Mike Nadel: Still waiting for Bears to go from good to great
If the goal is to be Kings of the Have-Nots, the Chicago Bears appear fully capable. As for being No. 1 in the NFL, well, can they honestly claim to be any closer now than they were seven months ago?
The San Diego Chargers are among the league's best. While there is no shame in losing to them, Sunday's 14-3 defeat merely confirmed what we already knew: The Bears are just good enough to be not quite good enough.
Linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer perfectly summed up the Bears' standing in pro football society: "You look at our 16-game schedule, and this is probably the toughest game on it - at San Diego. We'll be all right." Of course, the toughest game on the 2006 regular-season schedule was at New England, where the Bears lost. And by far the toughest team the Bears faced last postseason was Indianapolis, and everybody knows what happened in Super Blah XLI.
How good are the Bears? Certainly good enough to win the NFC North, despite their last-place standing one week in. They very possibly are good enough to repeat as conference champions, too - although I liked their chances a lot better before Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown limped off the field with what the team is calling a sprained knee. It certainly seemed more serious than a sprain later in the locker room, as the team's oft-injured emotional leader broke down in tears when discussing it.
Yes, the Bears are good. Still, their track record says that when they absolutely, positively have to get it done against an elite team such as San Diego ...
"They kicked our (derrieres)," Olin Kreutz said.
The brutally honest center was referring to three consecutive fourth-quarter runs in which the Bears needed a total of two yards to stay in the game but managed to gain only one. Speaking in more general terms, Kreutz added: "It's unacceptable the way the offense played. We've got to get better."
Slammed down hard several times and forced to run for his life on a few other occasions, Rex Grossman experienced the same problems he always does against great defenses. But please, Griese Groupies ... the quarterback wasn't the reason the
No, this was a team effort.
Cedric Benson was thoroughly unimpressive in his first game as the No. 1 tailback and fumbled away the opening possession of the second half. His backup, Adrian Peterson, lost a fourth-quarter fumble, giving the Chargers all the momentum they needed. The line was manhandled by San Diego's defensive front all day. Aside from Bernard Berrian, the receivers were rumors. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner rightly blamed himself for poor play calls.
Oh, and did Devin Hester ever play offense as promised? If so, I missed it. Apparently, Lovie Smith's secret weapon was a secret even to the coach. Hester never got going in the return game, either, as the Bears failed to win the special-teams battle.
Even though the defense contained LaDainian Tomlinson and kept the Bears ahead 3-0 until the final minute of the third quarter, Brian Urlacher & Gang can't be absolved, either. After all, the Chargers' defense was involved in the same intense, hard-hitting, low-scoring game but had enough energy to remain in control down the stretch. (OK, it's far easier to control the Bears' offense, but you get the point.)
Showing he could respond to adversity better than brother Ron, new San Diego coach Norv Turner took advantage of the Bears' overpursuing defense by calling a play left over from the previous Chargers' staff: Tomlinson's halfback-option pass to Antonio Gates, resulting in the go-ahead touchdown.
"It was nobody's man," said Hillenmeyer, who was in the general vicinity of Gates. "We were in a blitz and he squirted out. I don't know whose man it technically was. We had some tough breaks. You gotta give credit to them, but if teams need to resort to breaks and trick plays to beat us ... "
That's beautiful. Rip the opponent for being creative and whine about breaks.
The latter was especially silly given that the Bears got the game's biggest break when referee Pate Morelli and the six other officials failed to see what everybody else saw: Tommie Harris jumping offside to create a fumble that kept the Chargers from scoring early in the second half.
Somehow, the Chargers overcame that, just as the Colts overcame Hester's Super Bowl kickoff return.
Great teams do that. Good teams don't - at least not when they're playing against great ones.
Mike Nadel (email@example.com) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog, The Baldest Truth, at www.thebaldesttruth.com.