With a 7-1 start a distant memory it has come to this for the 8-6 Bears: Beat the woeful Arizona Cardinals or there will be no playoffs and massive change could be ushered into Halas Hall.
Will that potential change include the head coach and a franchise icon? Our panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Sunday's game was the last as Bears at Soldier Field for Lovie Smith and Brian Urlacher.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. The Bears could prove me wrong, but I don't see the team making the playoffs. And if the Bears miss out on the postseason for the fifth time in six years, I just can't fathom how the organization can retain Smith for another season. So if Smith goes, my hunch is Urlacher follows his guy out the door. Unless Urlacher truly believes the Bears can be contenders next year, I'm not sure the 35-year old middle linebacker wants to be part of a rebuilding process. Plus, there is the issue of Urlacher's knees, which might require an off-season clean up, and the current hamstring injury he's dealing with. Is it worth it to put in all that work for one more NFL season? Only Urlacher can answer that question. But if Smith gets out the door, the decision probably becomes much easier. Smith and Urlacher are a package deal, in my opinion.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. I've got to think general manager Phil Emery is a smart enough man to know this team's failures haven't been a result of Smith's coaching. This team simply lacks talent on offense in several areas, and depth in others, and it's Emery's job to make sure that changes. When your best two offensive linemen are merely average, that points to a serious deficiency in talent. So if ownership doesn't take the decision out of Emery's hands, it wouldn't surprise me if the GM let Smith finish out his contract. As for Urlacher, I don't see him returning unless he's willing to take a major salary reduction. The Bears likely will extend a one- or two-year offer based on Urlacher's past contributions. It will then be up to Urlacher to decide whether to take it. It's difficult not just for me, but surely all the Bears fans to imagine Urlacher wearing another uniform. So for now, I'll lean to him returning for at least one more season.
Scott Powers: Fact/Fiction. I could see a scenario where Sunday was Smith's last home game. If the Bears don't reach the playoffs, Smith's job is likely on the line. Even if they sneak into the playoffs and get bounced in the first round, he could be in jeopardy of being fired. As for Urlacher, I'm not convinced he isn't coming back next year. Unless the Bears sign or trade for a suitable replacement, he may be their best bet at linebacker. Urlacher isn't his old self, but he can still play a role.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Urlacher's done but Smith stays. It's painful to some to hear that opinion. While I don't see how the Bears bring back Lovie Smith if they miss the playoffs, I think this dead team comes back to life the last two weeks. There is nothing to buttress my opinion but the lousiness of the Cardinals and Lions. I think the Bears win two ugly games, get some help and sneak into the first round, where they get blasted by San Francisco or Green Bay. And Smith gets another year or two tacked onto his deal.
Fact or Fiction: Brian Urlacher was wrong for criticizing Bears fans for booing their team against the Packers.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. There is simply nothing to gain when professional athletes slight the fans. Never. But Urlacher does have a point. It must be unpleasant to be booed off the field, at home, down only 14-7 at halftime to the Packers. It must have stunk when the same crowd booed the then-5-1 Bears at halftime against the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 28, a game the Bears eventually won. These are all valid discussions for Urlacher to have -- in private. But you run the risk of offending the paying customer when you air these types of grievances in public, which Urlacher chose to do last Sunday night. Even if a good chunk of the Bears' fan base could care less about Urlacher's comments, enough do to make it an issue the club doesn't need to deal with as it fights for a playoff berth.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. These same fans pay outrageous prices for game tickets, and spend lots of money to travel to road games, where they've absolutely taken over opposing stadiums, I might add. These fans' lives in many aspects revolve around the Bears. So if the team is putting an inferior product on the field, the fans have every right to boo the team. They paid for the expensive ticket, bought the $9 beers. Booing comes with the price of admission. If we don't like a product, in most instances, we can take it back and receive a refund. Do Bears fans get their money back when the team stinks up the joint? No. Besides that, Urlacher was also wrong when he said the Bears were the only team in the division to be booed on their home field. I've been to every stadium in this division, and I've seen fans in each one of them -- including Green Bay -- boo the teams when they don't perform. Don't like the booing? Do something about it. Turn them into cheers.
Scott Powers: Fiction. Just as Bears fans can boo the Bears, Urlacher can criticize the fans. It works both ways. Fans pay a lot of money to attend games, and they're welcome to be angry if they don't like the product before them. And if Urlacher and his teammates feel like they're trying their hardest and don't deserve to be booed, then they can say so, too. I'm fine with both saying what they feel.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. For one thing, it's silly to pick a battle with your own fans. For another, grow up. Fans boo because they expect more. This offense is one of the worst in the NFL with Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte. Is that wrong? Fans aren't throwing batteries or pouring beers on the hometown team. It's not as if the fans can't be appeased. When the Bears are going good, this is like a small town that loves its high school team. Urlacher has certainly reaped the benefits of being a star in Chicago. In this case, he sounds like a whiner.
Fact or Fiction: Alshon Jeffery will develop into the big-play receiver the Bears believe he can be.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. Jeffery is talented. He's just raw. Don't forget, Jeffery had to miss six games with hand and knee injuries. He'll eventually learn how to get separation without pushing off, or at least learn to do it without being caught by the officials. He can play. And eventually that talent will blossom. Jeffery is going to be a big-play receiver as long as he stays healthy. That will be his biggest challenge heading into year number two.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Jeffery hasn't had the chance to really get into the flow of an NFL season because of injuries. He's missed a total of six games, and obviously in-game experience is where a player learns some of the nuances required to succeed. Give Jeffery a full offseason, and another training camp and you'll see a more polished player in 2013, especially with regard to how he uses his body to shield off defenders. Brandon Marshall has said he plans to make Jeffery work with him in the offseason on conditioning and technique. So I'm expecting to see marked improvement and health in 2013 from Jeffery.
Scott Powers: Fact. I have to pick one way or the other, so I'll go with fact to be the optimist. But really I couldn't say at this point. He obviously has some skills and size and shown some potential, but he's also proven to have some problems, especially last week with creating separation and having penalties called on him. This offseason will be vital for him to correct some of those issues and get completely healthy. It's been an up-and-down rookie year for him.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He's close, but he needs to develop and of course, to stay healthy. But he has the size, and he can get separation, though he'd do well by himself to learn how to push off with a little more subtlety. I think in two seasons, Jeffery could be a real difference-maker.
Fact or Fiction: Mike Tice deserves more blame for the Bears' collapse than Lovie Smith.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Regardless of how the rest of the season plays out, Tice likely will not be the Bears' offensive coordinator in 2013. How can he be? The Bears rank No. 29 in total offense, No. 28 in passing offense and have scored one of fewer offensive touchdowns in six games this year. That is outrageous, and Tice certainly deserves his share of the blame, along with the players who have routinely let down their offensive coordinator by failing to make plays. But there is a reason Smith is paid the big bucks. Smith has a defensive background, and the defense always performs at a reasonable level. But if a head coach doesn't know offense, he better find a coach who does. Four offensive coordinators later, the Bears still can't score touchdowns. How much more time does Smith need to fix the problem? That's why he deserves the bulk of the blame.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. The blame seems about equal from this vantage point. It's fine to put some responsibility on Tice for the shortcomings on offense. But what about the defense? The Seahawks drove 97 yards at the end of regulation on Dec. 2 to tie the game and send it into overtime, before marching another 80 yards on 12 plays to win it during the extra period. That's on the defense. Did we forget San Francisco scored 30 of its 32 points on the defense in addition to racking up 353 yards of total offense? To be honest here, injuries have also played a major role in this late-season collapse, and are probably just as culpable for what's transpired as Smith and Tice.
Scott Powers: Fiction. Tice deserves some blame. It's his offense failing out there, and he's had some questionable play-calling. But Smith deserves much more of the blame. At the end of the day, it's Smith's team. He oversees Tice and everyone else. If coaches aren't doing their jobs, it's up to Smith to do it for them.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. The Bears' problems on offense are endemic. It's not like Tice has drawn a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Tice got this job, which he's never had before, because he was here. In retrospect, it was a little foolish to think Tice would be better than Mike Martz, even if Martz's slavish devotion to his beliefs put Cutler in harm's way. As offensive line coach, Tice was given a lousy hand. But this goes on Smith for never figuring out how to be more than a defensive head coach. If the Bears miss the playoffs, both should be fired. But the blame for the firing should go to Smith.