Sunday, October 23, 2011
Bears have work to do to be playoff team
By Michael C. Wright
Sunday's win put the Bears at 4-3, but Lovie Smith's team must improve if they hope to reach the playoffs.
LONDON -- Wisely, the players in the Chicago Bears locker room avoided making the obvious connections on Sunday after an absolute dog of a 24-18 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Nostalgia, déjà vu, the phrase “remember last year?” None hold a place with this team.
Yes, in 2010 the Bears entered the bye with a 4-3 record. Yes, they shored up protection issues during the week off, and corrected Mike Martz’s throw-it-all-over-the-yard mentality to reel off five consecutive wins on the way to winning an NFC North crown and a berth in the NFC title game.
“I don’t think we’re that same team,” Bears cornerback Charles Tillman said.
He’s absolutely correct, which isn’t necessarily a negative. By acknowledging and embracing it, Tillman and his teammates give themselves a shot at developing into what they want to be for the second part of a schedule that includes matchups with five teams – Philadelphia, Denver, Kansas City, Seattle, and Minnesota -- currently sitting at or below .500.
Because as optimistic as they were walking off the field at Wembley Stadium, the Bears aren’t far away from falling into the group referenced above.
In throwing two interceptions and finishing with a passer rating of 60.2, quarterback Jay Cutler reverted to old habits, launching balls off his back foot. The offensive line gave up just two sacks and four quarterback hits throughout the game. But because of inconsistent protection, the Buccaneers kept Cutler under constant duress.
Coming into the game, the Bears had converted 9 of 45 third downs through the first six games in situations they needed 8 yards or more to move the chains. Inconsistency on the money down nearly doomed this team in London.
The Bears converted only 1 of 5 third downs in the second half, with Cutler throwing away a third-quarter possession on an interception to Corey Lynch. On the verge of ruining another vintage performance by Matt Forte, who rushed for 145 yards in becoming the first player since 2004 to reach 1,000 yards from scrimmage in a team’s first seven games, the Bears finally came to life on offense in their second-to-last possession by gaining four first downs to close out the night on a Robbie Gould 25-yard field goal.
The Bears led by just three as the kick sailed through the uprights.
“We had a great first half, came out hot,” Cutler said. “Since the third quarter, things kind of went downhill for us. We know we’ve got to get back and clean up that stuff and finish games; put the defense in tough spots. We’ve just got to get better.”
After joking about seeing a “squirrel [on the field] and a streaker” receiver Roy Williams said “you can’t look up the road” at the rest of the schedule. That would be easy for this team to do because of the similarities between its current situation and last year’s when they went on to win seven of their next eight games after the week off.
“You look back, you see where you were last year, and you think about it,” receiver Johnny Knox said. “We’re in that same position.”
But the truth is this isn’t that same team.
“I think we know that. We’re not walking around here thinking we’re the same team as last year,” said Tillman, who led the team with 10 tackles. “No, no, no. You can’t keep living off of last year’s success. We’ve got to make our own destiny.”
With gray stalls and low ceilings surrounding them in the bowels of an emptying Wembley Stadium, the players continued to say much of the same. Strangely, though, it didn’t sound like the tired company spiel spoon-fed by Smith.
It came off as sincere, which obviously, is never a bad thing.
“Tonight wasn’t our best night,” center Roberto Garza said. “But you’ve got to win the ugly games.”
You’ve got to acknowledge the ugly truth, too. Aside from the record after seven games, some players and the coaches, this year’s Chicago Bears aren’t on the same level as the 2010 NFC North champions.
By understanding that, perhaps it gives the Bears a real chance of becoming even better.