CHICAGO -- The real professional sports seasons begin with the playoffs. Everything else is prelims, the undercard, the warm-up act. You miss the playoffs and it's pretty much a failed season, which brings us to the Chicago Bears who, after starting 7-1, have lost five of six and no longer control their chances of reaching the postseason after losing for the sixth straight time to what used to be their rivals, the Green Bay Packers. When the Packers quarterback says in his postgame news conference, "Great things happen in Chicago," it means the Bears are in serious, serious trouble.
And we're not just talking about next week in Arizona, where the Bears will be no better than 50-50 to beat the absolutely dreadful Cardinals; the issue now is what to do after playing the Cardinals and Lions to end this season. The issue is what to do about a team that passes for a net total of 107 yards, which is a two-series total for any 21st century NFL offense. The issue is whether you take Brandon Marshall seriously when he goes to tears after the game and says, "Everybody on offense should be held accountable even if that means jobs."
All Marshall did was wonder aloud what everybody who follows the Bears has been talking about for a good week now, whether a loss to the Packers at Soldier Field would signal the beginning of the end for a whole lot of people.
Bottom line is that if the Bears miss the playoffs, even if they beat the sorry Cardinals and Lions to go 10-6 if they miss the playoffs it will be five times in six years that the Bears would have failed to make the postseason. And if that winds up being the case, it'll be time to go back to the drawing board in Chicago.
Yes, I'm talking about a new head coach and new staff and entirely new philosophy about trying to win in the NFL. It means we probably just watched the last Chicago appearance in a Bears uniform of Devin Hester, who's only the greatest return man in the history of the NFL and a man who should be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Problem is, he isn't anywhere close to that return man anymore and he isn't an asset as a receiver, as we saw just before halftime when yet another Hester route-running mistake, not a Jay Cutler throwing mistake, led to that game-changing interception.
Of greater dread is accepting the notion that a new coach means we probably have seen the last Chicago appearance in a Bears uniform of Brian Urlacher, who's only one of the great linebackers in the history of the NFL, and a man who will be enshrined by the time he's 40 years old in the Hall of Fame. Problem is, as dependent as the Bears are on Urlacher (7-17 without him in his career), a new coach isn't going to be loyal to the old general's lieutenant. And nobody has been more unwavering in his support of Lovie Smith, or loved playing for him more than Urlacher.
When Marshall said after the game everybody has to be accountable even if it means jobs, I took him to mean players. But what he said has to be applied to everybody, and that starts with coaches. Look, the case to make in favor of Smith is easy. His players adore him. They play hard for him. They're well-prepared every single week. They don't do dumb stuff on the field or in the end zones. When is the last time you heard about locker room controversy or dissension within the Bears' ranks? You don't. Aaron Rodgers, after praising the Bears' defense for coming up with delayed blitzes and pressures the Packers hadn't seen in forever, praised Smith specifically for the Bears playing even harder down 21-7 than they had earlier. "It says a lot," Rodgers added, "about their coaches they keep their guys focused. They feel like they're never out of it."
But you can't miss the playoffs five times in six years. You just can't. Organizations pay players and coaches too much money. Tickets and parking and concessions cost too much. Way too much is at stake to make the playoffs once in six years. Is it harder to make the argument against a coach when that one playoff appearance resulted in an NFC Championship Game match with the Packers, and when the one before that resulted in a trip to the Super Bowl? Yes, it's harder. The Bears have been to the Super Bowl only twice, and Smith is responsible for one of 'em.
Even so, it looks like time is about to simply run out, that Lovie has taken the Bears as far as they're going to go. They've never had better than the No. 15-ranked offense in his time as head coach, which might not have been a big deal in the 1980s but sure as hell is now in an NFL that has all but outlawed hard-hitting defense. The Bears are now 1-12 over the past two years in games the team has trailed at the half, and halftime is a coach's time. Mike Martz spectacularly didn't work as offensive coordinator but he looks like Bill Walsh next to Mike Tice, who has been exponentially worse. And those hires/promotions are on Smith; those are his calls really bad judgment calls. The Bears just wasted a season with wonderfully talented skill players; yes, behind a dreadful offensive line. But the point is, you can't just keep switching assistant coaches, playing Neanderthal offense and then ask for another chance. Cutler has already had three offensive coordinators (Ron Turner, Martz, Tice) in four years. Sour? It's a wonder Cutler isn't Sybil.
Anyway, the first half of the season found the Bears beating bad teams; now the Bears are a bad team, which is why Marshall was in tears after losing to the Packers, saying he's got to find a way to hold it together before adding, "It's been the same thing all year. The same thing every game."
They're in such a nosedive right now, it's even fair to wonder whether the club should spend money to commit to Cutler long-term. Are they going to get him four new linemen in the offseason and build the foundation for a new offense? Will the club commit to, at the very least, a proven offensive coordinator/playcaller, like, say Norv Turner when his run of head coach ends (soon) in San Diego?
When you're on the brink of missing the playoffs (again) and your stud wide receiver leaves the lectern crying after a game, everything is up for evaluation, for second-guessing, for fixing.
The Bears had so many chances to win Sunday and to finally beat the Packers, but couldn't take advantage of any of them. First-and-goal in the shadow of the goal line and Matt Forte can't bounce outside and score a touchdown on a couple of carries? The Bears had great field position several times. Peanut Tillman forced another fumble to give the offense a relatively short field. The Packers repeatedly invited the Bears back into the game with pass interference penalties and turnovers, including a preposterously stupid throwback on a punt return, and the Bears couldn't get out of their own way. Nothing inventive or imaginative or creative or powerful was explored on offense. They ran one power sweep early in the game, getting 8 yards for Forte, and never went back to it. So now it's six straight and counting for the Packers in this series, which prompted Cutler to say, "You can't just lose to your rival [because then] it's not a rivalry anymore, it's a domination."
So Smith was left to explain it, to look forward, and he didn't do it through tears. Part of why it's so easy to root for Smith is that in this era of NFL coach as god, an era full of egomaniacal geniuses and blowhards, Smith is calm and never overstates anything. Two games left against two homecoming teams is what the Bears have, whether it plays out that way or not. As Smith said, "We have to get to the playoffs a different way," meaning other than as division champ, "and that's the only thing we can think of now."
The thing that the Bears can cling to, now at 8-6, is that the NFL is a crazy league now, one in which going wire-to-wire is something nobody's interested in anymore. As Rodgers said, "It's all about who's hot how you're playing in late December and what your team's health is. Those are the teams that make the deep runs."
That's it, that's the formula, one that has served the Packers well, as well as teams such as the Redskins and Vikings, teams that have now pulled even with the Bears in the wild-card race. But momentum can swing wildly in the final two weeks. Rookies can learn how to run routes without pushing off. The injured players get healthier, coaches study film. Lovie Smith stays calm. There is time to save a season, time to save jobs, time for Marshall to dry his tears and pull himself together. But it's precious little time, and the Bears -- and this was unthinkable eight weeks into the season -- are down to zero margin for error. In a league that now seems to be defined by crisis management, the Bears are on the clock.