiver, a move that never quite panned out.

"I think whenever you can get the ball in Devin Hester's hands it's a good thing," Smith said. "You start off with him being a returner, he's the greatest returner of all-time, so that's big. What I tried to do when I was there, I wanted that and to give him a little bit more. It hasn't turned out that way, but I just think you need him on your football team in some kind of way."

Smith also had relatively kind words for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who went through three different offensive coordinators during Smith's tenure with the Bears. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract and the Bears have made no attempt to negotiate an extension so far in the offseason.

"You have to have that quarterback in place, and Chicago has that in Jay Cutler," Smith said. "He can do everything you're looking for a special quarterback to do. Great arm, mobile guy in the pocket, and as a quarterback you want to get to your contract year like he has and play your best ball."

But Smith stopped short of calling Cutler "misunderstood" when the question was poised during the interview. Cutler had two publicized incidents on the sidelines last year with starting offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb and ex-offensive coordinator Mike Tice that Smith was forced to deal with internally.

"It's hard to say whether he's misunderstood or not," Smith said. "When you are in that position you get criticized a lot. Everything you do is watched and that has been the case with Jay. There have been some incidents where he probably would have liked for it not to happen that way, but that's just a part of it. I know his teammates have his back and they are expecting big things from him this year."

The Bears still owe Smith the final year of his contract which is reported to be in the range of $5 million.