By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) There may be new coaches on the Bears, but Lovie Smith is still here.
Hidden in the brush-off Lance Briggs gave the media yesterday is a much larger issue facing a team trying to push one side of the ball into modernity while keeping another rooted in the past. It may not be as easy as just keeping the playbook the same.
It would be unfair to criticize the seven-time Pro Bowler for his answers to direct questions yesterday at Halas Hall, and he was asked about former teammates and coaches. “I miss everybody, you guys” he said. “I miss everybody.”
But the problem came when an innocent question about Brian Urlacher being unsigned caused an already snippy Briggs to end the media session with a flippant “You guys have a good one” before turning tail.
What’s the point of that? What is that bizarre response supposed to say to anybody – fans, fellow players, or Urlacher himself?
The only solidarity that should matter now is that with current teammates and coaches, as a new regime is in place. A public display of loyalty to a former teammate accomplishes nothing, and him being aware of Urlacher’s impending retirement has no bearing on how he reacted. If anything it’s even more reason to feel free to sound diplomatic, yet Briggs still felt compelled to shield Urlacher from any negative insinuation.
In a year of both transition and expectations, we have the strange case of a franchise clinging to what it was as it tries to become something else.
Marc Trestman is smart enough to be aware of this dynamic, and that’s the reason he’s bending over backwards to coddle the defense by hiring a scheme-friendly coordinator and keeping the play-calling terminology. It’s in the Bears best interest both that position-specific skill sets remain useful and that important guys like Briggs are comfortable.
And Briggs knows it, saying “It’s a blessing that he chose to do that instead of having us change our language and the way we do things, so adopting our style and kind of our mantra, I think is going to help.”
“Our style” and “our mantra” mean Lovie Smith is still a powerful, ghostly presence with the Bears. Trestman is almost entirely uninvolved with that side of the ball, and Mel Tucker seems to be here primarily to facilitate continuity of Smith’s defense, which while perhaps wise strategy, creates potential divisions in stressful times.
Briggs’ reflexive defense of Urlacher is evidence of this difficulty. He still defaults to thinking of the now-former player as a teammate, which is somewhat understandable considering the message being sent by Trestman and Phil Emery, which is “keep doing what you’re doing,” while the real energy is poured into a complex offense.
Briggs is still so protective of Urlacher that he can’t even talk about him, even though he’s not on the Bears. But a veteran leader doesn’t throw a hissy fit over a fair question about a guy sitting on a couch somewhere. Instead, he says something like this: “I wish Brian all the best in his professional future, but my concern is this team, these guys in uniform, and working as hard as we can to win the Super Bowl.”
Is that so hard?
The words ultimately don’t matter much, nor does his relationship with the media. After all, Urlacher himself spent years in that role alternating between boycotts and monosyllabic cave-grunting, all while playing at a high level. Perhaps Briggs is just affecting the behavior because that’s how it has been modeled for him.
What does matter is whether the new head coach has the undivided fidelity of an entire roster.
As the wonky Trestman is busy installing his intricate “systems of football” on one side of the building, the other half the team is being told to listen mostly to echoes.