Whether it's his tenuous job security or a diminished tolerance for mistakes and poor play after three straight nonplayoff seasons, Lovie Smith is not the same "players' coach" he was considered to be during his first six seasons with the Bears.
In Monday night's victory over Green Bay, the only thing six-year starter Tommie Harris' $40 million contract bought him was a seat on the bench.
In the off-season, the Bears thought enough of right cornerback Zack Bowman to move him to the higher-profile left side ahead of seven-year starter Charles Tillman. But it only took one missed tackle Monday night for Bowman to be told to grab some bench.
Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, the Bears' leading receiver in the final four games last season and a favorite of quarterback Jay Cutler's, also was inactive against Green Bay, even though he led Bears wideouts with 5 catches and 71 yards in the season opener.
What's the message Smith is trying to send?
"We don't try to send messages or things like that," said Smith, even though he and every player on his team knows that isn't accurate.
"It's the same philosophy we've always had," he continued. "We hold the players accountable on the football field. We look at what they do on the field, and we play the guys that give us the best opportunity to win.
"Players realize that, too. That is why they are anxious to go out there on the football field and prove that they can help the team win that week, and that's who we are going to go with."
That's a great philosophy, but if that were always the case, Harris wouldn't have been allowed to sleepwalk through two years of mediocre-to-poor performances and still keep his starting job in 2008 and '09.
Now it's about what have you done lately, not potential. There is no more playing favorites or coddling; the best players play.
"The standard has been the same for everybody," linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa said. "I think it just goes to show whether it's Tommie Harris, one of our finest D-linemen, or Zack Bowman, one of our finest defensive backs, it doesn't matter.
"It could be me. You could see me getting yanked next week if I don't perform. That's the standard. We all understand it. It's our job to perform, and if we're not doing that, then we expect that the next person is more than capable of replacing us."
That's the beauty of team depth. It provides the luxury of not having to suffer along with the inconsistencies of underperforming starters or seeing the team suffer when a starter is injured.
And that appears to be another difference this year. The Bears actually possess the kind of depth that allows them to bench starters who aren't performing to their potential without suffering any drop-off.
The Bears played just as well, maybe even better, with Matt Toeaina starting in place of Harris and Tim Jennings stepping in for Bowman.
Ditto when right tackle Frank Omiyale had to move to left tackle after Chris Williams suffered a hamstring injury on the first series at Dallas and Kevin Shaffer came off the bench to play right tackle.
Williams remains out, but the Bears haven't missed a beat.
"It says that we have good depth, and each year that's what you're trying to do, get that best group together," Smith said. "We talk about depth an awful lot. Now we're getting a chance to just not talk about it but to see that depth really come up.
"Some years it just doesn't work that way. But during the course of a year injuries come up. All different types of things come up that will maybe make you go to that next guy in line.
"Players realize that, too, especially some of the guys that have been around here for a while. We keep telling them, 'If you deserve to play, eventually something will happen where you'll get an opportunity to do that.'
This year Smith also is telling players that if they don't perform, they will not play. But he says it's not a situation where no one's job is safe.
"Every job, if you are performing well, your position is safe," he said. "(But) if you are the starter, you have to play a certain way or the next guy gets an opportunity.
"Our guys know that, and they're OK with that."
The eternal dismay with Lovie Smith in Bears Nation stems from, at the very least, the unabashed and unmerited arrogance of a coach who's won two playoff games in seven years.
When speaking to the fans, he has been unwilling to admit coaching errors, player mistakes, management gaffes and assistant follies.
And above all else, he has failed to hold his players accountable.
Until, that is, Monday night, when he did the unthinkable and benched the invisible Tommie Harris.
Truly shocking behavior for the nattily attired emperor.
That is actual NFL coaching. It's to be applauded, and it can go a long way toward getting Bears fans back on Smith's side, especially if the result is that Harris shows up the next time he plays.
Either way, it was the right move and part of a stunning reversal from the mind-numbing stubbornness of the last six years.
Suddenly, we have Smith and his assistants making adjustments not just from week to week or half to half, but from series to series.
Granted, new coaches like Mike Martz and Mike Tice would not be here if not for GM Jerry Angelo forcing Smith to make changes in staff, but the fact is the new guys have been huge.
It was like watching a different franchise Monday night, first with Harris and his huge contract benched, tantamount to admitting Harris has been useless and overpaid for years.
Admitting a mistake? We'll need some time with that one.
And then corner Zack Bowman was yanked after missing an early tackle.
Bowman was replaced by Tim Jennings, who had a couple of big hits and made a brilliant fumble recovery that led to the game-winning drive.
Credit Smith with that change as well.
Then there's Tice, who made alterations in the Dallas game that saved Jay Cutler from sure hospitalization, and it was Tice on Monday who rotated in 6-foot-8 tackle J'Marcus Webb to give Clay Matthews a different, bigger and more athletic look from the 6-foot-5 Kevin Shaffer.
Tice, it is thought, is the reason the Bears even looked at Webb late in the draft this year. During a private workout, Webb hit the blocking sled so hard that Webb chipped the coach's tooth.
Then there's Martz, who wanted nothing to do with tight end Greg Olsen when he got here, and the feeling was mutual.
But Cutler got to both of them and created a relationship to the point where Martz now creates plays for Cutler's favorite receiver.
"I talked to Greg as soon as Mike got here and Greg talked to Mike,'' Cutler said. "Mike has never had a guy like Greg. You've got to give Mike credit because he's going to use the best offensive weapons we have and Greg is at the top of our list of weapons.''
And then there's Devin Aromashodu, who was Cutler's most frequent target (10) in Game 1, when he caught 5 passes for 71 yards, but was on the field for only one play in Week 2 and inactive Monday night.
Aromashodu hasn't learned the slot and has dropped too many passes for Martz to believe in him.
"It was a one-game situation,'' Smith said. "We'll go back to practice next week and see who gives us the best chance to win.''
Competition among players? Seriously? Amazing behavior, this actual coaching of players, holding them accountable and forcing them to earn their playing time.
We assume Smith realized that he also has to perform this year, but rather than question why, we'll just take it at face value and enjoy the policy change.
The Bears are 3-0, and it's a stunning turn from the team that looked so dreadful in the preseason.
Of course, all of the reasons for concern in the preseason still exist, and the Bears could be 0-3 right now if not for some very good fortune, odd NFL rules and silly opponent mistakes.
"Offensively, we've go
t to get a lot better,'' Cutler said. "I need to get a lot better.''
Yeah, he wasn't good Monday, but there was a lot of miscommunication with the receivers, and Cutler also was flat on his back half the time.
If the Bears don't figure out a way to keep Cutler from getting hit 10 times a game, which is his average through three games, he's not going to get up after one of them and there goes your dream season.
Nevertheless, this is the NFL, where deservin
g to win and actually winning are two completely different discussions.
So far it's all victories and it's making football season fun in Chicago again.
You're allowed to hope it lasts. firstname.lastname@example.org