Lovie Smith says he is prepared for the reaction he'll receive Sunday when he emerges from the visiting tunnel at Soldier Field. And he has spent enough time in Chicago to know it may not be pretty.
Smith, who coached the Bears for nine seasons - from 2004-2012 - will be coaching his first game as a Bears opponent this week, when he leads his Tampa Bay Buccaneers into the Week 12 contest. Speaking Wednesday on a conference call with local reporters, the coach said that he doesn't expect to be treated differently than any other coach who is trying to earn a win over the hometown team.
"Oh, I know how I'm remembered there. So as I come in Sunday, I'm coming in as an opposing coach. That's how I'm looking at it," Smith said when asked how he thinks he'll be received by the Soldier Field faithful." The year I had off and just being in Chicago for nine years, I don't need anything validated this week. Fans were great to me and my family while we were there. Administration was. I have lifetime friends on the Chicago Bear football team. So I think I have all those things. Right now, I'm an opposing coach on the other side of the football coming in this week."
The coach's main focus on the trip back to Chicago is to earn a win for the Buccaneers, who are 2-8 but coming off a victory last weekend in Washington. That's the same priority that Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown relayed during his conference call.
McCown, who played three seasons with the Bears and started five games for the team a year ago, signed with the Bucs during free agency after Smith offered him a shot at the starting job. A thumb injury and poor play caused a slow start to the season, but the veteran has since recovered. Over the last two games, McCown is completing 64 percent of his passes, and threw for 288 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in the victory against the Redskins.
"More than anything, for us, and I know for them, as well, the state of our team, we need to win games," McCown said about the importance of facing his former team. "But I'm looking forward to it. It's fun, I have so much love for a lot of those guys up there, and anytime you get to do that, when you're growing up and you get to go compete in the neighborhood against guys that you know, or growing up playing against your brothers, it just makes it more fun because you know how they're going to prepare and you know they're going to give you their best, so I'm looking forward to that part."
Both Smith and McCown talked about the good times they had in Chicago and the respect they still have for Bears fans and members of the organization. The trip back to the city is a business trip, but won't impact the fond memories each has for the place they once called home.
"I'm proud of everything we were able to do. I loved my time there," Smith said of his experience coaching the Bears. "I loved the organization that I worked for and the opportunity that they gave me. But as much as anything, the players that I got a chance to lead and to coach. The lifetime memories, the lifetime relationships that I was able to form from being there. Of course that's what will stay with me forever."
To earn the win on Sunday, the Buccaneers will look to duplicate the game plan they executed a week ago. In that game, McCown relied heavily on rookie wide receiver Mike Evans, the team's first-round pick in May. Evans had seven receptions and gained 209 yards – the second-highest total in NFL history for a rookie – and hauled in two touchdowns to help Tampa Bay win 27-7.
McCown, who had great success in 2013 throwing to Bears wide receivers Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, sees some similarities between those two Pro Bowl players and Evans, who is coming on strong as the best receiver in a loaded rookie class of playmakers. The Bucs offense as a whole has improved greatly over the past few weeks, as Evans has become more of an integral part of the attack.
"The evolution of our offense, kind of going through what we went through early in the season, we were kind of finding our way there for a little while," the quarterback said. "Mike's work ethic is awesome, he's really developed himself and he's developing his routine so to speak, how he's going to be a pro and how he's going to approach his job. That's what's going to hopefully help him sustain this kind of success."
McCown's last start at Soldier Field was December 9, 2013, in a Bears win versus Dallas. Smith's last appearance there was nearly a year earlier, on December 16, 2012, when Chicago fell to Green Bay. For both, the trip back to the stadium they once called home will be an emotional one. But they each have a job to do now with the Buccaneers, and each is determined to be focused on the task at hand.
"To be at a place for nine years in the NFL is pretty good," Smith said of his time with the Bears. "So, I enjoyed every second I had there. A part of life sometimes, you move on to other places … I couldn't be happier than where I am right now."