December 17, 2017

Redskins 45, Bears 41: The Sum of All Fears

Three weeks ago the Chicago Bears were 3-0, healthy and hopeful.  Now, after Sunday’s 45-41 loss to the Redskins in Washington, the Monsters of the Misfortune are 4-3, battered, skeptical and likely to get nothing but stale popcorn balls and black licorice for Halloween.

October, you see, has been no fun at all for the guys who wear orange and blue.

The Bears lost to the Redskins because their defense is so porous you can use it to drain spaghetti.  Then, adding injury to vacuity, the Bears lost Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs to an injured shoulder and All-World cornerback Peanut Tillman to a bad knee.  The Bears’ two best players were thus standing on the sidelines, like statues at a clown slaughter, as Robert Griffin III marched the Redskins down the field for the winning score in the final minutes.

Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered if Briggs and Tillman were healthy as the Bears couldn’t stop the Skins all day long, yielding 499 yards of offense, allowing a gentleman by the name of Roy Helu to score three touchdowns and generally looking like a defense that is aged, injured and wearing roller skates.

If it wasn’t for Devin Hester’s 81-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter (tying him with Hall of Famer Deion Sanders for most return scores all-time with 19, actually Hester has 20 if you include the playoffs and further actually he has 21 if you include that return of a missed field goal against the Giants in 2006) and Tillman’s first quarter interception return to Washington’s 10-yard line this game might have been 59-27, Redskins, or worse.

Many will say the big blow in this one for Chicago was not the loss of Briggs and Tillman and maybe even not the loss of the game itself, but the injury to quarterback Jay Cutler.  Cutler left the game in the second quarter grimacing in pain and it turns out he has a torn groin muscle (which must be as agonizing as it sounds) and we learned Monday he will be out at least four weeks, as will Briggs.  Tillman, thankfully, should be back sooner.

Cutler wasn’t having much of an afternoon in this one anyway, going 3-of-8 for 28 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, which was returned for a touchdown.  Once he went down Josh McCown stepped in and played very well, actually played great under the circumstances considering he hadn’t played in two years, and finished 14-of-20 for 204 yards, one TD, no interceptions, a QB rating of 119.6 and kept the Bears in it until the finish.

So maybe losing Cutler really wasn’t so bad for a day.  But anyone who thinks the Bears will be better off with McCown at QB for a four-week stretch is either crazy or goes by the name “Mrs. McCown.”  To be sure, McCown is tough, smart, experienced and doesn’t make many mistakes.  He’s sort of like Alex Smith lite.  But with the Bears defense in about as good shape as the health care exchange website, the Bears are going to have to win shootouts like the one they lost in Washington to have a chance of even being 6-4 when Jay returns.

Luckily, and this is the first bit of luck the Bears have had since “Gravity” was released, Chicago is now in its bye week so at least McCown has a little more time to get comfortable in the offense and newly-signed backup Jordan Palmer, who was with the Bears in training camp, can put his football shoes back on and break them in.  Most important, the week off gives the Bears time to heal up and it means Cutler and Briggs will miss one less game.

The Bears weren’t great with a healthy Cutler and Briggs but they were good.  The Bears weren’t a powerhouse before defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins and linebacker D.J. Williams were lost for the season but they were in first place and showed glimpses of being elite.  So, what are the Bears now?  Do they have a chance at beating the Packers in Green Bay on Monday, November 4?  Does Heaven have any mercy for those who drink beer, devour potatoes, bleed blue and, lately, piss blood?

There is still a lot to feel good about.  Running back Matt Forte ran for 91 yards and three scores on Sunday on just 16 carries, Alshon Jeffery caught four passes, Brandon Marshall hauled in six, Earl Bennett caught three, Martellus Bennett made his one catch count for a TD and Hester is returning kicks like the good old days.  The offensive weapons are there and Marc Trestman seems to know how to use them.

But that defense.  Ouch.  Chicago safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright seem to have taken a step back, as they are always a step behind in coverage.  Maybe that’s because the Bears have an anemic pass rush – they recorded one sack on Sunday – and so now opposing QBs have that much more time to just sit in the pocket and wait for their receivers to get open.  Which they are doing.  Griffin’s 45-yard TD pass to Aldrick Robinson early in the fourth quarter looked like a wing and a prayer, he just heaved it up there, but he seemed to know that if he threw deep enough no one in the Bears’ secondary would get there.  He was right.

A lot goes in to winning and losing a football game and in the case of Bears kicker Robbie Gould he almost always goes into winning it.  Gould is one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and, considering he kicks at windy Soldier Field, also one of the most underappreciated.  But in the third quarter he missed a 34-yard field goal attempt that could have closed the Bears to within 24-20.  The Bears ended up losing by four, yes, but if they’d trailed 45-44 on their final drive instead of 45-41 perhaps knowing they only needed to get into field goal range would have been a boost.  Many watching Sunday’s game thought that whoever had the ball last would win (and let us not forget to say that, maybe more important than anything else, this was one hell of a fun football game) and if Gould had connected earlier that might have proven true.

It’s far too early to say the sun is setting on the Bears’ 2013 season but it might be time to put away the lawn chairs and get out the leaf blower.  They’ll play tough against the Packers in part because Green Bay, at 4-2, is good but not great (though the Pack have won three straight) and the Bears have to be sick and tired of losing to the Packers having not beaten them since 2010.  That’s six straight losses (including the NFC Championship game after the 2010 season) but, then again, being tired of losing to Brett Favre never meant much.

Get healthy.  Wrap.  Tackle.  Pass the ball and tell your receivers to run slowly to eat up the clock.  Try anything.  The ship is taking on water and no one can hear your cries through the dark.

Extra Points:

It is very sad that the football world has lost Bud Adams, Bum Phillips and Don James and let us not forget Ed Lauter.  Lauter was the stone-faced character actor who appeared in dozens of movies and TV shows and we remember him most fondly for “The Jericho Mile” and, of course 1974’s “The Longest Yard” in which he played a prison guard who played quarterback and tormented Burt Reynolds.  His character in that film was tough as nails and, at times, outright abusive.  But by the end he learned to show compassion, or at least common sense, and respect for toughness and humanity that surpassed his own.  You can learn a lot on a football field.

Enter Dent

Richard Dent was the Pontiac of football players: a little flashy, very reliable and capable of coolness along with handfuls of greatness.

Dent was not a Cadillac like Dan Hampton or a Hummer like Reggie White or a likely-stolen Porsche like Lawrence Taylor. Pontiacs normally don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  However, when Oldsmobiles like Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Rickey Jackson start getting in, then you hop in the Sunfire, Trans-Am, or GTO and drive to Canton, Ohio wearing your #95 jersey and welcome in “The Colonel.”

Dent became the fourth player from those great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s to be enshrined at Canton; joining Hampton, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.  The coach of that Bears team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall, but as a player.

Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was likely the best all-around running back, and perhaps the most gracious gentleman, in NFL history.  It’s still wounding that he’s gone.

Like Dent, Hampton didn’t get in until several years after first eligible; as he seemed to be overshadowed by other players and personalities from those Bears teams.  But Hampton was the best player on those Bears defenses and probably the NFL’s best overall defensive lineman of the 1980s.  It’s not all about sacks.  It’s also about knocking down passes, chasing guys downfield and treating every play like it’s your last with love, death, wealth and happiness riding on the outcome.  How often do you see defensive linemen make tackles in the secondary?  Dan Hampton did that.

Hampton got in the Hall four years after Singletary, who was the most overrated player on those Bears teams and possibly Chicago’s third best linebacker in 1985.  Singletary was great and the Bears wouldn’t have been as good without him.  But at their peak, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson were better.  Also, Dent, Hampton, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were always better than Singletary, who was fortunate enough to be the platoon leader of a gang of balls-out, blood-seeking maniacs.  Singletary was good, but not as good as everyone, especially in Chicago, likes to think.

Dent admirably said one of the many people who deserve credit for his great career is Jimbo Covert, the Bears’ left tackle from 1983 to 1990 who sparred with Dent at practice.  I agree with Dent when he says Covert also belongs in Canton as he surely was one of the best tackles to ever play as evidenced by his seven Pro Bowl appearances…but wait.  My Bear-loving memory is fading.  A reference check rudely informed me that Jimbo actually only made the Pro Bowl twice and and was All-Pro twice, as well.  I could have sworn Covert was a Honolulu regular for nearly all the Reagan years.  I was wrong.

Does anyone else from those 1985 Bears deserve to be in the Hall?  Seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg?  Maybe.  And if Fencik, Marshall, McMichael and Wilson were better than Singletary, then certainly they should all….nah.  It’s tough to put in a bunch of guys from a team that only won one Super Bowl.  Everyone on Earth knows those Bears teams of the 1980s should have won more.  They didn’t.  And Canton owes them nothing.

Who among the current crop of Bears might one day be bronzed?  Brian Urlacher is a shoo-in.  He has made the Pro Bowl seven times, first team All-Pro four times and — listen up kids! — he’s Brian Urlacher!  Urlacher is one of those guys who’s so overrated he actually has become underrated.  Playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears is like playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, centerfield for the New York Yankees or James Bond.  You get far more attention than you deserve and everyone expects to you to be damn good and really cool.  Among contemporaries, Urlacher is nothing close to Ray Lewis and probably wasn’t even as good as Zach Thomas.  But Urlacher is good. Very good.  He’s a better athlete than either of those other guys. If he had played with Dent and Hampton in front of him and Wilson and Marshall beside him, he’d be illegal.

What about Lance Briggs?  He’s in Urlacher territory with six Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro selection and he’s a very, very good football player.  But Hall of Fame?  Let’s watch him decapitate Aaron Rodgers in this season’s NFC title game and then intercept a pass and bring it into the end zone in a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.  Then, yes, Lance gets in.

Devin Hester is the most exciting NFL player since Deion Sanders, who was among those who went into the Hall along with Dent this past weekend.  Hester holds the NFL record for most career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with a total of 14 and is a serviceable receiver.  But has his career been one for the Bronze Age?  Hester has those 14 TDs (not including one from Super Bowl XLI and a returned missed field goal from the 2006 season) on 291 career returns.  The man whose return record he broke, Brian Mitchell, had 13 career scores on 1,070 returns.  So Hester takes about one of every 20 returns to the house whereas Mitchell took back only about one of every 80.  Mitchell also scored 12 TDs rushing and ran for 1,967 career yards with four TDs and 2,336 yard receiving.  But Hester already has more receiving TDs – 12 – and nearly as much receiving yardage – 2,196 –  and has only played five seasons.  Mitchell played 14.

Certainly Hester’s top return years are behind him, therefore his eye-popping TD-per-return ratio will likely diminish significantly.  But it’s not crazy to project he will retire with 15 career return scores, 25 TD receptions and maybe more exciting moments than any other player in NFL history.  He won’t be a first ballot guy because some will say special teamers should wait in line.  But sometime around 2022 or 2023 his phone will ring.  And the Bears will have another trophy.

The Bears lead the NFL with 27 Hall of Famers and, especially with Dent’s enshrinement this year, it’s only fitting that Chicago was to be playing in the Hall of Fame Game.   That game was cancelled a few weeks ago because the lockout wasn’t over.  Then on Friday, the Bears were to be holding their annual Family Night at Soldier Field, but it was cancelled because the grass was falling apart.  Then on Wednesday night, the lights went out on the Bears’ practice field in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  So the Bears have yet to be seen by the public at large and we hope that’s a bad thing.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment that the Bears play at Soldier Field, which is run by the Chicago Park District, and seems to be treated like any of the other random softball diamonds or tennis courts in the city.  Do things like this happen in other cities?  Bears players, including Urlacher, say Soldier Field should use FieldTurf which is not real grass but far closer to it than artificial turf’s green concrete ancestors.  The Bears would be better on a synthetic surface because they’re a team built on speed and far, far less maintenance would be needed on the fake stuff.

However, many want Soldier Field to remain au naturel.  Fine.  The greatest green grass guy in the world works just a few miles away for the Chicago White Sox.  His name is Roger Bossard, “The Sodfather” and his innovative drainage and irrigation system has been used by the  Sox since the 1960s.  He has also overseen the installation of fields at Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and at several other major league ballparks.  The man knows his grass. He even has his own bobblehead.  The White Sox, likely, won’t be playing in October and the Bears will be away from Soldier Field for three weeks, so give the Sodfather the keys.  Give the NFL’s charter franchise a respectable field.  We won’t care what the field is made of in January when it’s covered in snow and the Bears are taking apart other members of the NFC on their way to the Super Bowl (Oh, yes..).  But for now, let’s make it pretty.  Let’s keep it safe.  All Bears deserve a pristine playground upon which to do their savagery.

Ed Sabol is now in the Hall of Fame and thank goodness football did the right thing by getting him there.  Sabol is 94, a World War II veteran and is the one who started NFL Films.  One of the many reasons the NFL is America’s favorite sport is that Sabol built such drama around it.  He and his son Steve have spent decades turning the league’s great games into timeless dramas.  NFL Films could make the assembly of a bologna sandwich feel like Superman conquering the dinosaurs.  It’s just a shame that the original voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, is no longer around.  He died in 1984 but his stentorian narrations live on and, thanks to Ed Sabol, every NFL game will always, at least in retrospect, have the look and feel of a timeless struggle between angry men embedded in mud and blood.