LAKE FOREST, ILL. -- Gary Fencik's last season in the NFL started out a disappointment. But the man who has run with the bulls in Spain as well as the Bears in Chicago is ready for one last run at the playoffs.

Fencik, 33, has been called the Bears' yuppie and the NFL's smartest player. This season, his 12th, he became something of an elder statesman.

After three seasons as a starter, he found himself a backup when the Bears put Todd Bell at the strong safety spot and Dave Duerson moved to Fencik's free safety position. It wasn't easy to sit on the bench.

"Patience isn't one of my greatest virtues, but I just tried to stay prepared," Fencik said.

He regained his starting role for the season finale. In making several lineup shifts, Coach Mike Ditka benched Bell and moved Duerson back to strong safety. And after a 6-3 victory over the Los Angeles Raiders, Ditka said the changes would stay for the playoffs. The Bears will host the Washington Redskins Sunday.

"With Gary back, we had something extra," said linebacker Ron Rivera, who also moved from backup to starter. "It's kind of an intangible thing, but it makes a difference having a guy with that much experience."

The start against the Raiders was an emotional one for Fencik.

"I had some butterflies, but a lot of my teammates gave me a tremendous amount of support," he said.

Fencik announced last fall that this season would be his last. A two-time Pro Bowl selection, he leaves as the Bears' career leader in tackles and interceptions. But he's also a businessman, a world traveler and, some suggest, a potential political candidate.

Cook County (Ill.) Republicans said last year they were interested in Fencik as a candidate for public office. For the moment, he says, he'd rather be skiing.

The Chicago native is a Yale graduate who holds a master's degree in management and is part owner of a Chicago bar and restaurant. He spent one summer in Spain where, in a tradition glorified by author Ernest Hemingway, he ran with the bulls in Pamplona.

His life style led to the label of Bears' yuppie, and one magazine, noting his business background, called him the NFL's smartest player.

He was drafted and cut by the Miami Dolphins, then signed by the Bears as a free agent in 1976. He's somewhat surprised he's still playing, and attributes that to a combination of things, including a good conditioning program.

"There are a lot of athletes more gifted than I am," he said. "The variation at each position is not all that great. So the question is, what else do you bring to the table.

"I like to think that I have discipline and some football intelligence. And the fact that I was cut by Miami gives me that free agent insecurity, that feeling of never taking anything for granted."