ST. LOUIS — The charts Lovie Smith used to ensure his players hustled are gone but far from forgotten for his old St. Louis Rams defensive players.
Smith parlayed the relentless, hustling ethic he instilled as the Rams’ defensive coordinator from 2001-03 to become the Chicago Bears head coach in 2004. Playing to the whistle has become something of a cliche, but it was a minimum requirement.
His detailed list of those who sometimes coasted, updated weekly, kept them honest.
End Leonard Little is the Rams’ top defensive player, leading the team in sacks and requiring almost constant double-teaming. He learned the ropes under Smith, who has furthered his defensive reputation with the Chicago Bears.
“I showed up every week on it because I was young,” Little recalled. “It was my first time playing in regular-season games and he just wanted me to run to the ball.
“If I wasn’t running and doing the things I wasn’t supposed to do, he put me on that loaf chart, and called me out in front of everybody.”
No hard feelings, though. They knew Smith, who otherwise rarely raises his voice, was just trying to help. Those who remain from his St. Louis years — including Little, outside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, and tackle Jimmy Kennedy — figured that out of Mike Martz’ shadow he’d make a name for himself.
Monday night’s game was Smith’s first in St. Louis as a head coach and he came to town with his team tied for the best record in the NFL at 11-2, the top turnover-producing machine in the league by a wide margin and the No. 2 overall defense.
“He’s not a real rah-rah coach where he really gets on you or he really yells at you or anything like that,” Little said. “He has his own way of getting people to listen to him.
“He’s great at doing that, and those guys are going to be really motivated to come down here and play.”
Rams offensive players remember Smith fondly, too, even though he had nothing to do with that side of the ball. There are plenty of holdovers from his time in St. Louis, including wide receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce, quarterback Marc Bulger, and linemen Orlando Pace and Adam Timmerman.
They’re proud of the man who has joined Mike Ditka as the only coaches in Bears history to win consecutive division titles. In his third season in Chicago, where he relocated the loaf chart and remains just as demanding, he’s 26-18.
“I’m a big fan of Lovie Smith,” Holt said. “Everybody liked Lovie. They liked the way he coached, they liked the way he went over the details, they liked his defense, and they liked his personality.
“He’s smooth, he’s calm, he’s low-key, but he’s very, very demanding.”
Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher can attest to that. But he notes that Smith knows when to back off, too.
“We work hard on the field, but we definitely don’t get overworked, and he gives us time to stay off of our feet,” Urlacher said. “As long as we’re doing the right things he’ll take care of us, and for the most part we’ve done that.”
Smith views the game as something of a homecoming, because this is where he made his mark. He considers Martz, now Detroit’s offensive coordinator, as family and remembers the administration as “super” to deal with.
“Mike Martz, first off, was just great for me with my growth,” Smith said. “He put me out in front a lot and as much as anything he let me coach, he let me take control of the defense. That’s all you can ever ask for.”
Smith’s vision has quickly fallen into place with the Bears. He said he had the raw material to do the job, and credits the players for helping to make it happen so fast.
“You do have a plan, and you hope it turns out this way,” he said. “Coming to Chicago we had some pieces in place to build around, Brian Urlacher, guys like that but you still have to come together as a team.
“We have a super group of guys, but I can’t say I’m totally surprised.”