- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Friends of Lovie Smith warned him about how NFL head coaching could be hazardous to his psyche. Smith learned quickly how right that could be. An hour into his head coaching tenure the Lovie-Moon was over.
Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher suffered a hamstring injury that'll sideline him four-to-six weeks. He joined five other starters who suffered various leg, back and neck injuries during the first three practices. And because he asked 95 percent of his 88-man roster to lose weight, questions arose about whether the "Lovie Diet" contributed to the rash of injuries. Welcome to the NFL, Chicago-style.
"I can't say it's ideal, but it could have been a whole lot worse," Smith said.
But those same friends who warned Smith about the ups and downs of coaching also knew he's be a good coach because of how he would react. He'll continue the program he's committed to. Of the seven new coaches, Smith is probably making the most radical changes, remaking the Bears body and soul. They are going from a read-and-react system under Dick Jauron to the attacking style of the Cover 2 defense. On offense they are changing from the Chinese torture drill of the short passes of last season to the down-the-field aggressive offense used by the Rams, Chiefs and others.
For all of this to work, though, Smith asked his players to give a little this offseason for their own good. He wanted pounds, lots and lots of pounds. Lovie Smith surpassed Jenny Craig, Atkins, South Beach and Weight Watchers as the most effective weight-loss expert: He had a 95 percent success rate for players making weight at camp on a team that used to have a defense built around players like Ted Washington (365 pounds) and Keith Traylor (340 pounds).
"We started with guys (defensive tackle Alfonso Boone and right tackle Aaron Gibson among others) who lost 30 pounds to Rex Grossman, who lost 18," Smith said. "We had some staggering numbers. It wasn't losing just weight -- we just lost fat."
The idea behind the reduction is two-fold -- stress quickness and speed along with generating energy. It's no different than what Tony Dungy did in Indianapolis when he had his defensive linemen lose 15 to 20 pounds during his first season there. The defensive scheme in Chicago is built on quickness. It stresses defensive linemen shooting through the gaps and linebackers flowing to the football. What worked in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis should work eventually in Chicago.
But like any change, it will take time for success -- and that's where Smith has a slight problem. Chicago's opening schedule is ridiculous -- three opening NFC North games including road trips to Green Bay and Minnesota followed by Philadelphia (home), Washington (home) and Tampa Bay (road), three potential playoff teams. By the time defenders adjust to their new thin bodies and Grossman has the offense on the same page, the Bears could be 1-5 or 2-4.
A year ago, Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio instituted dramatic changes that eventually caught on, but before the Jaguars knew it, they were off to an 0-4 start, which turned into a 5-11 season. Still, Smith has a plan -- a good plan that will work if the fans and press are patient.
"Our system is based on everybody being in their gap on defense," Smith said. "Rex is getting the system down on offense. It's not as if we had to come in and convince Rex he can play quarterback. He's a confident guy. He's played the position all of his life. It's just him getting the system down."
The "system" is the old Don Coryell offense that is used by Dick Vermeil in Kansas City, Mike Martz in St. Louis, Norv Turner in Oakland and some other places, too. Where Smith has a good chance to succeed is that he brought in a great teaching staff of assistants. For offense, he hired Chiefs quarterback coach Terry Shea, who worked with Trent Green.
Bingo. Grossman has been a fan of Green, whose quick decision-making earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl last year for the 13-win Chiefs. Shea's job is to repeat what happened in Kansas City; he wants Grossman to be Trent Green. Former Cardinals No. 1 pick Thomas Jones fills the Priest Holmes role. The addition of former Chiefs tackle John Tait to the starting lineup on the offense line gives the Bears a chance to protect the quarterback almost as successfully as the Chiefs do. At wide receiver, the Bears have a former Pro Bowler (Booker) and a former No. 8 overall draft pick (David Terrell).
"We are more advanced than we were during my first year in Kansas City from the receiver standpoint," Shea said. "We know more about our running back than we did in Kansas City. Going into the opener, we didn't know whether Priest or Tony Richardson would start. Thomas Jones is our starter. During that first year, Tony Gonzalez held out. We didn't have Johnnie Morton yet. Snoop Minnis was going to be one of our top receivers."
The Chiefs system worked and the offense has ranked in the top five for three consecutive seasons. During camp, Shea must find out if tall receivers Booker, Terrell and Justin Gage have the quick footwork needed. And more than anything else, Shea must see how well Grossman can play now that he has been given the starting job.
Of all the eight first-round quarterbacks drafted over the past two springs, Grossman doesn't look the part. He's 6-1 and 218 pounds. He has a young face that reminds you more of a public relations intern than an NFL quarterback. But his game is his arm. Jon Gruden marveled at him a year ago by saying the ball explodes out of his right hand.
By winning his first two starts, Grossman started winning over the team last season. "Looks are deceiving," Booker said. "He was this little pudgy guy, but he had a big arm."
The Lovie Diet took care of the pudgy part. The arm is just as strong.
"My dad played quarterback, and he taught me when I throw the ball how to throw it like this," Grossman said, positioning his cocked arm upright near toward his ear. "I get most of my power with my hips. I keep my arm up. Steve Spurrier really helped me compact my release so I don't have that looping delivery. When I see someone get open, I've got to flip my hips."
Rain damped Grossman's third practice and illustrated the teaching necessary to develop this offense. Some of his passes were consistently high. Shea recognized the problem. Grossman was a little soft in the placement of his back foot. Dampness affected his grip. If it happens again, Shea will be able to fix the problem immediately.
"Rex is as accurate as any quarterback you are going to see in this system," Shea said. "He's got a lightning arm. He puts a nice spin on the ball. And, if there is a window where he needs to string one in there, he can do it."
This is a different Bears team. Bigger guys are getting smaller. Practice tempo is fast. Whether or not that produces a fast start is uncertain. One thing is for sure -- this group of Bears sure look good in their uniforms. Diets do that.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
22hMel Kiper Jr.
2dEric D. Williams