Whether the Chicago Bears win or lose on Sunday in the regular season finale against the Detroit Lions, whether they're eliminated from the playoffs on contact or whether they'll spend their afternoon doing the unthinkable and rooting for a Packers victory over the Vikings which would get them into the playoffs, you can expect Lovie Smith to take the post-game podium without a hint of desperation or exuberance in his voice. The Bears' coach, now finishing his ninth season -- an unheard of accomplishment in modern sports, is nothing if not consistent. While his Bears have played less Cover-2 in recent years, Smith's signature defense remains an integral part of the team's backbone. He has stressed creating turnovers since his first day on the job and he has never stopped. He is bad challenges and misused timeouts and stone-faced sideline serenity and many other things, but I think the thing that will always stick with me about Lovie Smith is his voice.
Smith's cadence and delivery at the mic seems custom-built to avoid sound clips, but he'll never get away from the ones he created before, during and after the Bears' Super Bowl run in 2006. "Rex is our quarterback."
Cue a montage of ghastly Grossman interceptions, back-footed power heaves throwing caution to the wind and leaving fate in the hands of chance, then cut to that quote. Then repeat, over and over again. It came to symbolize how those Bears teams did business -- first with Kyle Orton in 2005, "Kyle is our quarterback", and then with Grossman once he returned from injury. The Bears would finally find stability at quarterback -- a very loose definition of stability, but stability nonetheless -- when Jay Cutler was acquired via trade from the Denver Broncos in 2009, killing off Lovie's once weekly halfhearted defense of his squad's abysmal starter at QB. The soundbite might be gone, but it isn't hard to imagine him repeating it again, like a stranger stopping the "Where's the beef?" lady on the street and asking her to repeat the sentence that once made her famous. Lovie's voice has never changed and it never will, even as his team plays for his job on Sunday at Ford Field. He will sound as much like Eeyore as he ever has, even in the moments directly following the game that will very likely determine his fate.
Smith hates using the "must-win" tag, but even he can't deny it this week. It's pretty simple: if the Bears win and the Vikings lose to the Packers, Chicago makes the playoffs. That the Giants collapsed and San Francisco's prime-time loss to the Seahawks each happened only helps the Bears' case, as now Green Bay will be playing for a first-round bye on Sunday. But it doesn't matter if the Bears can't take care of business against the Lions, a team that has some blinding talent but one that couldn't seem to get out of its own way in 2012. It's not "win and you're in", but it feels that way. One thing is for sure: lose, and Smith probably won't be back for a 10th season as the head coach of the Bears.
It should have never gotten to this point, of course. The Bears started the season with Super Bowl hype and proceeded to crush a soft early season schedule, building a 7-1 record. A Week 9 beatdown of the Titans will stand as the high-water mark -- the Bears scored 50 points for the first time since 1980 and Chicagoans invaded Nashville and drank the city dry. But since then an increasingly difficult schedule, tough luck with injuries and a few bad breaks have put the Bears' backs against the wall entering the season's final week.
I'll admit, the season felt over to me before last week's victory over the punchless Arizona Cardinals. I had nearly checked out mentally and was ready for what was next: speculation over the new coach, what position to draft, how to fix an offense that didn't get any better even with the addition of Brandon Marshall. Tom Fornelli even took to this website and wrote about Chip Kelly. Then the Bears did what they have done all season: they beat a crappy team and got everyone semi-excited again.
It epitomizes the Smith era perfectly. Lovie always seems on the brink of getting fired until he does something just good enough to keep his job. This has happened countless times in Chicago, so why not once more? Will GM Phil Emery really axe Smith even if the Bears get killed by the 49ers in the first round of the playoffs? Probably not. A win Sunday will make it very hard for Emery to fire Smith, regardless of what the Vikings do against Green Bay.
The Bears don't control their own fate against the Lions, but they control their coach's. Just don't expect Smith to acknowledge it.