About this time 20 years ago, former Bears personnel chief Bill Tobin was general manager of “Bears South,” turning around the Indianapolis Colts in no small part using players who followed him down I-65 from Chicago: Jim Harbaugh, Troy Auzenne, Jay Leeuwenburg, Chris Gardocki, David Tate, even Richard Dent.
The Colts with Tobin as GM got to within a dropped Harbaugh pass in the end zone from reaching the Super Bowl after the 1995 season.
For the past two years Lovie Smith has been about the job of fixing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and in the process has created a newer version of “Bears Way, Way South.”
Smith started with quarterback Josh McCown last year. That didn’t work out, but four former Bears have started games this season for Smith’s defense, which ranks one notch above the Bears at No. 11 in yardage allowed. That’s been with Chris Conte back at strong safety after his Chicago time ended after last year, and starting alongside former safety-mate Major Wright, on his second one-year contract with Smith and the Buccaneers.
“I loved Chris Conte early on; that’s why we drafted him [Bears third round, 2011),” Smith said. “We moved him into the starting lineup early on and love him being part of our team right now. ... He’s a little banged up right now (knee) but he hasn’t been all year. Just a good addition to what we’re trying to do here.”
(Of course it hasn’t been all “to” Tampa Bay from Chicago; Smith cut tackle Gabe Carimi last spring after taking over from Greg Schiano.)
Smith took the Bears from 5-11 his first year (2004) after succeeding Dick Jauron to winning the 2005 NFC North. He has taken the Buccaneers from 2-14 last season to six wins already.
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The foundation has been some of the same core principles Smith followed in Chicago.
“I think whenever you go to a new place, being in a new place for the first time, there has to be some similarities of just initial part of you installing your program and exactly how you want to win football games,” said Smith, similar to John Fox in seeking a defense/run-the-ball base.
“We were a lot better later on than we were early on when I went to Chicago. And that’s kind of how we are right now. Last year of course was a tough year for us. But we started building the program. We’re headed in the right direction. We’ve made a lot of strides. We’re going to eventually be a team that people have to deal with. I like our young ball club.”