As a football coach, Lovie Smith is the anti-fan. He never rushes to judgment. He's never pointedly critical. He rarely tips his hand on even the most inconsequential strategy or personnel issues. And when he watches the Bears play, he never drinks beer. We are impatient to a fault. He is patient to a fault.
It's maddening at times. But if there's ever a time where he sees things better than we do, it's the first exhibition game of the season. There might never be a greater disparity between the anticipation and the substance of any event in an NFL season. (The final preseason game is a shadow-boxing event, but even we know that.)
So when Lovie avoids specifics when asked what he's looking forward to seeing when the Bears play the Buffalo Bills at 7 p.m. Saturday night at Soldier Field, you can't blame him.
''As much as anything, just to see where we are,'' Smith said after practice Thursday at training camp in Bourbonnais. ''I mean, you never know. This is a new year. They'll tell us a lot. I just want to see where we can get a good evaluation of a game situation and start adjusting the depth chart from there.''
Not that the first preseason game can't be an indicator. Jay Cutler was much better against the Chargers in 2010 than he was against the Bills in 2009. He connected with Johnny Knox on passes of 34 and 13 yards, but eventually was overwhelmed by pressure the Bears were not prepared for. That's pretty much was the story of the regular season, when Cutler was good when he had time to throw, Knox was his most productive receiver and protection was an issue most of the season. That Devin Aromashodu was the Bears' leading receiver (4 catches, 78 yards, one TD) and Al Afalava had an interception proved inconsequential in the long run.
So it'll be interesting to see if Cutler connects with Roy Williams; if Dane Sanzenbacher can be as productive in a game as he is on the practice field; if Marion Barber can score from inside the 5-yard line; how Major Wright handles things as a starter at free safety; and if the Bears run-dedicated tight ends make a difference in the running game.
But if Gabe Carimi gets beaten at right tackle; if Roberto Garza struggles with shotgun snaps; if Amobi Okoye doesn't make an impact; if Knox doesn't get as many snaps as Williams; if Matt Forte doesn't play, this is the one time we are better off thinking like Lovie Smith.
''We have time,'' he said.
So first and foremost, keep your eye on the one facet of this game that, more than anything else but an injury, will be a harbinger of things to come if it fails tonight: the grass surface at Soldier Field. The Chicago Park District already has proven it's never too early to worry about that.