Whether it's his tenuous job security or a diminished tolerance for mistakes and poor play after three straight non-playoff seasons, Lovie Smith is not the same "players' coach" he was considered his first six seasons with the Bears.
In Monday night's victory over the Packers, the only thing six-year starter Tommie Harris' $40 million contract bought him was a seat on the bench.
In the offseason, 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, too.
Wide receiver Devin Aromashodu, the Bears' leading receiver in the final four games last season and a favorite of quarterback Jay Cutler, was also inactive against Green Bay, even though he led the Bears' wideouts with five 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," Smith said, even though he and every player on his team knows that isn't accurate.
"It's the same philosophy we've always had," he said. "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 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 that 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 against the Cowboys, 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 is also 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. "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."
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