Matt Eberflus’ Bears revive spirit of Lovie Smith era

Smith created an expectation of accountability and discipline. The players bought into it with fervor. This Eberflus-coached team recalls the early days of Smith’s tenure.

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Bears coach Lovie Smith speaks to the defense during a 2009 game.

The Lovie Smith coaching mentality seems to have been resurrected by current Bears coach Matt Eberflus.

Sun-Times Media

My first full season covering the Bears was 2004, Lovie Smith’s first year as coach. Those practices in Bourbonnais were brutal. The heat and humidity were oppressive. Players were wilting with soft-tissue injuries. But Smith was determined to get his team into better cardiovascular shape. That was one takeaway from that summer. The other was an emphasis on takeaways.

During practices, Bears defenders wouldn’t just try to return interceptions or fumbles for touchdowns. They were expected to pick up every ball — every dropped pass or overthrow that landed inbounds — and run the opposite way. At the time, it felt superfluous, but there was a method to Smith’s madness. A culture was created in which the defense could do more than just keep the other team from scoring.

Confusing “turnovers” for “takeaways” would land you in the doghouse quickly with coaches and players. In their mind, a “turnover” meant the defense wasn’t responsible for forcing a mistake and was just benefitting from offensive incompetence. It was a grave insult.

While the Bears were trying to put together an offense, Smith put it on his defense to buy time and win games. He had created an expectation of accountability and discipline. The players bought into it with fervor. Their hard work produced results, which engendered even more diligence and success.

Watching a Matt Eberflus-coached team reminds me of those early days of Smith’s tenure.

That means the football you consume might be boring for a while. It might also be the easiest path for the Bears to win until general manager Ryan Poles improves the overall talent.

By halftime of the Bears’ 19-10 victory Sunday against the 49ers, fans at Soldier Field already were launching into full-throated boos. Quarterback Justin Fields and the Bears’ offense sputtered. You can hardly blame the 61,500 who braved a monsoon to see “The Beloved” for being angry. Sitting in ugly weather and watching ugly football is not an ideal way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The way the offense looked was the sum of all fears of every Bears fan. Fields was struggling, and little progress seemed to have been made under new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy.

By the end of the third quarter, fans were wading in the water and dancing along with defensive end Robert Quinn because their team was in a three-point game with a quarter left.

The game remained competitive because Eberflus’ Bears stayed disciplined. The 49ers were as sloppy as the conditions. On each of the Bears’ scoring drives, San Francisco had a penalty that extended the drive. Two of the penalties came on third down. Fields and the offense made the 49ers pay for it.

After drawing three flags in the first half, the Bears went the second half without being penalized. That’s significant and starting to look like a bit of a trend. It’s hard to judge most things in preseason, but the Bears were flagged only 13 times in three games. This after a lack of discipline plagued the team in the last two years of the Matt Nagy era.

Eberflus has raised the competency floor of this team.

I know that’s not a sexy sentence, but discipline and competence win football games.

Smith’s teams won ugly, and nobody complained. And no one will complain if Eberflus wins that way for a while. It might be boring, but who cares? As Ozzie Guillen said: “Fun is winning, and winning is fun!”

The disciplined, boring Bears are 1-0, and fans couldn’t be more entertained.

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