Thursday, December 20, 2012

Bears' Season Continues to Collapse

The more things change, the more they stay the same. After dropping a downright horrific loss to Green Bay this past Sunday, the Bears slipped out of the playoff race and now must win their final two games, with some help, to even make the playoffs. The Bears, losers of 5 of their last 6 games, are now on the verge of missing the playoffs for the 5th time in 6 seasons. Even with the shiny new toys on offense and all the promises of a high-octane offense that can produce consistently in the NFL, the Bears continue to lose games much like they have for most of the bad parts of Lovie Smith's tenure: by failing to score. The abysmal performance of the Bears' offense again against the Packers is proof positive that Smith's tenure as coach here is probably over.

It's not all on Lovie, because for one, he isn't calling the plays. But no matter which way you cut it, he's the man in charge. He goes in front of the media, week in and week out, promising that the Bears will turn it around, that this team is "right where they want to be," and yet each following Sunday the Bears come out and look woefully unprepared. Even the defense, Lovie's calling card, has regressed mightily in the last half of this season.

Teams come out and gear their game plan towards slowing the Bears down with underneath passes, whether it's a quick out pattern, a hitch, or my favorite, the slant route. The design of this is smart against the Bears defense for various reasons. First, it neutralizes the Bears' pass rush, which is the foundation of Lovie's entire defensive scheme. Without a pass rush, the Bears simply do not have the scheme to defend against quick passing routes. The entire Bears defense is premised on getting to the quarterback and forcing bad throws or incompletions, and using that opportunity to force turnovers. The second reason this strategy by opposing teams is smart is because it strings along longer drives, leaving the defense on the field and both opening up the rest of the field when the defense cheats and tiring out the defense later in the game. And third, this strategy is smart because Lovie will NEVER adjust to it.

Does Lovie have any answers?
The look of lack of preparation from this team is startling. I'm starting to think that the reason the Bears ever put great stretches of play together was because of veteran leadership on the team. Now, I understand that Lovie isn't all that bad, and the players love playing for him, but this guy is getting $5 million a year to make the playoffs and try to win a Super Bowl for the Bears. After this season, he'll have failed to make the playoffs 5 out of the last 6 years, and with all the hype surrounding this year's team in particular, that just isn't acceptable. And really - does Lovie even inspire any confidence in anyone anymore? He's 14-47 as Bears coach while trailing at halftime. Read that again - his success rate of getting his team to come back and win a game in the second half is less than 25%. Are you kidding me?!

Like the Illinois basketball search last year, we're in a position where some people feel bad because Lovie is a nice guy and the players love him. That's all well and good, and I find it admirable that Lovie garners so much respect for the guys who play for him, but in all honesty, where has that gotten the Bears? They're a franchise with an incredibly rich history of success. They can't settle for this kind of mediocrity, especially when they watch other historic franchises like Green Bay, New England, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco have great success.

I appreciate the culture Lovie has created. This team's identity, regardless of all the preseason posturing about the offense, is and will always be defensive-minded under Lovie. He fosters an environment of veteran leadership and makes everything about turnovers. But that same culture has led to a severe deficiency on offense. He's gone through coordinators, helped push for more talent on offense, and yet none of it has worked. Mike Tice, his current coordinator, is such an awful playcaller that it's plainly obvious in every game that he's never done it before. Lovie is the guy who promoted him.

Here's the thing though - if they fire him, who do they hire? The Bears have never been an organization to go after the big name, or even think outside the box. The mere fact that the organization has struggled with leadership from the top on down is one major reason that in recent decades the Bears have not sustained any success. They need to nail this. Go after an offensive minded coach, or a defensive guy with the wherewithal to make a good hire for his offensive coordinator. Either way, Phil Emery - the ball's in your court. Show Bears fans, an unbelievably loyal bunch, that the entire organization is committed to winning right now.

It'll be interesting to see how the season plays out. You have to think that this team will play hard for him to try and save his job, but even if they win out, they need help from other teams to make the playoffs. The offense shows no signs of improving, as Jay Cutler gets pummeled on a consistent basis and still has those moments (like the Devin Hester interception Sunday) where he throws one of those interceptions that just leaves you shaking your head. Brandon Marshall is having the best Bears' receiving season ever, but the rest of the receiving corps is embarrassing. Earl Bennett has been hurt all year, Hester either can't catch or is hurt, and Alshon Jeffery seems to have some rough luck with the officials and offensive pass interference. It's actually crazy how much this team misses Johnny Knox; he would open up the field so much more and give the Bears a viable speed option besides Hester. Matt Forte doesn't have nearly the role in this offense as he should, and the offensive line is, well, not good.

I think we'll get one or two things Sunday. The Bears will either come out and dominate an up and down Cardinals team, or they'll battle neck and neck in an ugly game between two bad offenses. I think either way, the Bears will win. Then maybe they'll win again against the Lions, and hey, they may even make the playoffs with some luck. But the way things are going now, they just don't have it together to go anywhere. Lovie Smith's tenure seems to be nearing its end; the only question now is when.