But all week Smith framed the season finale as a measure of pride for his team, and a 17-point home loss to the franchise's archrival left the Bears' coach defending his players' effort level.
Indeed, the only way the Bears hurt the Packers might have been in giving them a false sense of security heading into the playoffs. With nothing to gain but momentum, Green Bay exploited either the Bears' lack of talent or tenacity or maybe both.
"This game was embarrassing for us," center Olin Kreutz said. "To be a good team, at some point you've got to say if somebody gets hurt our backups are good enough. You can make as many excuses as you want. I can make an excuse for every player who misses a block. But if we continue to do that, we won't get any better."
It could not get much worse for the Bears' offense.
The NFL's most anemic offensive unit managed 246 total yards and failed to score more than 14 points for the 12th time this season. The offensive line gave up sacks at the rate of a busy grocer, tying the franchise record with nine. The usually reliable defense gave up three touchdown passes and made it hard to tell the difference between Brett Favre and Craig Nall.
Such poor execution in a pride game suggested poor concentration, but Kreutz disputed the link.
"I don't think you can ever question a man's intensity," Kreutz said. "If someone wants to question it, line up on the field against him. I don't think anyone in here is not playing intense. To question a guy's intensity is questioning his character, and I'm not going to do that."
Neither did an exasperated Smith, who begins planning for next season Monday morning during the first round of meetings with coaches and players.
"We really think we were able to get some things accomplished [this first season]," Smith said. "But of course right now we have a bad taste in our mouths."
The more bitter the better for a Packers team that remembered how the Bears celebrated their 21-10 victory at Green Bay on Sept. 19. That memory motivated a team that easily could have lost its edge before a game that meant nothing in the standings.
"They came into our house and poured champagne, did all this stuff, acting like they won the Super Bowl," wide receiver Donald Driver said. "Our thing was to come down here and take care of business. There is always payback."
It began after the Bears scored on the fourth play of the game, on Thomas Jones' 2-yard touchdown run. Chad Hutchinson's 63-yard completion to David Terrell set up the TD, most of the yardage coming after the catch as Terrell showed the breakaway ability the Bears have waited four years to see.
The touchdown marked the Bears' first on an opening series in nine games, but the optimism passed quickly.
"After that we kind of went downhill," Smith said.
The defense started the snowball rolling.
The Packers obviously found a mismatch they liked when they inserted tackle Kevin Barry as a second tight end, and isolated it.
When Barry entered the game, the Bears substituted run-oriented safeties Bobby Gray and Todd Johnson for free safety R.W. McQuarters and cornerback Jerry Azumah. Favre's first touchdown pass, a 17-yarder to tight end Bubba Franks, came out of that formation against a Bears secondary that looked confused.