LAKE FOREST, Ill. – No matter how much he is enjoying this ride, general manager Phil Emery won't rate it until his Chicago Bears reach their destination.
There have been a few twists and turns. Mostly, it's been smooth.
At 4-1 and with a share of the NFC North lead, the Bears are in a good spot heading into their bye week.
Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall has performed as advertised, and the defense has been rolling along even though Brian Urlacher isn't quite up to speed.
Just don't pop the champagne yet.
"It's all about where we're at in this process at the end of the process, at the end of the season — where our team is at and what progress it's made toward its goal," said Emery. "But has our team played well? Yes. Do we feel good about the position we've put ourselves in moving forward? Absolutely."
The Bears know just how quickly a promising season can turn south. Just look at what happened a year ago.
They were putting the finishing touches on a win over San Diego to go to 7-3 when Jay Cutler broke his right thumb. Throw in Matt Forte's season-ending knee injury two weeks later, and the Bears were simply impaled on that dagger.
They wound up 8-8 and out of the playoffs for the fourth time in five years after reaching the NFC title game the previous season.
Then came the changes.
They parted with offensive coordinator Mike Martz and gave general manager Jerry Angelo the boot. Emery replaced him and made the blockbuster trade with Miami for Marshall while adding depth throughout the roster, giving expectations in Chicago a major boost in the process.
So far, the Bears are delivering.
They're tied for the division lead with surprising Minnesota, with Green Bay and Detroit not performing up to expectations, and are eyeing a playoff run. They still have to play Detroit twice, starting with a Monday night game at Soldier Field following their break, and have two remaining with Minnesota. They also face Green Bay again and meet Arizona, San Francisco and Houston so they still have some tough games left.
So far, they're holding up quite well despite hitting a few bumps.
Those old questions about Cutler's demeanor and leadership came to the surface after he berated and bumped left tackle J'Marcus Webb on the sideline during an ugly loss at Green Bay, and they were there again after he got up and walked away just as offensive coordinator Mike Tice took a seat next to him and started talking during the win at Dallas two weeks ago.
That happened during one of Cutler's best performances, on a night when the offense got back into gear.
"We're getting there. We're not where we want to be," Cutler said. "It's a long season. We've got to take this bye week, take a look at what we're doing and just get better."
In what ways?
"Details," he said. "A lot of things. Offensively we just need to take a look at things and figure out what we're doing well and what we're not doing, correct it and get back."
The line has been playing better of late, and Marshall has been about what the Bears expected. Reunited with Cutler after forming an explosive tandem in Denver, he's fourth in the league with 496 yards and has mostly stayed out of trouble despite a checkered past.
A woman did accuse him of punching her in the face at a New York City nightclub, but nothing has come of that incident.
"Way beyond what he's provided for us, in terms of offensive firepower, is the person that Brandon is, the leadership he's provided on our field," Emery said. "He speaks of professionalism. What he does on the practice field, I admire and I look up to. It tells me in my role, for the team, that I need to continually raise my level. If you watch him on a daily basis on what he does as a professional, going out there to improve himself and to make others around him better, it is a sight to see."
The defense has been there all along, even though Urlacher still is working his way back into form from a knee injury.
They've gotten big contributions from Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman — and more. Players such as defensive tackle Henry Melton and cornerback Tim Jennings have stepped up in a big way.
No one has broken up as many passes as Jennings (14) and only Atlanta's Thomas DeCoud has picked off as many (four). They're tied for the league lead, and the Bears are alone at the top in that category with 13 interceptions.
No team has more sacks than the Bears (18), who are tied with Cincinnati and Green Bay.
"For us right now, to be sitting here at 4-1, we've seen a lot of things we can do well," coach Lovie Smith said. "And, at the same time, there are so many things, as you watch the video, that you can correct. And that's where you want to be right now. Our crew should be comfortable. We're a good football team, if we take care of business."
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