After a disheartening defeat to the Green Bay Packers in a nationally televised game last Sunday, the Chicago Bears found themselves plummeting to depths of incompetence not witnessed at Halas Hall for more than a decade.
When analyzing the Bears’ offensive performance, excuses are in short supply. Their roster boasts an array of offensive talent, featuring a quarterback of Jay Cutler’s caliber, known for his ability to execute a wide range of passes.
In addition, the offensive arsenal includes a selection of potent weapons, such as Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, and a formidable presence in the middle of the field with tight end Martellus Bennett.
On the defensive front, the situation appears to be in complete disarray. Their inability to prevent opponents from amassing significant point totals has created a daunting challenge, especially in crucial contests.
The foremost question currently plaguing the Bears organization revolves around the origins of their predicament. Is it the result of Mark Trestman’s tenure as head coach, or does the responsibility lie with defensive coordinator Mel Tucker?
It’s seldom a straightforward matter when addressing such a substantial issue. Nevertheless, I contend that accountability must begin at the highest echelons of leadership.
This brings us to Phil Emery, the general manager who assumed the role in January 2012, succeeding Jerry Angelo.
In 2012, the Chicago Bears wrapped up the season with a commendable 10-6 record, typically enough to secure a playoff berth and, in certain instances, divisional glory.
However, despite the respectable record, they missed the playoffs, and a bitter pill to swallow was the pair of losses to their arch-nemesis, the Packers, within the same year.
It was during this time that the newly appointed GM, Phil Emery, began to make a series of contentious decisions, the repercussions of which are now unfolding.
From my perspective, the initial blunder surfaced when they bid farewell to the much-beloved and highly-regarded head coach, Lovie Smith.
Under Smith’s leadership, the Chicago Bears predominantly focused on their defensive prowess, and while they weren’t exclusively an offensive juggernaut, they managed to clinch division titles and even reached a Super Bowl.
The allure of improving offensive football can be enticing, but not at the expense of a stalwart defense, an indispensable component in NFL victories.
Another monumental error in judgment was the decision to part ways with arguably one of the franchise’s most outstanding linebackers in its history, Brian Urlacher. Admittedly, Urlacher exhibited signs of declining physical prowess – he wasn’t as fleet-footed or athletically gifted as before.
Nonetheless, his true value lay in the aura of leadership he brought to the team. It’s in those pivotal moments during a game, where strategic and sagacious moves are required to halt a downward spiral, that the absence of leadership becomes glaringly evident.
Every team experiences bouts of subpar play from time to time, but when subpar play snowballs into a series of correctable blunders, it is emblematic of a dearth of effective leadership.
Last week, in a contest against the Packers, a solitary play epitomized this deficiency in leadership—an encapsulation of the systemic issues that could even be discerned from an external vantage point through game footage.
During the second quarter, on a third-and-long scenario, the Chicago defense displayed a pre-snap blitz formation, intending to apply pressure to Aaron Rodgers.
However, as the tight end shifted into motion and the safety shadowed his movement (outlined in a circle), with both linebackers assuming blitz positions, Aaron Rodgers astutely recognized the impending blitz and audibled.
In reaction to Aaron’s audible, linebacker Lance Briggs made a valiant effort to alter the defensive call, swiveling around to relay the message to the other coverage players.
In a critical turn of events, Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson found himself sprinting unchallenged into the secondary, capitalizing on a defensive misstep, which transformed into an uncontested touchdown.
Evidently, multiple players on the Bears defense exhibited uncertainty regarding their assigned coverage, highlighting a disconcerting lack of synchronization (as shown below).
During an interview with the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday, Bears linebacker Lance Briggs admitted, “I shouldn’t have audibled. I saw an opportunity to change our defensive play call, but there was no provision for such a change, and I inadvertently jeopardized our defense on that particular play.”
Once again, this incident was just a single occurrence, but it underscores the critical communication lapses that could be resolved with enhanced on-field leadership.
I can confidently assert that, had Brian Urlacher been at the heart of the defense on that fateful night against the Packers, such a significant blunder would likely have been averted, and the Bears’ performance might have been markedly different.
The ultimate and most damning misstep made by Emery was extending Jay Cutler’s contract to a 7-year, $126 million deal, with approximately $55 million guaranteed.
This was a substantial financial commitment to a player who had yet to perform at the level of an elite quarterback consistently.
This decision becomes especially perplexing when considering the apparent depletion of the defense, which will necessitate costly reconfiguration.
A more prudent approach would have been to secure Jay Cutler on a pay-as-you-go deal, particularly given that Marc Trestman had demonstrated in 2013 his capacity to elevate the performance of a seemingly “washed up” QB like Josh McCown.
McCown outshone Cutler during that season, throwing 13 touchdowns and only 1 interception, compared to Cutler’s 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
McCown also exhibited superior efficiency as a passer. While the sample size from that partial season might not have justified a long-term commitment to McCown, it aligns with the decision not to make a long-term commitment to the less consistent performer.
At the time of Cutler’s extension, he was not in a strong negotiating position, having been outperformed by his backup.
If the Bears had been willing to allocate $19 million to the quarterback position for the 2014 season, both McCown and Cutler could have been accommodated under that cap with shorter-term “prove it” contracts.
Under such conditions, the Bears could have preserved the flexibility to pursue a promising young quarterback, such as Marcus Mariota, while retaining McCown as a bridge and mentor. However, they are now committed to allocating nearly $19 million in cap space to Jay Cutler in 2014 alone.
Up to this point in the season, it has become increasingly evident that, despite the plethora of explosive offensive weapons at Jay Cutler’s disposal, he is not the solution. Few offenses can rival Chicago’s array of game-changing playmakers.
For the immediate future, the Bears and Jay Cutler are wedded, and this situation is unlikely to change.
Looking ahead, it appears that significant changes in the organization are imminent unless the team miraculously undergoes a complete transformation – a rarity in the ever-evolving landscape of the NFL.
So, what’s a practical way for the Bears to navigate out of this predicament, at least in the short term? Despite their array of passing talents, they must establish greater consistency in their running game, led by Matt Forte.
As demonstrated by the Dallas Cowboys, a potent running game can compensate for team deficiencies, such as an error-prone quarterback or an inconsistent defense. Having faced both Matt Forte and DeMarco Murray, I’d categorize both running backs in the same league.
If I were Marc Trestman and his offensive staff, I would sit down with Matt Forte and impress upon him the need for meticulous self-care, as he will likely be receiving 25 to 30 touches per game moving forward as the Bears strive to extricate themselves from this dire situation.
It’s conceivable that the forthcoming offseason may be a period of reevaluation and rebuilding for the Chicago Bears. Until then, they must prepare to “ice up” and weather the challenges ahead.