Eight months ago, playing on the same field for bigger stakes, there wasn't much if anything separating the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers. Now, four games later, the Bears are somehow in the Packers' rearview mirror, soon to be lapped if the Bears don't improve enormously in the coming weeks. The new NFL mandates scoring, lots of it, preferably by prolific passing. It's something the Bears have considered a luxury through most of the franchise's history, but it's no longer optional. The days of beating a really good team, a championship team, like the Packers by a score like 17-13 ... those days are gone and buried.
The Bears looked at the schedule months ago and knew the first three games of the season -- Falcons at home, at New Orleans, Green Bay at home -- would be exactly the kind of difficult challenge that tells a team what it's made of. Well, 1-2 with a victory over the least of the three -- Atlanta -- ain't good news. The Bears look far from being a contender; they look like a team with a laundry list of inadequacies. And in a league that now absolutely demands teams with serious aspirations be built around offense, any analysis of the Bears' 27-17 loss to the Packers has to begin not with a defense that, yes, was exploited early Sunday, but with an offense that produced only 17 points. More specifically, a line that couldn't open a hole all day for one of the really productive players in the NFL, Matt Forte.
Last week the issue was whether Jay Cutler could survive more beatings like the one he took in New Orleans (doubtful). This week the issue is how Forte, one of the most productive run/catch players in the league, can gain only two yards on nine rushing attempts.
What's the common thread here? The line can't both protect and open holes, which is a prerequisite for any competent offense. Yes, the line allowed Green Bay to sack Cutler only three times, and he was grateful for the increased time to throw, which enabled him to pass for 302 yards, which used to be a big-deal number but is pedestrian stuff these days. But the line couldn't keep the Packers off Forte who on Sunday took the handoff and a Packers defender at roughly the same time. Protection and hole opening are responsibilities of the offensive line. Lovie Smith called the protection "adequate ... it's not like all was lost today ... it held up for the most part." As frank as the coach's assessment was, the larger point is "adequate" pass protection from the offensive line isn't what you aspire to have.
Last week GM Jerry Angelo said no team did more to improve its offensive line play than the Bears, which is very funny ... except Angelo appeared to be dead serious. Angelo backed that argument by pointing to the fact he brought in someone with NFL experience, but former Seahawks center Chris Spencer -- who was brought in to replace Olin Kreutz -- is starting at right guard because of Lance Louis' injury. The left tackle, J'Marcus Webb, played much of last year at right tackle. The center, Roberto Garza, is really a right guard. The right tackle, Gabe Carimi, is a rookie. This is not an upgrade from last season, which is what the Bears needed to stay in the hunt with the likes of the Patriots and Packers. Talking all week to former players, several of them Hall of Famers, and personnel scouts, I heard consistently that the Bears line simply isn't good, and it was dead wrong to suggest that most of the 11 sacks allowed coming into the Green Bay game were somehow Cutler's fault. They say that's junk. If you accept, as I do, that the Bears needed a personnel upgrade along the line and didn't get it, the players along the line deserve a lot less criticism than Angelo, who seems to have spent the free agency period operating under the impression there was still a lockout. How much he tried is a lot less important than what he actually accomplished.
And if you don't come up with the lineman (Willie Colon, we keep hearing) you targeted at least give your quarterback weapons to work with, a big-time go-to guy who's proven on third down and proven he can help beat blitzes. This isn't asking a lot; it's common sense to protect an investment as costly (in draft picks and salary) as Cutler. Baltimore's Ozzie Newsome, over the past two summers, went and got playmakers Anquan Boldin and Lee Evans for his young quarterback, Joe Flacco. Angelo got Roy Williams, who caught ZERO passes Sunday against the Packers, and two of the ones that were thrown his way were intercepted, which makes me wonder if Cutler was the one at fault (doubt it). Williams is a disaster. And Angelo's other big get, Marion Barber, hasn't yet played a down. By one unofficial count in Dallas, Barber broke a grand total of three tackles all of last season, so don't think he's going to set the world on fire if/when he gets on the field.
Look, Angelo did a great job putting together the team in 2006 when the Bears went to the Super Bowl. Angelo did a darn good job last year, piecing together a roster that was resourceful enough to reach the NFC Championship Game. He nailed it when he drafted Forte and when he signed Julius Peppers. But putting together a roster, like coaching and like playing, is a year-to-year proposition, and so far Angelo's 2011 performance, well, stinks. When your leading receiver for three straight weeks, by yards or by receptions, is a runner, you failed at your job. And you got rid of one of your best offensive weapons, your pass catching tight end, without plugging in a suitable replacement? GMs always want players to be accountable; wouldn't it be nice for Angelo to stop covering his rear end and simply say, "Fellas, I needed to have done better." Executives shouldn't be immune from accountability. It won't help this team get better, but it might take some of the pressure off guys who shouldn't be shouldering it in the first place.
Fortunately for Angelo, he's got a locker room full of guys who seem to be in touch with reality. Cutler, for one, offered a candid, insightful spot-on postgame analysis of the loss and the offensive woes. Without being needlessly critical of anyone, Cutler talked about the need for a running game of consequence and eliminating stupid mistakes such as false starts and holding penalties that sabotaged any momentum the offense might have built.
Angelo (and this is to his credit) also has a room full of stand-up defensive players who despite today's rules operating to eliminate defense and have every game end 35-31, believe they can hold teams down so that the offense doesn't have to generate, say, 30 points to win. I asked Peppers if it's realistic, with offenses increasingly throwing for 350 yards or more, to hold teams to 17 or fewer points. Peppers thought long and hard before saying, "I think it is. We have to force two or three turnovers a game to do it, and until we do that we're not coming up with the plays we need to come up with to help the team. Is that a lot of pressure to put on the defense? Yes, maybe so. But Brian [Urlacher] and Lance [Briggs] and I think it's possible. Look, we haven't played well the last two weeks but it's not like we're getting dominated. There are spurts where we've played well. The way we played when we forced the Packers into [several] three-and-outs that's the way we have to play the first drive. We can't spot a team as good as the Packers 14 points, even 10 points."
Peppers spoke specifically to the old-fashioned virtue of getting better, something Lovie Smith preaches calmly and consistently. Urlacher said the same thing. They're all very convincing when you stand before them. And we've seen the Bears, last year for example, get better by simply working through problem areas. It can be done. But it's not automatic, and it is fair after watching the Bears lose their past two games by an average score of 29-15 to ask whether they have the raw material on hand to get appreciably better. That's not a margin of one score per game folks, it's two touchdowns per game.
The Packers didn't look like world-beaters in their first two games of the season; they won but allowed a ton of points and more than 400 passing yards to SuperRook Cam Newton. But the Packers did upgrade in the offseason, even if most of it came from getting back healthy players such as running back Ryan Grant (17 rushes, 92 yards) and tight end Jermichael Finley, who caught seven passes for 85 yards and three touchdowns Sunday. The Packers, in Aaron Rodgers, have perhaps the equal to Tom Brady, if not statistically then in impact. As Urlacher said afterward, "Rodgers makes them go."
But the first thing Rodgers has is time to throw to a posse of playmakers, and that time seems to increase exponentially because Rodgers has some Houdini in him. The Packers, with their championship in pocket, have all the confidence of a team that knows exactly what it can do, even on the road against their No. 1 rival. But look at the graph; the Bears beat Green Bay last year in the first game, narrowly lost a thriller the final week of the season to let the Packers into the playoffs, then a pretty even game in the NFC Championship game. ... Now this. OK, if the Packers didn't dominate the Bears on Sunday the champs certainly were in control. And it's now up to the Bears to do something about it. ... If they can.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.