It’s debatable whether the shreds of confetti outnumbered the raindrops when we last saw our guys in a game that meant something, but what’s certain is that when that final second ticked off the clock in Miami a race for midfield was on between the Colts and photographers who wanted to capture the moment. NFL security quickly established a perimeter for the awards ceremony, and our guys were moved to the outside of the ropes, looking in, an afterthought relegated to the same status as the Bears fans who paid Big Bucks to watch the game on the monitors underneath the stands while the rain washed away our hopes. But someday our shoes will dry.
Recent history tells us that the Super Bowl loser has been lucky just to get back to the playoffs, let alone make a reappearance in the big game. The Bills of the early ‘90s, losers of four straight, were the last to do it, and only the Cowboys in Super Bowl VI and the Dolphins capping off their perfect season the following year have gone from conference champ to hoisting the Champions Trophy in consecutive seasons. That was over a third of a century ago (or XXXV years in Super Bowl parlance).
So, was that it?
Those New York representatives were certainly a talented bunch, but they just couldn’t get over the hump against an NFC that was clearly superior at the time. Kind of like the situation the Bears face right now, with the AFC winners of the last four Super Bowls and seemingly the tougher conference.
With that in mind you would think the Bears would have to find their way to Arizona this year to even be considered for a photo op with Jim Kelly and his crew. Or do they? The old adage says that offense wins games, but defense wins championships, and you don’t have to look further than the Bills for proof. They won a boatload of games on the strength of their 6-3, 225 pound Hall of Fame quarterback and his laser rocket arm, but when it came to the other side of the ball . . . . Quick, name somebody from that defense. During their four-year run of “dominance” Buffalo ranked 8th, 27th, 12th and 27th again defensively, and that was in a 28-team league. They gave up 139 points in their four Super Bowl losses. That’s why they’re the poster boys for futility.
Of course, the Bears performance last February wasn’t much better, with the Colts running game eviscerating the Bears defense without Tommie Harris clogging up the middle of the line. Harris is back, but will the Bears defense be as dominant as it was before his hamstring snapped? And the offense also deserves its share of blame for the Miami rout, especially each of those five turnovers. Will Rex and the gang learn to protect the ball, and can Grossman develop into the quarterback Lovie Smith hopes will win him a Super Bowl ring as a head coach? And what about the Devin Hester Experience – will Hester continue to deliver the “hidden” yardage in the box score that gave the offense a short field, or will he break down under the weight of his additional offensive duties? To find out, read…
9/9 @ San Diego – I can understand firing perennial choker Marty Schottenheimer after he followed up a 14-2 regular season with his annual playoff flop, but Norv Turner? He’s 59-83 as a head coach with only one playoff appearance in nine years! I would take Shawne Merriman to be my national spokesman if I were Jamba Juice, though. Make him hold a syringe in the commercial, too. W 1-0
9/16 CHIEFS – KC still has some offensive weapons in Larry Johnson and Tony Gonzalez, but the rest of the team is getting old, and Brodie Croyle under center just doesn’t inspire fear against the Bears defense. W 2-0
9/23 COWBOYS – ‘Boys stuck with Romo after his North Dallas 40 imitation when they could have drafted Brady Quinn, to the delight of Domer fans who now only have to travel to Cleveland to watch Quinn lose. Won’t see T.O. doing situps in the endzone like his last time here with the Eagles. W 3-0
9/30 @ Detroit - It’s a new model year but the same old stuff is coming out of the Motor City. W 4-0
10/7 @ green bay- Bears rally to go ahead late on their way to a fourth straight win at Curly’s Place, and pencil-necked carpetbagger Wayne Larrivee takes full advantage to introduce a new team sponsor: “This packers blown lead is sponsored by Poise. Poise Ultimate Coverage panty liners – the packers choice when they just can’t hold it.” W 5-0
10/14 VIKINGS – In Minnesota’s remedial draft room why would anybody be concerned about taking Adrian Peterson and his injured shoulder in the first round when Chad Greenway, last year’s top pick, never played a down, and Troy Williamson, the wide receiver taken in the first round in 2005, had to see an eye specialist because he was having trouble catching the ball? W 6-0
10/21 @ Philadelphia – Stability on the offensive line is a good thing as long as it’s not equated with stasis. While Jerry Angelo has pretty much ignored his, hoping the Bears’ aging starters survive another year, the Eagles have been plugging in newcomers four of the last five seasons with Pro Bowl results. L 6-1
10/28 LIONS - Mike Furrey led the NFC in receptions and Roy Williams in yards last year, so instead of trading down the Lions took another receiver, Calvin Johnson, with the second pick in the draft. Might be nice for Lovie’s friend Rod Marinelli to have somebody besides Jon Kitna throwing to them. It’s definitely nice to finally have a Sunday noon start in Chicago. W 7-1
11/4 BYE - Is baseball over yet?
11/11 @ Oakland – Raiders’ line gave up 72 sacks last year, meaning the Bears will do a better job stopping Dominic Rhodes than they did in the Super Bowl while harassing Josh McCown (or will it be Daunte Culpepper? Or JaMarcus Russell? Andrew Walter?) into a pair of fumbles. W 8-1
11/18 @ Seattle – With 300 days of rain each year you’d think they could grow some real grass here, but they probably don’t want each game turning into a mud wrestling tournament. Mike Green is back, and if he’s the difference in the Seahawks’ secondary, they’re doomed. W 9-1
11/25 BRONCOS – The goal for the defense today is to survive the cheap shot cut blocks of the Denver offensive line. No doubt they’ll trade 15 yards for one of the Bears starters, but I’d hate to be the guy who suffers the payback. Dré Bly gets picked on like a nit. W 10-1
12/2 GIANTS – Thinking his squad will feel more at home at a bleak, industrial, out-of-state location, New Jersey interim head coach Kevin Gilbride (or is it Chris Palmer?) decides to have the team land in Gary and stay in Whiting. A restful night in the shadow of the BP cat cracker doesn’t help his OL, who get called for six false starts. W 11-1
12/6 @ Washington – Looks like Joe Gibbs Redux has the ‘Skins moving up the NFC East standings as fast one of his racecars with a blown engine. Without access to a boat on the Potomac, Fred Smoot moonlights as a Capitol Hill docent, leading tours of congressional page quarters. W 12-1
12/17 @ Minnesota – Against the top-ranked rushing defense in the league, Rex Grossman and his receivers combine to lock up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. W 13-1
12/23 packers – Including that playoff game where Randy Moss used their goal post like a roll of Charmin, this marks game 64 of the washed up veteran quarterback’s “Farewell Tour.” How can we miss you when you won’t go away? W 14-1
12/30 SAINTS – The trap of the meaningless final game again rears its ugly head. Fortunately, the Bears are playing to stay healthy with home field advantage locked up. Hopefully it won’t provide New Orleans too much confidence for their return visit in the postseason. L 14-2
14-2 sure looks like a rehash of last year. The difference is, there aren’t any Kool-Aid stains this time around.
It took 26 wins over the past two years for the so-called experts to finally realize there’s a pretty good football team in Chicago, but ever the skeptics, the current knock is that they play in the minor league. But as they also say, the window is now open. It’s time for the Bears to jump through.
A win this weekend in San Diego would serve notice that they can. This whole dominant AFC thing can be summed up by the fact that the Bears only lost four games last year – what was essentially a meaningless exhibition to end the regular season, and to Miami, New England and the Colts, bona fide AFC members all. Not to beat a dead horse, but Lovie Smith’s mantra on the day he took the job – beat the packers, win the division, and win the Super Bowl – falls short unless he can find a way to handle the AFC. Unlike Dick Jauron, who won a division title in 2001 without beating the packers, Smith won’t find a way around it.
It looked a lot like the defense ran out of gas towards the end of last year, but looks can be deceiving. After eleven games the Bears ranked first in the league in both points allowed (137) and yardage allowed per game (261.1). By the end of the year they had fallen to third in points allowed (255, behind the Ravens at 201 and the Patriots at 237) and fifth in yards allowed (294.1). Tommie Harris got hurt in game twelve. The Bears defense didn’t run out of gas. They ran out of Tommie Harris.
If Harris comes back close to his former self and stays healthy, the defense will do its part. In fact, they probably could survive the loss of anybody on that side of the ball, save Harris and Brian Urlacher, and still be one of the league’s elite units. After the purge of Ron Rivera, it’s on Bob Babich to make sure.
The offense improved from 29th to 15th in yards per game last year, despite playing on the “short field” provided by the return game and a league leading 43 takeaways. Those yards had to come from somewhere. Over 3000 came courtesy of Rex Grossman’s arm, but you wouldn’t know it judging from the ritualistic baying in Chicago for the backup. How quickly we become jaded, going from guys like Henry Burris and Cory Sauter, Jonathan Quinn and Craig Krenzel, to a roster that includes a Shemp look-alike who won 11 games in his rookie season, a backup who has completed 63% of his passes with an 84.5 rating over a nine year career, and a lead dog who started every game for a team that won 15 times a year ago and ended its season on the ultimate stage.
Sure, Grossman was up and down last season. Part of that had to do with his gunslinger mentality, and part is what I call the inconsistency that goes along with inexperience. In his first full season in the league his summary read 262 completions in 480 attempts (54.6%), 3193 yards, 23 touchdowns, 20 interceptions, 73.9 rating. It was his fourth year as a pro. Compare that to this line: 318/522 (60.9%), 3303 yds, 19 TD, 24 Int., 72.2 rating in his first full season (3rd as a pro). The guy who put up those numbers back in 1993 has, unfortunately, had a pretty good career since, much of it at the expense of the Bears. He cut down on his mistakes as he gained experience. Grossman will, too.
(If he doesn’t, three things will happen, and only one of them might be good. 1) Brian Griese will step in and maybe (probably?) do a better job for a couple two tree years, 2) Grossman will end up on somebody else’s roster next year (gb?), continue to get better, and eventually come back to haunt the Bears, and 3) The search for a long-term solution at quarterback in Chicago, which has gone on since Sid Luckman hung up his cleats, will begin anew.)
While I’m ranting, I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the aging offensive line that looked spent late in the year. That’s the scariest thing in my book. Clinching home field advantage with two games left allowed them to get their legs back before the playoffs, but what happens if their age starts to show before coach Smith can give them a break? Fred Miller looked like a diorama of Keith Van Horne waving at Charles Mann at times last season (sorry, Mojo). John Tait missed all but three plays of the preseason with his linemates and it was much ado about nothing, probably because the Bears were getting a chance to look at backups who stand a real chance of having a major role this year. Here’s hoping John St. Clair is ready to step in, because I think he’s going to get his chance.
The durability of Cedric Benson is also a concern. Letting Thomas Jones (now injured) go for what seemed like a donation to Tony Medlin’s coat drive may have been the biggest mistake of the offseason, but Adrian Peterson (the healthy one on the Bears) has always stepped up when given a chance, and Garrett Wolfe will give opposing defensive coordinators headaches on third down.
The receivers look solid, although I’m still wondering whether Mark Bradley turns into another Bernard Berrian or is the reincarnation of Airese Currie. If Bradley can stay healthy, Muhsin Muhammad and his drops will be relegated to fighting for playing time along with Rashied Davis and Mike Hass before midseason, assuming Ron Turner scripts a dozen or so plays for Devin Hester each game.
Greg Olsen is obviously the biggest addition of the year. With a real downfield threat at tight end, Grossman will look that much more like a real NFL quarterback. Of course, it won’t have anything to do with improvement on Grossman’s part.
Special Teams will remain just that – special. Assuming Hester doesn’t get destroyed like he almost did playing offense during the preseason, the return game will be unmatched anywhere in the league. Robbie Gould is as solid a field goal kicker as the Bears have had since Butthead, and Brad Maynard looks like he’s regained his form. The only question is how fast Dave Toub can mold the newcomers into cohesive coverage units. My guess is he already has.
The front office is doing its part as well, with Cliff Stein fitting the cap each year like a jigsaw puzzle, offering to extend the important guys well before they hit their free agent season. Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher and Darwin Walker all got contract extensions recently, and you know Stein and Angelo are already talking to The Übertool about the parameters of Tommie Harris’ monster new contract. Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith got their new deals, too. The problem is with that window.
Stein’s moves go a long way towards keeping that window open longer, but one thing he can’t do is extend the playing career of a superstar. Urlacher isn’t getting any younger, and the Bears will never draft high enough to replace him while they’re playing this well.
So now that they’ve mastered January football, it’s time to run the postseason table.
Just like the 17-year cycle of the cicadas, the Bears have one too. It happens every 22 years. They just have to win a game against the mighty AFC to make it happen. Kind of like Hickory High School in “Hoosiers.” Kind of like Appalachian State against the vaunted but sorry maize and blue, who were really favored by 26 teeth even though Vegas wouldn’t offer a line.
After calling the Bears around a .500 team last year the experts are catching up, with most if not all picking them for double-digit wins and another division title. Some even (gasp!) have them going back to the Super Bowl, but no place have I seen them picked to win it all.
So I’ll say it.
The Chicago Bears. Super Bowl XLII champions.
You read it here first.
The Last Bear Fan
September 6, 2007