Commentary

Clearing the air

The Bears won Sunday by sticking with what works -- the run game

Updated: October 2, 2011, 9:20 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- It was the Jay Cutler Show at Soldier Field as he proved that the Bears' longtime quarterback woes are definitely over … get me rewrite!

That's not how it went down at all. The new script was trashed once again, and the old stuff still sings, doesn't it?

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte was the first Bears' RB to rush for more than 200 yards since 1977.
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireMatt Forte was the first Bears RB to rush for more than 200 yards since 1977.

You watch a game like Sunday's 34-29 win over the Carolina Panthers, and you're instantly transported back to the Super Bowl season in 2006, only with a slightly worse defense and maybe a worse passing game.

What led the Bears to 2-2 at the first quarter mark? Not Mike Martz's whiz-bang passing game, that's for sure. It was special teams, a key turnover and a stout run game.

In some ways, the continuity is refreshing. But it's also a little frightening.

All it took to barely beat the 1-3 Panthers was Matt Forte's personal record 205 yards; Devin Hester's 142 yards on two returns, including a record-breaking 11th punt-return touchdown; a blocked field goal; a touchdown via tipped interception from D.J. Moore; some big second-half defensive stops; and one debatable offensive pass-interference penalty.

"It's probably any team's blueprint," Hester said with a wide smile.

Uh, sure. Just don't depend on that confluence of events coming together ever again.

"You need all the points," said Moore, who caught a pass tipped by Lance Briggs and ran it in from 20 yards out in the first quarter. "How many did we win by, five? You need all the points you can get."

Especially next Monday against Calvin Johnson and the 4-0 Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

With starting safety Chris Harris still out, the Panthers gained 543 yards, the most a Bears team had given up in nearly 30 years. Rookie phenom Cam Newton threw for 347, further cementing my argument that I'd take him over Cutler in a hot Hester minute.

But until a garbage-time touchdown, the Panthers scored only three points in the second half. A blocked field goal and a missed field goal by Olindo Mare sure helped. A pass-interference call on Jeremy Shockey that wiped out his go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter also was beneficial to the Bears' cause.

But some big plays aside, the Bears executed on third down, holding Carolina to 2-for-12 in that key situation, although the Panthers did convert a fourth down.

Linebacker Brian Urlacher said he would be angry when he watched the film, and so will his coordinator, Rod Marinelli, but as of Sunday afternoon, he was content. In his time with the Bears, he faced many questions about ugly wins.

"A win's a win," he said. "You can have all the yards you want. It doesn't matter. We won."

Conversely, that's true as well.

Cutler threw for 102 yards in a drastically scaled-down game plan that turned him from embattled gunslinger to surly late timeout caller.

Cutler had attempted 114 passes in his first three games -- that's 38 per Sunday. This time, he went 9-for-17, with one terrible pick and one sack -- which was all on right tackle Frank Omiyale, who was summarily pulled from the game. Cutler didn't attempt a pass in his lone series in the first quarter. Kyle Orton couldn't manage a game any better.

[+] EnlargeTBD
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireMatt Forte averaged 8.2 yards per a carry on 25 carries Sunday.

Although it doesn't look fair and balanced, it's unfair to complain about the offense's lack of balance after two weeks of ripping Martz for being pass-crazy.

Cutler shouldn't have to win every game by himself. But although you can complain about his lack of weapons, bad coaching and clumsy line, it's becoming evident that he's not going to turn into Chicago's version of Aaron Rodgers.

Something is missing, and whether that's on him, his coaching or his general manager's discount-bin style of talent allocation is immaterial right now. And anyway, it's probably a mix of all three coming together to form a vortex of confusion.

As it stands a quarter of the way through the season, the Bears might be better off with Jay Cutler playing like Jay Fiedler. The receivers don't mind.

"If the running game is working, why stop?" Hester said. "I think his first or second run was 50 or 60 yards. I'm with it. Whenever something's working, don't change it."

Bears coach Lovie Smith had been adamant since he stepped off the bus in Bourbonnais that the Bears would run the ball, and four games into the season, against an opponent ripe for a beating on the ground, he was finally right. Forte ran the ball 25 times, and Marion Barber got a taste in his first game with the Bears, getting five carries and a short-yardage touchdown in the fourth.

"Yeah, that was the plan," Smith said. "We don't just get out there and make up stuff."

Hold the laughter. He was being serious. Or maybe he was being funny. Who knows with Lovie? He's got a deadpan delivery to rival Steven Wright's.

I'll tell you what's funnier than a Judd Apatow movie: The Bears' hardball stance with the Forte negotiations. Somewhere upstairs, Papa Bear surely is smiling as he watches his family's nickels fall like manhole covers at the running back's feet.

"Matt is amazing," Moore said. "You got to put some change in his pocket, pretty much."

More than change. As ex-Bear Jerry Azumah likes to say, Forte is getting the "money that folds." The Bears still have the leverage thanks to a potential franchise tag, but Forte's value is certainly going up every week.

While Hester's big punt return was the moment of the game, especially his three somersaults to celebrate -- "I decided to do that around the 10-yard line," he said -- it was Forte's day to shine.

Forte had the biggest rushing game by a Bear since Walter Payton's franchise-record 275 in 1977, and he's tied with Payton and Gale Sayers for the second-best rushing game in Bears history.

"It reminded me of my senior year at Tulane, every weekend getting 200 yards," Forte said, crediting the much-maligned offensive line.

Through four games, he has 324 yards rushing and 310 receiving. The Bears have 1,231 net yards. You do the math while GM Jerry Angelo prepares to cut the check.

The Bears have no apologies to make for relying on what works. Let's hope they stick to the old script for a while. Like deep-dish pizza and skyscrapers, we know what works in Chicago.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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