Bears coach Lovie Smith must have pre-programmed his team Monday. When his players gathered in the locker room, melting ice sliding off uniforms after a sizzling performance on a frozen field, they all said the same things in the wake of a 40-14 clobbering of the Minnesota Vikings.
We’ve still got a lot of work to do.
We have a ways to go.
We have to stay focused on the main prize.
Like their coach -- who describes his temperament as a “five” on a scale of 1 to 10 -- the Bears have propelled themselves to No. 1 in the NFC North this season for the first time in four years with an even-keeled approach to success and failure.
So it’s not surprise the team basically repeats in postgame press conferences what Smith tells it behind closed doors. But if anything, that single-minded approach between the coach and the 53 men on Chicago’s roster serves as a bonding agent and source of strength for the team that could ultimately lift it to a deep playoff run.
“Chicago is the kind of city that if you’re not doing well, they’ll let you know about it,” linebacker Lance Briggs said. “It’s nice to be successful because Lovie really is a great coach, and I really can’t imagine playing for anyone else. I’ve always enjoyed my time with him and everybody here. Chicago is a great place, and they’re lucky to have him.”
By trying to be him, the Bears -- like Smith -- simultaneously wow and frustrate their supporters from time to time.
Having lost three of four heading into the bye week after starting the season by winning three in a row, Smith and his team drew criticism for what appeared to be a blasé attitude and a blind optimism about their prospects, despite what transpired on the field in back-to-back home losses to Seattle and Washington.
At the time, Smith said, “You can’t get too high or too low; a lot of football left to go. [A] 4-3 [record] says, to me, you’re a good football team [and there are] some things you need to tighten up on. We’re right in the thick of the [NFC North] race.”
Little did anyone know the Bears would win it with two games left to play.
“It’s satisfying, but by no means am I completely satisfied with that we have done this year,” said quarterback Jay Cutler, who has thrown for eight touchdowns in his last four outings. “We can be so much better offensively.”
The team has shown certainly shown glimpses.
The Bears generated national buzz after the bye by reeling off five wins in a row, including a 31-26 triumph over a red-hot Philadelphia Eagles team, before falling 36-7 on Dec. 12 to the New England Patriots at Soldier Field.
During the winning streak, Smith refrained from getting overly jazzed about the team’s success, maintaining that outside “opinions really don’t matter a whole lot. We’ve beaten a lot of good teams; no more than that.” The team echoed Smith every day in the locker room.
Everyone did it again after the loss to the Patriots, acknowledging disappointment, but resisting the urge to push the panic button and embodying an even-keeled approach that played a role in the club bouncing back in resounding fashion against the Vikings.
“It’s hard to win in the National Football League. There’s parity in the league, [and] our players realize that,” Smith said. “You also realize how hard you have to work to stay there, and that’s what we’ll continue to do. After you make [the playoffs] the first time, you assume you’ll be back there every year. It doesn’t work like that, so that’s why this is special. The second time around we realize how hard it is to get there.”
Perhaps that explains why the team so easily adopts the coach’s consistent approach in dealing with the good times and bad on the football field. Chicago’s current roster features 16 players from the 2006 Super Bowl team, including seven starters from that defense who are still in the starting lineup.
New addition Julius Peppers shares the deflating experience of losing a Super Bowl with the 16 Bears from the 2006 team. Drafted by Carolina in 2002, Peppers played in the Panthers’ loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVII. Peppers and the Panthers returned to the playoffs twice more, but never made it back to the championship game.
So Peppers, like Smith and the rest of the team, wasn’t overly excited Monday about the Bears clinching the NFC North.
“It feels good to win it, but that is just one of our goals,” Peppers said. “I didn’t come here to lose. This is what I came here for: to win games, win the division, and ultimately win the whole thing. We are going to celebrate, but at the same time we have to stay focused on the main prize.”
Smith couldn’t have said it better.