Sunday, December 18, 2011
Bears left to wonder: What happened?
By Michael C. Wright
CHICAGO -- Chicago Bears receiver Devin Hester wrestled to pull on a white t-shirt in an attempt to make a quick exit from the Soldier Field locker room on the heels of a shocking 38-14 beating Sunday from the Seattle Seahawks.
For a quick two-count, Hester -- with his back turned -- paused to ponder where the team had been more than a month ago.
Coach Lovie Smith knew the loss of Jay Cutler was significant but not enough to lose four straight games. "We're better than that," he said.
"I never thought it would end like this," Hester said before correcting. "The season is not over yet. But I never thought we would be in the position we're in now."
Nobody in that somber locker room did. Riding a five-game winning streak from Oct. 16 to Nov. 20, the Bears held a 7-3 record, the No. 5 seed in the NFC wild-card standings, and controlled their own destiny for the postseason.
But in the club's last win, a 31-20 decision over the San Diego Chargers, quarterback Jay Cutler suffered a broken right thumb that more or less signified the beginning of the end for the team and its quest for a second consecutive berth in the postseason. The Bears won't make excuses for what's transpired: The rash of injuries, Caleb Hanie's inconsistent play in Cutler's place, or the distractions caused by Sam Hurd's recent arrest on federal drug charges.
But explanations for the slide seem as elusive as victories have been.
"It's tough, that's all you can say. We were 7-3, riding the high horse," receiver Roy Williams said. "We were doing everything on offense; running it, throwing it. We went from just doing almost whatever we wanted to these last four weeks. All of a sudden, you're 7-7 in the blink of an eye. The ball just hasn't bounced our way, and it's not just the quarterback. I had my potential tie, and other players [had opportunities to make plays]. I just don't know what's happened."
What hasn't occurred for the Bears -- at least yet -- is mathematical elimination from the playoffs. At 7-7, the Bears are tied with both the New York Giants and Seahawks, and the best mark they can attain is 9-7. Despite the teams having identical 7-7 records, the Bears sit behind the Seahawks at eighth in the NFC standings because the Seahawks own the head-to-head tiebreaker by virtue of Sunday's win. The Bears are ahead of the Giants based on conference records.
The Bears entered Sunday's contest a game behind the Detroit Lions (8-5) in the wild-card hunt. Even if Chicago found a way to defeat the Seahawks and Detroit lost, the Lions would still hold the tiebreaker because of the teams' division records (the Lions are 3-2 in the NFC North, and the Bears are 2-2).
So Chicago's remaining outings against divisional foes Green Bay and Minnesota and Detroit's last game with the Packers remain important for tie-breaking purposes. Basically, the Bears need to win their last two at Green Bay and Minnesota, and they need Detroit and Atlanta to lose out, and they need the Seahawks to lose one game for a shot at the postseason.
In addition, the Bears would need Detroit to lose both of its remaining games to edge the Lions in the conference-record tiebreaker. Even more scenarios come into play if the 9-5 Atlanta Falcons manage to lose their final two games.
"When Jay went down, I thought we were missing a key piece of our football team," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But if you look back we had some opportunities. To go on a four-game losing streak, no, that wasn't part of my mind set. We're better than that."
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher expressed frustration over what's looking more and more like a squandered opportunity, but refused to blame injuries or extenuating circumstances.
"Hell yeah, I'm mad," Urlacher said. "This is not our team. This is not how we're supposed to play. I don't know what happened to us. We'd been in all these football games with chances to win, pretty much all of them."
Asked what the team has left to play for, defensive end Julius Peppers said, "pride." But Peppers didn't want to revisit the team's 7-3 record, it's five-game winning streak, or how its fortunes have gradually dwindled.
"That's gone. We were in a good position several weeks ago. Now we're not there," Peppers said. "So we're not concerned with what happened four or five weeks ago. We've got to be concerned with the present. Right now, we're just trying to see if we can get a win."