CHICAGO – The future once looked so bright for the Chicago Bears.
Saturday marks the 10-year anniversary of the Bears’ appearance in Super Bowl XLI – the franchise’s crowning achievement under former head coach Lovie Smith, who led the Bears to back-to-back division titles in 2005 and '06.
Although the Bears ultimately fell to the Indianapolis Colts 29-17 on that wet Super Bowl night in South Florida, many expected a quick return trip to the championship game for a team that just went 26-10 (including playoffs) over a two-year stretch.
After all, defensive stalwarts Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Charles Tillman, Tommie Harris, Alex Brown, Adewale Ogunleye, Nathan Vasher, Mike Brown and Hunter Hillenmeyer were still in the prime of their careers.
On offense, the Bears had just sent two lineman to the Pro Bowl (Olin Kreutz and Ruben Brown), Desmond Clark remained a threat at tight end (and later 2007 first-round pick Greg Olsen), and Bernard Berrian was an emerging playmaker at wide receiver.
The Bears had issues, most notably quarterback, where Rex Grossman had major problems protecting the football, but Chicago’s football outlook was positive. Some even argued the Bears were poised to embark on a playoff run similar to the 1980s/early 1990s when Mike Ditka guided the NFL's charter franchise to the postseason seven of eight years.
Unfortunately for the city, the Bears never returned to the Super Bowl, making the playoffs only one time in Smith’s final six seasons.
There is no magic bullet to explain why the Bears came up short.
A variety of problems conspired against them, but the most damaging was injuries. In the first half of the 2007 season opener at San Diego the Bears lost Brown and defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek for the year. A couple of weeks later, Vasher suffered a badly torn groin muscle. Vasher, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, was never the same player after. And Urlacher, a future Hall of Famer, began to experience back trouble that would linger for the rest of his career.
There were also questionable personnel decisions.
The Bears regrettably did not renew defensive coordinator Ron Rivera’s contract after the Super Bowl, and they traded Thomas Jones to the New York Jets to make room for 2005 top pick Cedric Benson in the backfield. To Jerry Angelo's credit, the Bears quickly corrected their mistake by drafting Matt Forte and cutting ties with Benson in 2008, but Jones played an important leadership role in the locker room. Jones' presence both on and off the field was missed, especially in the critical years immediately following the Super Bowl berth. The void created by Rivera’s firing was never truly filled. The closest the Bears came to replacing Rivera came when Smith hired Rod Marinelli, but that didn't happen until 2010.
The Bears later erred turning Hester -- the greatest return man in NFL history -- into the club's No. 1 wide receiver. In general, the firepower at receiver left something to be desired in the days before Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.
The Bears also suffered from inconsistent play at quarterback. Smith grew weary of Grossman’s turnovers and benched him in favor of Brian Griese early in 2007. The next year Kyle Orton took over – and played reasonably well – until Chicago sent him to Denver as part of the Jay Cutler deal. Cutler tossed a career-worst 26 interceptions in 2009. Cutler’s next three years under Smith were better, but injuries began to creep in. Plus, Cutler had to deal with constant change at offensive coordinator – although it’s fair to wonder what role Cutler played in so many coaches coming and going.
There were good moments for Smith in the post-Super Bowl era. The Bears finished 9-7 in 2008 and barely missed the playoffs because of a Week 17 loss at Houston. They won the division and advanced to the NFC Championship Game in 2010. The Bears were 7-3 in 2011 before Cutler suffered a season-ending injury. And Smith went 10-6 in his final season before being fired by Phil Emery – a move that officially ushered in the dark ages at Halas Hall. The Bears are 22-42 since Smith left town.
But for multiple reasons, the Bears never could rekindle the magic they had in 2006. People say the worst thing in professional sports is losing a Super Bowl, because you never know when you’ll get there again (minus the Patriots). The Bears fit that description perfectly.