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Article updated: 12/31/2012 9:35 PM

Bears need to be shaken from their comfort zone

By Mike Imrem

Bears players expressed sadness Monday morning over the firing of head coach Lovie Smith.

Heck, Devin Hester was as mad as sad, going as far as to say he might retire from football.

Roberto Garza, Jay Cutler, Corey Wootton and a few others in the Halas Hall locker room merely praised Smith.

Maybe their bond with the coach was part of the Bears' problem.

Left unsaid was something that was said in a Soldier Field locker room in December of 1981.

The Bears had just won their final game of that season but finished with a 6-10 record. A starting offensive lineman was asked whether he thought head coach Neill Armstrong should be fired.

"No," he said emphatically. "We might get somebody like Dick Vermeil in here."

The Eagles coach was a winner but difficult on his players. He was demanding and unafraid to call out players who didn't meet his demands.

In contrast, Armstrong was as, well, as nice a person as ever coached in the NFL.

The offensive lineman in question's worst fears were realized. The Bears hired Mike Ditka, who as a head coach made even Vermeil seem more like Armstrong.

Some Bears back then were comfortable with the culture in Lake Forest. They cruised through their careers, picked up a couple paychecks every month and lived the life of NFL players.

Current Bears haven't necessarily fallen into that mindset the past few years. But they haven't made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons under Smith, which should anger them as much as it does fans.

After nearly a decade, a coach's voice becomes inaudible and his message goes unheard. So somebody at Halas Hall -- general manager Phil Emery or club chairman George McCaskey or both -- decided to do what George Halas did 31 years ago.

Smith was fired the way Halas ceremoniously burst back onto the scene to fire Armstrong. Papa Bear simply didn't like what had become the texture of the team.

The players didn't look like his Bears anymore.

Now we'll get an even better idea whether Emery is more a Halas or more a McCaskey.

We don't know enough about current club chairman George McCaskey yet, but previous McCaskeys -- namely Mike -- preferred gentlemanly head coaches.

Ditka, rough and tough and gruff, wasn't much of a favorite of the family when he coached the team but Halas saw him as a reflection of his ornery old carcass.

The McCaskeys liked the likes of Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith, all of whom were to Ditka what unsalted butter is to hot sauce.

So, does Emery look for another players' coach like Smith who treats his charges like men or another Ditka who will clean out a player's locker at the drop of a pass?

Maybe there's somebody out there who has Smith's demeanor but with the ability to get plays in on time, assemble a quality coaching staff and identify quality players.

Emery will have to determine whether the Bears' culture has to be changed as much as the roster does.

Something was wrong with the Bears the past few years and the GM essentially announced Monday that it at least in part was Smith.

But does Emery think the problem was Smith's personality or his game-day coaching or his clubhouse culture or something else?

That will become clearer when a new coach is named, and when players uncomfortable with the transition are dispatched.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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