Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith has been in charge since 2004.
He has led the team to the Super Bowl in 2006, which they lost, and multiple NFC North divisional titles.
He has had his ups and downs as a head coach, but one thing he has never gotten right in his tenure in Chicago: safeties.
Since Smith has been head coach, the Bears have thrown out 56 different combinations of safeties.
That's an astounding number, especially with a team that has been so focused on the success of their defense.
Not all of that is directly Smith's fault, as the team has seen the likes of Mike Brown go down with injury after injury, and the likes of Danieal Manning, Jr. never living up to his true potential.
In either case, the injuries suffered by Chris Conte and Brandon Hardin in Saturday's exhibition game has the Bears scrambling for answers yet again at the safety position.
Conte and Hardin entered this year in two different circumstances. Conte enters his second year out of the University of California with a starting job in his reach. He came on late last season as the starting free safety and showed the ability to make plays in the secondary and provide some devastating hits to those receivers who dared to cross his path.
More importantly, he wasn't giving up the big play, and aligned himself to be in the conversation for starting free safety once the 2012 regular season came around.
Conte suffered a dislocated shoulder Saturday night against the Washington Redskins. He came up and made a big hit on Redskins' running back Alfred Morris, and Conte immediately came up holding his limp, right arm.
It initially looked to be a wrist or shoulder injury, and sure enough it was the latter. Reports are that Conte dislocated his shoulder as opposed to separating it, which means that he likely will not need surgery and is hopeful to return for the season opener.
As Conte is on the verge of a starting job, Hardin finds himself in in rookie limbo. Hardin made a big hit on Redskins' tight end Logan Paulsen early in the third quarter and seriously injured his neck. Replays showed that Hardin came flying in from the secondary with his head down and made contact with the 264-pound tight end's mid-section.
Hardin was taken away on a golf cart off the field, but he was fully conscious and able to move all of his extremities.
Hardin was a third-round dpick for the Bears in this year's Draft. He came in with a unique background as he missed all of the 2011 college football season with injury, but displayed the dynamic play the Bears look for in their safeties. With this serious neck injury, it remains to be seen what the Bears will do with Hardin.
His worst-case scenario would be getting put on the injured reserve, meaning Hardin will not have played organized football at any level in more than two years. Here's to wishing Hardin a speedy recovery.
As the free safety spot remains up in the air, the Bears are optimistic that incumbent strong safety, Major Wright, will have a productive and healthy 2012 season. Wright was drafted in the third round in 2010, and has played 10 & 11 games in his first two years, missing games due to injury. Wright has shown he can play great against the run, but he still needs to prove his capability in coverage down the field.
The Bears also signed free agent safety Mark LeGree to provide insurance given their injury problem at the safety position. LeGree (6-0, 210 pounds) was a fifth-round selection in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Seattle Seahawks. LeGree played his college ball at Appalachian State University, and he recorded 22 interceptions in the 53 games played there.
The Bears are hopeful Conte can rebound from his separated shoulder in time for the regular season opener September 9th in Chicago against the Indianapolis Colts, but they need to be prepared in case he won't be ready.
Smith is optimistic that the duo of Conte and Wright can be the answer for their long and tumultuous search for consistent play at the safety position, which would provide stability to a position that has lacked it since Smith came into town. Look for veteran Craig Steltz, second-year player Anthony Walters, and newcomer LeGree to see playing time in the next two preseason games.