October 25, 2014

Brave New Bear World

Brave New Bear World

At 5-feet-10 inches tall, 192 pounds and hailing from Boca Raton, Florida via the University of Georgia, 22-year-old Blair Walsh is not a particularly imposing fellow.  He seems affable, self-assured and able of mind and leg, specifically his right leg, which allowed him to convert 92.1% of his field goal attempts in this, his rookie season with the Minnesota Vikings, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.

Mr. Walsh’s rookie campaign will forever be remembered in the Twin Cities, Green Bay, and Chicago, for his final kick of the regular season, the one which secured Sunday’s 37-34 victory for the Vikings over the Green Bay Packers in Minnesota, sending the Vikings to the playoffs and keeping the Chicago Bears at home and ending the tenure of Bears head coach Lovie Smith who was kicked to the curb the next morning.

The Bears were 10-6 this season finishing with a must-win 26-24 road victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday just hours before Walsh kicked the Vikes to victory and kicked Chicago in the face, guts and between our collective uprights.  Walsh’s kick finished off the Bears for 2012 and finished off Lovie for good and was also the final act in one of the strangest days in Bears history as Bear Nation, for once, was actually rooting for the Packers to win and, because life for Chicago sports enthusiasts more often than not ends up feeling like a Blair Walsh cleat up the corn hole, the Pack, as always, did what Chicagoans didn’t want them to.  They lost, Blair Walsh and the Vikings won, and now thousands of Chicago children named Lovie will only be teased more viciously.  And likely with tambourines and scotch tape.

Most Bears players and many Bears fans expressed genuine shock that Bears general manager Phil Emery canned Lovie who was adored by his team and belongs to that exclusive club of one-name celebrities like Prince, Madonna, Charo and Shemp.  But that surprise, at least from a fan’s perspective, is at least as much a jolt over the fact that the Bears actually went through with the move that many had been clamoring for.

Lovie isn’t a bad coach.  He went 81-63 since taking over the Bears in 2004 and led the team to the Super Bowl after the 2006 season, a game which the Bears lost to the Indianapolis Colts, 29-17, on the coldest, rainiest day in South Florida since Jim Kiick retired.  Lovie coached well during that 2006 season.  The Bears had just about the best defense in the league, terrific special teams and a capable offense.  And Lovie deserves credit for a bit of tactical, practical and inspirational genius in 2006.  That year, in training camp, he mapped out the Bears players’ schedule from day one of camp all the way through to Super Bowl XLI.  He literally wrote down what time practice would be for each week leading to each playoff game, what time the bus would leave, what time the plane would leave for the Super Bowl, etc.   He didn’t tell his players to believe they were going to be in the Super Bowl that year, he told them to plan on it.  To play like it.  And they did.

Yes, they lost, and Bears history, and Lovie’s current employment status, would be that much different if they had won.  And Lovie does get some blame for that loss in the rain.  All 2006 long Lovie insisted that “Rex is our quarterback” meaning he stuck with Rex Grossman who was so bad at times in ’06 he made Caleb Hanie look like Peyton Manning, the QB who ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy that day.  Everyone in Chicago and probably many gentlemen in the Bears locker room wanted Lovie to make the switch to backup signal-caller Brian Griese and, if he had, Chicago likely would have beaten the Colts that day.  But while this may have been Lovie’s biggest mistake in his nine years in Chicago it’s difficult to kill him for it.  The fact was Grossman was a former first-round pick who was healthy for a whole season for the first time that year and the Bears despite him – and sometimes (yes be honest) because of him – did just keep winning.  Until that last game.

Lovie finally pulled the plug on Grossman the next season but it was too late.  The Bears sputtered to a 7-9 record and would miss the playoffs the next two seasons as well.  This is when Lovie Smith should have been fired, after the 2009 season.  When you miss the playoffs three straight years, whether your name is Lovie, Belichick or Babaloo, you should be gone.  Lovie wasn’t.  The Bears bounced back in 2010 and had one of the luckiest seasons any team has ever had, taking advantage of an easy schedule, other teams’ injuries and lots of fortuitous bounces and playoff pairings and somehow advanced to the NFC Championship game which they lost, at home, to the Packers.

So Lovie was back for more.  Last year it seemed as if the Bears would make another playoff run as they were 7-3 until Jay Cutler and Matt Forte got hurt.  They finished 8-8 and home for January.  This year the Bears started 7-1 and then crumbled to that respectable but not respectable enough 10-6 finish.  Or did the Bears crumble?  Most honest observers would say it wasn’t so much that the Bears fell apart after that 7-1 start as they ran into the more difficult half of their schedule.  Still, 10-6 usually gets you in.  Except when it doesn’t.

The reason the Bears didn’t make the playoffs this year is the same reason they didn’t make the playoffs five other times in Lovie’s nine seasons of wearing the headsets at Soldier Field: the offense stunk.  In their Super Bowl season of 2006 the Bears had the 15th best offense in the league.  That was the best of Lovie’s tenure.  This year, despite it being Cutler’s fourth season on the team and despite the acquisition of Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall who had an outstanding season, the Bears had the 28th best offense in the NFL.  The only teams worse were the Cardinals, Chargers, Jets and Jaguars.  And the teams right in front of the Bears on offense were the Dolphins, Titans, Browns and Chiefs – pigskin wretches all of them.  The Cardinals, Chargers, Browns and Chiefs also fired their head coaches on Monday.  So did a few other teams with better offenses but the point is clear: the Bears could not move the ball and could not score and thus did not win enough.

Since the Cutler era began in 2009 the Bears have never had better than the 23rd best offense in the league, a ranking they achieved in that ’09 season.  Starting in ’04, Lovie went through different offensive coordinators, different quarterbacks, a myriad of receivers, a plethora of game plans and the result was always the same for the Chicago Bears: if the defense played well they had a chance.  If the defense didn’t, start the bus, Lydia, and save me a cold one.

Brian Urlacher, the 34-year-old Bears middle linebacker whom, like a lot of guys with the  “C” on their helmets has a cloudy football future, said something quite curious on Monday when the news got out that Lovie had been sacked.  He defended Coach Smith as a strategist, motivator and – like all Bears players – as a person.  But Urlacher also told a Chicago radio station that for some reason it’s “hard to win here.”  Was Urlacher saying the Bears, as an organization, meaning the McCaskey family, doesn’t know how to run a top-notch football outfit?  Perhaps he didn’t mean it that way but Urlacher’s words do open the door for discussion of what we just touched upon a paragraph ago.  The Chicago Bears run the ball well and play good defense but can’t put together a potent passing attack.  That was true for the 2012 Bears, true for the Lovie Smith era and has pretty much been true for the entire nine decades of the Chicago Bears’ existence.

Proof?  Marshall is the first Bears receiver to go to a Pro Bowl since 2002 and only the second in the last 40 years.  The Patriots and Packers produce Pro Bowl receivers when they shake a leg in the Men’s room.

The Bears’ all-time leading receiver is Johnny Morris with 5,059 yards.  Seriously.  Johnny hasn’t played since 1967.

The Bears have not had a Pro Bowl quarterback since Jim McMahon during Chicago’s Super Bowl winning season of 1985.

Is it something in the air?  The water?  The Soldier Field grass?

It is now Phil Emery’s job to find out.

During today’s New Year’s Day news conference Emery, who has only been on the job a year, said the Bears need to get better on offense and he said the Bears would pursue a new head coach with a “sense of urgency.”  There are many names out there and a tremendous amount of speculation.  Emery said the Bears will “…look at a wide variety of candidates.  We’re going to look offensively, we’re going to look defensively, we’re going to look special teams, we’re going to look NFL, we’re going to look college, whatever combination that person possesses in terms of excellence.”

The urgency of excellence.  It’s a tough hill to climb.  The man who can do it is Andy Reid, whom the Philadelphia Eagles just fired.  He is rumored to have already been gobbled up by the Arizona Cardinals.  So, already, the Bears, perhaps, haven’t been urgent enough.  Mike McCoy, the Denver Broncos’ offensive coordinator, is rumored to be coming to town for a talk and former Packers and Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said today he’s interested in coaching again.

Urgency.  Excellence.  Offense.

The Chicago Bears have not won a championship in nearly 30 years.  They have won only two titles in the last 50 years and only three since World War II ended.

Urgency.  Excellence.  Offense.

It’s time.

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