Hazy with a chance of mediocre

CLEVELAND -- The results, the Chicago Bears say, are irrelevant. With the real game plan hermetically sealed somewhere in Mike Martz's office, many of the real players sidelined Thursday night in Cleveland and a wretched preseason behind them, we're all supposed to forget what we've been watching the past two months and believe that somehow, some way, it was all a mirage.

"Now the real fun begins, and it's time to get to work," veteran guard Roberto Garza said.

But is there enough time? And can they flip the proverbial switch?

"We would have liked to have won a few games -- 0-4 in the preseason, that doesn't look good," Bears coach Lovie Smith said after a 13-10 loss to the Browns in the preseason finale. "But there's a bigger picture, and the bigger picture is we've had a good offseason. I feel like we've had a good training camp. We've gotten a lot of work done. We feel like we know our football team right now."

With 10 players sitting this last one out, including nine potential regulars, it's impossible to say if Thursday's game -- before about 47 people at Browns Stadium -- put the Bears any closer to being ready for Detroit on Sept. 12, not to mention the Cowboys and Packers and Giants, who come later.

It did, however, address some important items on the laundry list, such as: Do the Bears have a chance of winning another game if Jay Cutler goes down? The clear No. 2 candidate, Todd Collins, started in Cutler's place against the Browns and was largely fine (re: better than Caleb Hainie), as expected, though with 255 days between games for Collins, it was nice to know for sure.

This is not to say anyone should be heaving large sighs of relief in the Bears' offensive meeting rooms.

The fourth preseason game, even under the best of circumstances, is hardly a barometer as much as an opportunity to cement decisions already made on the bottom of the 53-man roster.

No, what we needed to know after three preseason games was whether the Bears could block and tackle and score. We needed to know whether the left tackle was not just serviceable but commensurate of a first-round draft pick. We needed to know that the safeties could tackle and the corners could cover and that they were all comfortable enough with their new positions that they at least appeared like they could work out the kinks by the season opener.

And as an added bonus, we would have liked to know that the receivers could handle the speed and spacing of the new coordinator's offense.

We still really don't.

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo talked about the "feel-good" factor before the game after explaining why it was not imperative that Cutler play Thursday night.

"It's important," he said. "I don't think anybody wants to go into the season limping or feeling like they're not ready. I don't get that sense. There was some frustration last week but it's not [that] we're defeatist [that] things aren't going to happen. I've seen teams go 0-4 and have great seasons.

"I've seen teams go 4-0 and have bad seasons. Let's not overrate it. It's important, yes. But the season is when you get the real identity of the team, and we feel good about that. And we'll just see when we play Detroit."

Of course, most of us never did place any importance on preseason records. We're aware the '85 Bears went 1-3. We get it. We always got it. And we also know that the last time the Bears went winless in the preseason was 1998, when the Bears went 4-12 and got Dick Jauron fired.

Angelo's point seemed to be not just that the Bears don't care about winning or losing in the preseason, but that in trying to accomplish what they wanted, also required them to look bad occasionally. This actually makes sense. But they looked bad more than occasionally.

"Let's not lose sight of this," Angelo urged, "we're trying to figure out who we are. What we can do and what we can't do offensively and defensively. Are we going to be able to generate enough with our front four's pass rush or aren't we? Or are we going to have to do more zone-blitzing? Or are we going to have to play more press coverage? Things like that. We need to figure out who we are. That's very, very important.

"Same thing offensively. Are we going to have to help protect the tackles? We may. But we need to figure those things out and we need to see that. These are dress rehearsals and this is what you're going to do. You're going to look good in some things, you're not going to look good in other things. But the bottom line is, when this is all over with, we have to know who we are, accept who we are, figure out the things we need to be even though we might have wanted to be something else. It's that simple. And we need to take advantage of these times. Everybody wants to win, everybody wants to look good. I understand it. But not at the expense of that."

The front four's pass rush is not the Bears' problem. Yes, they will have to do more zone blitzing and, yes, they will have to protect the tackles on offense, which means so much for making Greg Olsen a productive receiver at tight end.

So now they know who they are. And it can't be a very comforting feeling.

Third-and-longs have been a problem this preseason and Angelo acknowledged it's "frustrating." But he said we should not be too hard on the secondary given their experimentation this preseason.

The Bears' first-team defense played one series Thursday night, which amounted to one play -- a fumble on the snap to Browns' quarterback Colt McCoy -- recovered by linebacker Kevin Malast, who was filling in for Brian Urlacher.

Julius Peppers, who needs to be cloned several times for Bears fans to feel good about this season, has been steadfast that all is fine.

"You really can't put too much stock in [preseason games] because they're not really real," he said. "Everything that I saw [this preseason], I liked. We're still extremely confident in what we plan on doing and how we plan on playing this year. So as far as that, I think everybody's ready to go."

As for Collins, he connected with Olsen for a 15-yard touchdown at the 10-minute mark of the first quarter for the first Bears' lead since the second quarter against the Raiders two weeks ago. But that drive began on the Browns' 19-yard-line after McCoy's fumble.

The Bears returned the favor on their next possession when Josh Beekman, in for Olin Kreutz, bounced the shotgun snap off the shoulder of Collins, who was trying to call a timeout. Three plays later, Cleveland punched it in from the 1-yard-line.

Collins led one other scoring drive -- eight plays for 42 yards -- ending with a 46-yard field goal by Robbie Gould (thank you, Patrick Mannelly) and left in the third quarter after completing 10-of-15 passes for 139 yards and a quarterback rating of 118.5.

"He's been around, he's a veteran coming in. It was good to get him out there with our guys as much as anything," Smith said of his backup quarterback.

And now it's simply good to get the preseason behind them because whether most will admit it or not, it was demoralizing.

"Yeah, it's preseason, but you kind of want to win at least two out of the four," Devin Hester said. "We're ready to move on, especially now, and see what we're really made of."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.