By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) Lovie Smith likes to break the season down into quarters. And the Bears just went 4-0 in the second quarter.
Never mind that those four wins came against the Jaguars, Lions, Panthers and Titans, which have a combined record of 10-23.
No, seriously. It doesn’t matter.
“At this point in the year, to have a 7-1 record, you’re a pretty good football team,” Smith said Monday at Halas Hall, less than 24 hours after the Bears crushed the Tennessee Titans 51-20 in Nashville.
That goes for the Houston Texans too, which, like the Bears, are 7-1 with an ugly loss to the Green Bay Packers on their resume.
The Texans visit Soldier Field Sunday night in a game that analysts will describe as a Super Bowl preview before also mentioning in the same breath that neither team has proven anything yet. And both sentiments are acceptable. The Texans and Bears look like good football teams, but they’ve also had a pretty easy road thus far.
If you think that’s something the Bears care about though, you’re mistaken. The “one game at a time/one play at a time” cliche gets old, but that’s because it has worked for a long time. Especially with the Bears.
“I know we have the Texans next and I have an idea of some of the other teams we have coming up, but I think this team, we have enough veterans in the room to stay focused,” Smith said. “They know how we do things. We’re not looking too far.”
And the Bears do know the competition will get tougher in the second half of the season. Their next eight opponents are 37-23 this year. But that’s only something the Bears would be worried about if they were 7-1 against mediocre teams and couldn’t get any better.
If you’ve been watching the Bears this year, you know they can get better.
“Each game, as you continue to win, the stakes go up a little higher each week,” Smith said. “We realize that and we’re going to embrace that. We’re going to embrace this national stage we have this Sunday night. And I see our team getting better and better. We haven’t peaked yet.”
Lovie is right. If you watched any Bears football this season, you know the offense has plenty of room to improve. The usually touted special teams unit showed up Sunday in Nashville, but it can definitely be more consistent. Hell, the defense — proving to be one of the best defenses in NFL history — can still find small ways to improve. That’s why Lovie Smith only cares about improving his team each week and getting them ready to beat that week’s opponent, no matter how good or bad that opponent may be.
In other words, he doesn’t care that this week’s “Super Bowl preview” is followed by next week’s “NFC Championship Game preview” in San Francisco.
“What we’ve been saying has been based on what we’ve seen on video, which has been good and bad,” the head coach said. “Just try to be real with them at all times. This is a veteran group that’s been in these situations before, not going to get too high. They are just going to be real with their play.”
Obviously, most of the good has been pointed out in defensive team meetings and the bad in offensive team meetings. But Lovie Smith was quick to point out that his offensive skill position players have shown improvement. Matt Forte gained 103 yards on just 12 carries Sunday. Brandon Marshall became the first Bears wide receiver in 11 years to catch three touchdowns in a game. And Jay Cutler’s passer rating was 138.1.
But no one is trying to fool you about the offensive line — well, except maybe for Mike Tice. It has to get better. J’Marcus Webb has to get better. Gabe Carimi has to get better. But honestly, it’s not just the line. Jay Cutler is not having as good of a season as last year. Tice is still finding his way as a play-caller. The communication can be a lot better.
Here’s a certainty: The offensive line won’t play at an elite level this year. But it doesn’t have to for the Bears offense to click. And if that happens, watch out.
“Right now we’re talking an awful lot about our defense, but before the season is over, hopefully this week, it’s going to shift where we’re going to be talking about the weapons that we have and the offensive plays we’re making,” Smith said.
With J.J. Watt and the Texans’ pass rush coming to Chicago, that might not happen this week. But it doesn’t have to. Countless teams have proven that peaking mid-season is worthless. You need to be playing your best football in January.
So, yes, the schedule is going to get a lot tougher. But the Bears can get a lot better too.
Think about it: Devin Hester can do a lot more in the return game. Jay Cutler can be much more consistent. You’re going to get Alshon Jeffery back. The list goes on and on.
“You are what your record says you are,” Smith said. “We’re a 7-1 football team. We’re a good football team.”
Yes they are. And they can be a lot better.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.