Four Downs: Debating Bears' safety dance

Is Lovie Smith making a mistake by not leaving for London earlier? Leon Halip/Getty Images

Chris Harris went from starting safety and leader of the secondary to wearing street clothes on the sideline, benched for the Vikings game on Sunday. Meanwhile, rookie Chris Conte had a solid starting debut even with his getting juked by Adrian Peterson.

As the Bears prepare to travel to London to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears have found a new starter in rookie safety Chris Conte.

Jeff Dickerson: Fact: That's true because Conte will probably start until further notice, but it's way too early to decide whether the rookie is going to be a long-term fixture for the Bears at safety. History tells us it won't happen. But I'm willing to give Conte the benefit of the doubt. Let's see how he fares against a better quarterback on Sunday in Tampa's Josh Freeman, who represents a significant upgrade over Minnesota's Donovan McNabb. If Conte shows the ability to tackle in the open field, while keeping plays in front of him, he could stick.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Not to denigrate the rookie’s performance against the Vikings, but let’s put it in proper perspective: The opponent was the one-win Vikings. Conte’s ability to contribute so quickly and his skill set give the team optimism about the rookie’s future. But he lacks experience, and it’s my opinion he could benefit from an NFL offseason to bulk up. We all know the Bears are hypercritical about safety play, too. So although Conte played relatively well against the Vikings, it’s just a matter of time before the club decides to go in yet another direction at the position. I’m not ready to crown Conte the unquestioned starter just yet.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. But that’s a stretch for now. Aside from a missed open-field tackle on Adrian Peterson, Conte had a good game against the Vikings with six tackles, but we’re talking about the second-to-last rated pass defense in the league. Still, the Bears should be comfortable enough to move forward with the third-round draft pick, who at least is playing more fundamentally sound than veteran Brandon Meriweather.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. This is the Bears. It’s like Hugh Hefner’s next girlfriend is “the one.” A new safety catches Jerry Angelo's and Lovie Smith’s eye every year, and the next year, he’s gone. Where’s Adam Archuleta nowadays?

Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears would be better off without Chris Harris.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: You can feed me nonsense about Harris lacking enough athletic ability to satisfy Smith, but when it's all said and done, he remains the most experienced, intelligent and proven safety on the roster. One of these days the Bears will realize safety is not a turnstile position. It appeared that Harris, 29, was on the verge of locking down a starting spot for the next few years, until he hurt his hamstring in Week 1, returned in Week 5 and was inactive in Week 6. No rhyme, no reason. That's been the Bears' motto at safety ever since Mike Brown left the organization.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. If the objective is to contend for a championship now, the Bears won’t be better off with Harris out of the lineup. First off, Harris’ teammates trust him immensely, and believe it or not, that’s huge in this league. The players talked about how a lack of trust in one another contributed to the defense’s inconsistency in earlier losses. So by taking Harris out of the mix, the Bears lose some of that. Besides that, read between the lines of what Bears coach Lovie Smith said on Monday when asked about his decision to start Conte and deactivate Harris. “That was this week,” Smith said. “Things change quickly, almost daily.” So while Harris might not be part of the plans for the future, he certainly has a place right now if this team is serious about contending.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. You’re never better off without a player coming off a five-interception season and named second-team All-Pro. The fact that Harris is a respected leader in the locker room -- and the sideline on Sunday night -- makes him just as valuable. A hamstring injury can linger and this season has definitely been disappointing, but I’d still rather have him around.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. I understand how the NFL works, but Harris was dead on when he tweeted about the subjective accountability on the Bears. He played one bad game, coming off a nagging injury, and he went from starter to inactive? I still think Harris was a sacrificial safety and Smith was sending a message to his veteran, underperforming defense. If Conte gets worked this game, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Harris start against the Eagles after the bye.

Third Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears are making a mistake by not flying to London sooner.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. The correct answer to this question won't be revealed until after the game. On one hand, it makes sense to conduct a normal work week with practices Wednesday and Thursday at Halas Hall. NFL players are creatures of habit. That's why Smith wants to keep the Bears in the states as long as possible. On the other hand, players won't have much time to adjust their body clocks before the game kicks off Sunday evening London time. And do you run the risk of players enjoying the night life a little too much on Friday night after the team arrives. Conventional wisdom suggests the players would get most of their sightseeing out of their system earlier in the week. This is either a stroke of genius by Smith, or a glaring mistake. We'll find out soon enough.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Hey, the Buccaneers are already there. So while I get it that the Bears don't want to deviate from the normal practice schedule, it seems to me the Bucs are at an advantage because they’re getting more time to acclimate to the new surroundings. Former Bears tight end Desmond Clark said the team should be leaving earlier, too. Clark isn’t under any obligation to utter the company line anymore. So in this case, I’ll defer to the former player on something like this. This team should be leaving for London sooner than Thursday.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. It’s Europe, not Seattle. The Bucs left Monday after going through the routine two years ago and learning their lesson. In 2009, the Bucs -- like the Bears now -- decided to practice at their own facilities and stay in their own time zone, arriving in London on Friday night. Two days later, they lost to New England, 35-7. The Bears had a hard time playing with loud crowd noise in New Orleans and Detroit. That doesn’t say much for their chances under tougher conditions this Sunday.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Why do NFL coaches/teams try to circumvent reality? This isn’t a normal week no matter how hard you try to spin it. I assume it’s cheaper not to fly all your equipment overseas for the week, but I think some time abroad would be healthy for a veteran team. It’s not only bonding time, but it allows them to get acclimated for the trip. Also, why not have a little fun?

Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler and Mike Martz have a fractured relationship.

Jeff Dickerson: Fiction: I love the current Cutler and Martz relationship. Martz tells Cutler what to do, the quarterback ignores it and does what he wants to do. So far, so good. It's pretty obvious the quarterback began to tune out Martz following the victory over Carolina when Cutler posted a 46.7 passer rating. Since he gave Martz the Heisman, Cutler has played his two best games of the season against Detroit and Minnesota. If Cutler keeps this up, we should print up t-shirts that say "Tell him to go *&$% himself." I know I'd buy one.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. We all know about what NBC’s cameras and mics caught during Sunday’s game, but I chalk that up to a simple heat-of-the-battle moment rather than a fractured relationship. The Bears are coming off an outing in which they finally put everything together in terms of a game plan catered to the team’s capabilities. And that led to a convincing victory. So if anything, I expect Cutler and Martz to be best buds right now. I don’t think we can start seriously questioning their relationship until things start to go awry again. Let’s see what Cutler says if (or should we say when?) Martz deviates from the things that protected the quarterback and allowed him to have success against the Vikings. I’ve definitely heard that Cutler didn’t believe in Martz’s system. But it appears that system has changed. So in my mind, the verdict is still out on what might be a potentially volatile relationship.

Melissa Isaacson Fact. No way of knowing for sure, so I wouldn’t say broken. But I’ll go along with fractured just based on recent events. Cutler, who has been more open in his criticism of the offense lately, clearly resents not having more say with his comment that he’s not allowed to audible, and appeared to direct an obscenity toward Martz via the sideline on Sunday night. That does not exactly sound like the two are drinking beers together.

Jon Greenberg: Fact. Is anyone surprised these two oddballs would have a rift? Martz is committed to his system, which is why the Bears brought him here, and Cutler is committed to walking upright in his pink pants and dancing with his star. I think some strain is healthy, and Cutler has played a couple good games in a row. But yeah, I can imagine Martz gets angry about Cutler’s poor mechanics and over-throws, and Cutler isn’t happy about Martz’s death-defying strategies.