LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Lovie Smith watched his team trot off the sun-baked practice fields at Olivet Nazarene University in August, placing one hand on a hip, using the other to pull back his Bears ball cap to wipe off beads of sweat.
In a brief moment of pure candor, the coach dropped his guard.
Smith would never admit it now. To do so would come off as, “I told you so”. But the coach knew exactly what he had all along, and explained it that hot day at training camp in Bourbonnais. Asked why he was acting almost giddy during the dog days of camp, despite the team having yet to play in an exhibition outing, constant hammering about the perception he was on the hot seat and the fact his team was coming off a disappointing 7-9 season, Smith smiled and kept it simple.
“If you could just see what I see,” he said.
It’s undoubtedly right in everyone’s face now, after the club clobbered a hot Eagles team, 31-26, on Sunday for its first four-game winning streak since 2006. Tied with the Saints for the second-best record in the NFC at 8-3, the Bears could legitimately clamor for national respect. Within the walls at Halas Hall, the Bears knew all along what many are just finding out.
This team is for real.
“The way we’ve gotten respect is we’ve been in first place in our division just about all year,” Smith said Monday. “So opinions really don’t matter a whole lot. We put a lot into them, but they really don’t [matter]. Our football team, nothing’s changed for us. We beat a good team yesterday. But we’ve beaten a lot of good teams, just like yesterday. No more than that.”
On the practice field at ONU back in the summer, the coach pointed out why he didn’t put stock in the low national perception of his team at the time. Smith explained he’d seen the defense play at a high level. Eight starters from the 2006 Super Bowl squad – Olin Kreutz, Roberto Garza, Desmond Clark, Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Charles Tillman and Danieal Manning -- remained, and despite them being four years older, the coach sensed urgency in their preparation, dating back to the offseason conditioning program.
The four years of experience, Smith explained that day, imparted wisdom among the vets about the difficulty of making it back to the Super Bowl, and how easily they could finish their careers without ever again ascending to that level. The prospect for such a grim scenario created a sense of hunger and urgency, in addition to a heightened focus among the veterans that Smith could already see rubbing off on some of the younger players in the offseason.
For Smith at the time, the questions came about the offensive line -- which had subjected Jay Cutler to a career high in sacks in 2009 -- and whether the entire unit could transition quickly enough into the system brought over by newly-acquired coordinator Mike Martz. Smith had faith in the team’s young receivers.
But as Smith usually says -- which he also said that day at ONU -- all those things work themselves out.
That appears to be exactly what’s happened, especially since the team’s Oct. 31 bye.
“I just know we go back to the practice field each week. We watch the video. We have the same routine,” Smith said. “The mistakes that are made, we point them out, correct them, try to take another step and try to be honest with the players always as far as what we need to do. They take coaching. Guys have confidence, but you should make improvements this late in the season. You should take care of some of those problems you had earlier in the season.”
The offensive line seemed to be one of the main areas plaguing the Bears, who had lost three of four games heading into the bye, as the club’s entire defense remained steady. Prior to the bye, the unit -- which had lined up with four combinations of starters over seven games -- allowed Cutler to absorb four sacks or more in four of his six starts.
The line moved to its fifth combination of starters after the bye, and has kept it intact for the last four outings, with the unit allowing four sacks or fewer in four consecutive weeks. The better protection seems to translate into better accuracy for Cutler, whose completion percentage has risen in each of the past four contests.
“Jay is as good as it gets in an NFL quarterback,” Kreutz said after Sunday’s game. “As long as you perform around him he’s gonna keep showing what he is. We definitely feel that we’re better and that we can get better. We won today, but if we lose next week, this game doesn’t mean [expletive]. We understand that. We’re nowhere near where we want to be. We don’t want to be satisfied. That’s the last thing you want to be at this time of year. You’ve got to stay hungry. There’s so much more we can do with the talent we have.”
Martz realized that coming out of the bye week, after evaluating over the first seven games the strengths and limitations of the club’s offensive personnel. After pass-heavy game plans in the first seven contests, Martz tweaked the system to cater more toward the rushing attack. The Bears passed more than they ran in six of the first seven games before the bye.
Since then, the Bears have run the ball more than they’ve passed in four straight.
“Since we came out of the bye, we’ve said each week we just need to continue to take another step and get better. I think over these last four weeks, it’s pretty safe to say that we’ve done that,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “From the beginning, we said it wasn’t going to just be a switch turned on and everything was easy. It was a lot of adjustments and new personnel and new scheme and coaches and whatnot, and I think it’s starting to kind of all come together.”
The solidification of the offensive line along and tweaks to the game plans directly correlate with the club’s success. The Bears achieved a red-zone touchdown percentage of 50 or better in only one game (Sept. 19 at Dallas) prior to the bye, and have since scored touchdowns in the red zone at least 50 percent of the time in every game.
The club also improved from 17.9 percent on third-down conversions before the bye to 52.5 percent since.
“We haven’t peaked yet. We’re still rising, as far as what I think we can be,” Smith said. “They take coaching. We’re a good football team; I’ve been saying that quite a bit.”
Ever since training camp.