Matt Trowbridge: Bears show reasons for hope
The Bears don’t have to overhaul everything and start over next year.
Sunday’s 35-7 rout of NFC North champ Green Bay showed that every bit as much as the previous week’s loss in Minnesota illustrated Chicago’s season-long “ineptness” to general manager Jerry Angelo.
“We don’t need a major overhaul. Whoever said that is crazy,” Israel Idonije, an emergency fill-in at defensive tackle, said after the Bears shut down Green Bay despite missing defensive starters Nathan Vasher, Lance Briggs, Darwin Walker and 2006 sack leader Mark Anderson.
Actually, both games showed why Chicago won the previous two years and lost this year.
The Bears (6-9) were never as bad as they looked this year. Their only loss by more than 10 points was to Dallas, and that game was tied at 10 with 17 minutes left before Dallas scored the last 24 points.
“We were in every single ballgame,” receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “We didn’t have any quit in us at all. We just had penalties, bad luck, turnovers, things like that.”
If nothing else Sunday, the Bears showed they were tough enough to win.
“Every man on this team, we all have pride,” cornerback Charles Tillman said.
“Nobody wants to be remembered as a soft player, a soft person, that he didn’t play hard.”
The flip side is Chicago was never as good as it looked the previous two years, when the Bears went 11-5 and 13-3. Angelo told WBBM radio Sunday morning there was “no good reason” for this awful season, that Chicago was a “good” team. He’s right.
But good isn’t great. It’s only slightly better than bad.
“This shows that real good teams and real bad teams are not that far apart in the NFL,” center Olin Kreutz said. “Most games in the NFL are decided in the fourth quarter, unless you are New England. If we play more consistent football, we’ll win more games.”
Sounds simple. And some of it is.
“It’s been a season of misfortune and missed opportunities,” Muhammad said. “It’s easy to explain why we didn’t win some of those games. The hard thing is to explain why we weren’t as polished in those games.”
Penalties explain much of Chicago’s problems. The Bears used to be boring but efficient. The offense — the No. 1 area Angelo says Chicago needs to shore up — has a hard enough time gaining 10 yards. The Bears can’t be expected to gain 15, as it has so often had to thanks to a flurry of senseless false start penalties.
“We played fast and we played hard, but we had penalties and mistakes,” Muhammad said. “And that’s one of the things we pride ourselves on, not hurting ourselves.”
Chicago’s main problem, though, is philosophy. The Bears want to win by running on offense, forcing turnovers and scoring on defense.
“Defensively, it’s about takeaways,” coach Lovie Smith said, who also harps about defensive touchdowns.
That formula won’t work. Not in Chicago. It sort of works in San Diego, but the Chargers have the NFL’s best runner (LaDainian Tomlinson), best pass rusher (Shawne Merriman) and best ball-control passing target (Antonio Gates). Even then, the Chargers can’t win in the playoffs.
No one scores more defensive touchdowns than Minnesota (seven so far). Yet when you’re winning formula is so obviously simple, even Adrian Peterson (3, 78 and 27 yards in his last three games) can get grounded and keep you out of the playoffs. Only Pittsburgh makes this formula work in today’s NFL, and the Steelers do so because Ben Roethlisberger has been second in the NFL in passer rating in all three of Pittsburgh’s recent playoff seasons.
The Bears haven’t won because they don’t make sense. They go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 3 Sunday, with Orton bouncing a pass off Muhammad’s chest. But they don’t go for it on the first three downs; running Adrian Peterson up the middle three straight times ISN’T going for it. Later, when Orton throws incomplete on first down from the 8, Peterson scores easily on a second-down run. The Bears can run, but only if they pass first.
Yet they insist on doing it the other way. The hard way.
“When our running game is good, we’re a good football team,” Muhammad said. “It helps our defense out, so they can stay off the field, play with their ears pinned back and come up with turnovers.”
The Bears, you see, are built to play with the lead. Two years ago, Chicago went 11-5 despite never rallying from more than a 3-point deficit. Last year, the 13-3 Bears won only two games in which they trailed by more than four points. One win (Cardinals) featured two defensive touchdowns and a punt return. The other (Giants) a 108-yard missed field goal return.
Chicago is built to win when the winning is easy.
“Your start making plays and it snowballs,” Kreutz said.
Championships, though, come hard. That’s why we talk about all those fourth-quarter comebacks by Brett Favre, John Elway and Dan Marino.
Forcing turnovers is the easy way to play defense. The hard way is stopping teams in their tracks. Twice in the last four games Chicago was plus-four in turnovers until the final two minutes, and still the Bears lost, to the Giants and Vikings.
You win when turnovers are the product of great defense. You lose when turnovers are the only way you stop a team.
Brian Urlacher has shown the last two weeks his back miseries are overblown. Israel Idonije and others have shown Chicago can plug in almost anyone at defensive tackle. Alex Brown (five tackles, one sack, one interception) showed he should have started over Mark Anderson at left end all season. Running 13 times on their opening drive when Green Bay inexplicably came out in a spaced-apart defensive front showed the NFL’s worst-rushing team can run if other teams respect the pass.
But Ryan Grant’s 66-yard run on second-and-4, when linebackers Urlacher and Jamar Williams overran the play and got caught in a muddle at the line, showed Chicago’s biggest defensive problem.
“The big plays we’ve had against us is because guys have been out of position,” Idonije said. “When that gets fixed, the machine is going to run just like it ran.”
Only if the Bears smarten up. Why crash the line on second-and-4 from the 34?
Third-and-short makes sense; stop ’em cold and force a punt. But doing so on second-and-4 is high-risk/low-reward.
Chicago can win big again if it starts playing it a little safer on defense and a little riskier on offense.
“We all believe we’re a better football team than what we’ve shown,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. “We know what we’re capable of doing. That makes it a little frustrating.
“My philosophy is balance. Whether it’s in college or the NFL with me, you will see balance. If you want to run and pass, you’ve got to be able to run the football. And, obviously, we didn’t have the balance we should have this year.”
So get balanced. Throw more on first-and-10. Run more on third-and-6. Give up fewer defensive big plays on first and second down.
Do that, and Chicago doesn’t need an overhaul, just several patches, notably at quarterback, safety and offensive line. Do that, and Sunday’s win will mean as much as Lovie Smith thinks it means.
“It says a lot,” Smith said. “Just look at their record (12-3) and what they’ve been able to do against everyone. It’s good to see the type of team we can be when we take care of some things.”
Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or email@example.com.