And the hits keep on coming.
As I sit down to write this, I find myself at a loss for words. So much went wrong in the Bears’ 21-13 loss to the Packers on Sunday, all of which could be scrutinized and nitpicked. But, really, what would be the point? Unfortunately, the loss was just one small chapter in the story of the five-game slide the Bears have been writing over the past six weeks.
The very first thing to which you can point to try to come up with a reason for this devastating fall from grace is injuries. Jay Cutler, Brian Urlacher, Matt Forte, Henry Melton, Stephen Paea, Chris Conte, and Alshon Jeffery are all starters that have missed time due to injury this season. And Julius Peppers has been hampered by plantar fasciitis all season. Sure, every team has injuries and the good ones will find ways to adapt and fill in the holes. But with all of the aforementioned players missing time plus an array of injuries and poor play that have led to constant changes along the offensive line, it’s just too difficult to plug in new players and expect to maintain success.
Don’t be misled by my accusation of injuries, though. They are not the sole reason the Bears have hit a wall; they’re just the most obvious reason. We could also point to the play calling. First-year offensive coordinator Mike Tice has had his share of questionable play calls. His inexperience has shown up in some crucial situations, including on Sunday against the Packers.
When digging deeper for causes for futility, though, we come to the realization that new general manager Phil Emery has more steps to take.
It’d be ridiculous to criticize the job Emery has done in less than one year on the job. In fact, the only area even worth criticizing is whether he should have done more to address the offensive line. You have to commend him for “stealing” Brandon Marshall from the Miami Dolphins and trading up in the draft to select a promising young prospect in Jeffery. Although first round pick Shea McClellin hasn’t proven anything in his short career, it’s much too early to criticize that pick. You can sit there and say the Bears should have taken defensive ends Chandler Jones (who went to New England) or Whitney Mercilus (who was taken by the Texans). But you can’t grade a draft class for at least three years.
Still, despite the promising moves Emery made this offseason, there remains a talent difference between the Bears and Packers — and some of the other elite teams in the league. That was the reason given for the dismissal of Emery’s predecessor, Jerry Angelo, and it’s going to take more than one year to close that gap.
Some Bears fans are quick to point out that “Jay Cutler is not as good as Aaron Rodgers” or “Cutler simply isn’t an elite quarterback in this league.” But you know what? There is only one Aaron Rodgers and there are only a handful of “elite” quarterbacks in the league. You have to pick your spots. Cutler is a very good quarterback who gives the Bears an advantage at the position over most teams in the NFL.
I repeat: the Bears have a better quarterback than the majority of the NFL teams. That means Cutler is — hands down — in the Top 16 of NFL quarterbacks. To dispute that is to demonstrate ignorance.
Rather than nitpick Cutler’s deficiencies, why not try to address other areas of weaknesses?
The Bears need, in no particular order: offensive line starters and reserves, depth at wide receiver, a pass-catching tight end who can also block, a replacement (either now or very soon) for Brian Urlacher, competition for Nick Roach at strong-side linebacker, a promising young backup and eventual replacement for Lance Briggs, competition for Chris Conte at free safety, a strong safety who is the commander and leader of the secondary, and depth at safety.
In other words, Emery still has work to do.
The Bears have a lot of talent and depth on the defensive line, and their cornerbacks are both Pro Bowl prospects this season, but those positions are specifically tailored to Lovie Smith’s scheme. If Smith gets axed at season’s end, the Bears may need to make some moves along the defensive front and at corner.
Which transitions us into the most hotly discussed topic as of late: the future of Smith as Bears head coach. When things go awry, it’s commonplace for fans to immediately seek to fire the head coach, especially if it’s one they can’t relate to because of demeanor, body language and — in the case of Bears fans — (insert thick, Chicago accent here) a “lack of fire and passion.”
I’ve staunchly defended Smith for many years but I’m running out of ways to defend him. Not excuses, just ways to defend him. Because let’s face it, if you agree that Emery still has a ways to go to close the talent gap between the Bears and the Packers, then you can’t say Smith is a complete failure. He’s done more with less than most coaches in the NFL.
However, injuries or not, taking a team from 7-1 to possibly missing the playoffs does, sadly, warrant discussion of dismissal. As does making the playoffs just one time in six years.
Let us just understand, however, that a change in coaches will ensure a longer rebuilding process, especially for a team whose star players are on the wrong side of 30 and won’t be able to withstand a lengthy rebuilding project.
I just also want to point out that, per Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports, that should Emery choose to bring in a new coach, he’ll probably look toward the Bill Belichick coaching tree in New England, and there’s not too good a track record for Patriots coaches going elsewhere and having success.
One such candidate that Emery could consider — according to sources — is Josh McDaniels, the coach responsible for Cutler demanding a trade out of Denver and also the coach responsible for essentially dismantling the Broncos of talented players. If not for John Elway, the current Broncos VP of football operations, and his moves as of late — including a risky signing of Peyton Manning that has paid off this year — the Broncos would have been left in shambles after McDaniels’ leadership.
As you can probably tell, I have neglected to mention much about Sunday’s game specifically, and for good cause. It’s disturbing to watch the Packers beat up on the Bears. I nearly turned off the game at several points yesterday because there are a thousand different things I’d rather do — including scrubbing toilets, as I tweeted during the game — than watch the Packers beat the Bears.
There was only one encouraging point in the game on Sunday and that was when Cutler hit Marshall with a pass in the red zone, and Marshall stiff-armed a Packer defender and ran into the end zone for the first score of the game. At that very moment, it felt like it would be a competitive game because the defense was playing well up to that point and the offense was moving the ball.
But — and there’s always a “but” when playing the Packers — Rodgers drove the Packers right down the field, unimpeded, on the very next drive and connected with James Jones for the first of three touchdowns on the day. And just like that, I knew the Bears would lose. Too early for me to jump ship? Possibly. But for the Packers to score so easily and the Bears needing so much to get on the scoreboard, it just didn’t seem plausible for the Bears to win the game.
The Bears now find themselves No. 7 in the NFC — out of the current playoff race. They no longer control their own destiny and they’ll need some help just to secure that second wild card spot. It didn’t seem possible earlier this season — or even before it — that Smith could get fired if he made the playoffs, but that possibility now exists.
The only thing that seemingly will save Smith’s job now is ending the season with a Super Bowl win — and that seems next to impossible at this point.