The month of December, along with the Dallas Cowboys, has defined "collapse" the past two seasons.
But Dallas finds itself in an advantageous position at 7-5 with the NFC East title in its sights. And on Monday night, the Cowboys will face a 6-6 Chicago Bears team with rapidly fleeting postseason aspirations.
ESPN.com Chicago Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Cowboys reporter Todd Archer break down the matchup.
Michael C. Wright: What’s the real deal with this whole Jeremiah (I know you guys call him Jay) Ratliff situation? Based on Jerry Jones’ remarks from his radio show, there seems to be a little underlying tension there, and Ratliff has been really reluctant to go too far into detail about went wrong out there.
Todd Archer: There’s some inside the organization who feel they were duped by Ratliff when he said that he could not play football this year because of his health. There’s a lot of "he said, he said" stuff going on. When he underwent surgery last year for the sports hernia, the Cowboys did not place him on injured reserve hoping he could return for a playoff run that ultimately never happened. After he was cut, his agent, Mark Slough, said the injury was far more severe than a sports hernia and he would need a year to recover. It seems like a dubious claim because the Cowboys never put him on IR last December, restructured his contract in the offseason in a way that made cutting him more costly, did not draft a defensive lineman or go after anybody in free agency. If the team felt Ratliff needed 12 months to recover, would it have done any of those things? I know Jerry Jones isn’t considered the best general manager, but even he would have done some things differently. Ratliff was always something of a loner here. He always felt trouble lurked around every corner. He was not very trusting of anybody. But the Cowboys and Jerry could have avoided this deal by just cutting him after he got in the owner’s face in the locker room after a game. At that point they could have claimed “conduct detrimental to the team,” and gotten some money back. Now they’re really kind of stuck.
Since you asked about Jeremiah Ratliff, let me repay the favor. What are the Bears' expectations for Ratliff? Seems like a lot of former Cowboys have not had much success up there after leaving here.
Wright: Boy, you’re absolutely correct about the former Cowboys coming to Chicago (I’ll point out however, that Martellus Bennett has been a good addition). But Ratliff’s situation here could turn out to be different. The Bears went into the situation the right way: with no expectations. In fact, when the club first signed Ratliff, the move was such a low-risk acquisition (no picks given up, low salary) the Bears were prepared for the possibility the defensive tackle would have been unable to play this season. The Bears had already lost defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins for the year, and they’ve had to learn to utilize the little depth they have and switch players to other positions just to survive the majority of this season. So when they signed Ratliff, they weren’t looking for him to come in and be a savior. They also made it a point to exercise extreme patience with Ratliff in his recovery. Ratliff played just 23 snaps last week in his Bears debut, and the only expectation the team has for him moving forward is to be able to handle a slightly increased workload. Ratliff went from being someone the Cowboys depended heavily on to just a guy in Chicago.
The Cowboys haven’t run the ball especially well, and the Bears can’t stop the run. Something has to give here. What does Dallas need to do to get the run game popping against Chicago’s porous run D?
Archer: The running game has been better here the last couple of games. Not great by any stretch but better. Losing Lance Dunbar hurts because he brought a change of pace from DeMarco Murray. But this is Murray’s running game. He is the workhorse and will get even more work now. The Cowboys run better out of three-wide receiver sets when teams go to their nickel defense. They need to spread the Bears out. The Cowboys don’t have an overpowering-type line or scheme. It’s more built on zone schemes and finding creases. Dunbar was good at finding creases. Murray takes a little more time to hit them. The commitment to the run from coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Bill Callahan sometimes wanes, especially on the road if things don’t go well early. With the cold weather and I’m guessing windy conditions, then Murray will have to be a huge factor.
Josh McCown has done a nice job, but what have the Bears missed in not having Jay Cutler and what's the sense you get on Cutler being a long-term answer?
Wright: The Bears miss two things without Cutler in the lineup: that cannon of an arm, and his gunslinger mentality. McCown has been productive and efficient, and has moved Chicago’s offense well. But you can see in games there are throws McCown doesn’t make as well as Cutler, throws he won’t even try. I think that’s part of the reason that although the Bears are averaging more yards with McCown at quarterback than Cutler, the club is also averaging fewer points. McCown simply doesn’t take chances, which has translated into a high quarterback rating (103.6). Cutler, meanwhile, is a lot like Tony Romo in that he’ll gamble on occasion, and a part of that is he’s confident in his arm. But Cutler also possesses uncanny chemistry with his receivers to where he can go off script on occasion and still make big plays.
Now I’m still not sure about whether the team views Cutler as the long-term answer. After eight years in the NFL, you are what you are. That’s not to say Cutler isn’t a good quarterback. He is. But the financial resources the Bears would have to sink into him to keep him around, in my mind, don’t match up with the production. Cutler owns an 84.4 career passer rating, and he’s thrown 149 touchdowns to 108 interceptions. I’m not sure that’s worth $16 million-plus per year. General manager Phil Emery doesn’t seem to be inclined to use the franchise tag on Cutler. So it’ll be interesting to see whether the sides can come to a long-term agreement that’s acceptable to both parties.
With Dallas eyeing a potential division title, Romo seems to be catching a lot of flak about his record during games in December. How much of it is on Romo, and how much does the rest of the team have to do with the quarterback’s struggles during the month of December?
Archer: Some of it is on Romo, but more of it is on the rest of the team. Would you be surprised if I told you Romo has 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions in 15 December/January regular-season games since 2009? Or that he has seven 300-yard games? Or 10 games with a passer rating of better than 100? He has two four-touchdown games -- with no picks -- and the Cowboys have lost them both. Ultimately, however, the record falls on the quarterback. Overall he is 11-15 in December and 7-8 since 2009. He has put the Cowboys in position to compete for the playoffs the past two seasons and lost in Week 17 both times. Without Romo the Cowboys are not sniffing playoff contention. I can’t say he has to play better because 28 TDs and seven picks are pretty ridiculous, but he has to play better. The defense is something of a mess, even with Sean Lee returning and guys getting healthy. The run game is still hit or miss. If the Cowboys do make it to the playoffs, it will be because of Romo and the passing game.
I can see what kind of a difference Rod Marinelli has made here. How much have the Bears missed their former defensive coordinator?
Wright: Tons. On the same day Marc Trestman was first introduced as the new head coach, all the assistants from the old staff were holed up in their offices at Halas Hall awaiting their fates as Trestman spoke to the media. The new head coach knew it was imperative to bring back Marinelli, which is why he tried to convince him to come back as soon as the news conference was over. But out of loyalty to former coach and close friend Lovie Smith, Marinelli declined the offer. The Bears have struggled ever since. Obviously, the team’s rash of injuries is the most significant factor in the defense’s slide. But Marinelli was revered among Chicago’s players. They’d run through a wall for him. Marinelli is an excellent motivator and nobody knows Chicago’s scheme better. His attention to detail, and the ability to relay the importance of those small details to the players, is what the Bears miss. Marinelli liked to break down players and make them focus on every single nuance from a technical standpoint. Marinelli was also a master of simplifying the most complicated aspects of a scheme or game plan for players. In fact, I think second-year defensive end Shea McClellin would be blossoming right now the way Corey Wootton is had Marinelli stayed.