Coaches rarely will admit publicly what they'll concede privately, that sometimes the best scenario is for a team to win now -- and get good later. That's where the Chicago Bears are now. They're not particularly good yet, not after losing two straight and having to cling to victory at home over the historically awful New York Giants.
The takeaway from beating the Giants is that the Bears won. That's it. On a night (Thursday) when essentially nobody in his right mind wants to play an NFL game, the Bears survived to reach 4-2. They botched an early fourth down on a drive that should have yielded either a field goal or touchdown, they stopped their own momentum numerous times by failing to convert third downs, they allowed the Giants' Brandon Jacobs to look as if he'd bathed pregame in the fountain of youth. They let the Giants hang around way too long and get within one dropped pass from 1st-and-10 at the Bears 15 with plenty of time left to steal a win. The Bears did a lot of things really good teams don't do.
But the Bears also did the things you have to do, in the meantime, to win, like not commit a turnover or allow a single sack and win the turnover battle, 3-0. And a guy who wants desperately to lead rather boldly led the way.
It didn't look like Brandon Marshall was going to lead anything when he dropped that fourth-and-1 pass on the Bears' first offensive series after Zack Bowman's interception set the Bears up for what really good teams consider an easy score. Marshall, as he came back to the bench, even asked Jay Cutler if catching that pass would have equaled a touchdown, and Cutler truthfully answered that not only was there no touchdown to be scored on that pass, there probably was not a first down in it either. It made Marshall feel marginally better, though he admitted afterward, "It sucks when it starts that way."
But that was Marshall's only real miscue of the night. Cutler threw to him 10 times and completed nine of them for 87 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The thing I liked most about Marshall afterward -- actually it was Marshall and Cutler -- was his unflinching honesty about where this team is six games into the season. Marshall and Cutler don't spin it or sugarcoat it or give you any Belichickian double-speak. Plenty of folks felt Marshall was out of line or on the verge of stirring up trouble, selfishly, a week ago when the Bears lost to the Saints and Marshall was a nonfactor.
Now that's a realistic forecast. I asked Marshall how long, reasonably, before the offense is well-oiled and consistently formidable, the kind of thing you see from the teams who are a real threat in the NFL these days, and he said, "Years ... You look at Drew Brees and his guys, and they've been together seven, eight years ... To get to where we want I think it's going to take some time ..."
I had something more like "first of November" in mind, but Marshall wasn't offering up any easy answers. "We're a young offense still building chemistry," is what he said. "We still left a lot out there ... Whenever we can get a win while getting better it's always great."
Cutler was even more succinct when he said, "We won the game but you kinda leave unsatisfied."
I'm sure a lot of folks will be disappointed in that answer, but the brutal honesty Marshall and Cutler (and Marc Trestman to a degree) offered up immediately afterward could go further toward helping the Bears than a bunch of self-congratulatory nonsense. Cutler wasn't serving up some phony timetable either.
"As long as we're getting better, I don't think we need a timetable," is what he said.
Truth is, the Bears put themselves in pretty good position by simply beating the bad teams on their schedule while trying to build a consistently potent offense, and no, we're not talking about in seven or eight years. So far, they've beaten one good team (the Bengals), two awful teams (Giants and Steelers) and one simply bad team (Vikings) while losing to a good team (Lions) and a potentially great team (Saints). The Bears aren't good enough -- not yet -- to beat the good teams, though their next opponent, the 1-3 Redskins, don't qualify as that anyway.
Yes, eventually, they'll need to, and to do so they're probably going to have to rely, defensively, on actually stopping teams from driving 80 yards and not relying exclusively on takeaways, though Bowman and Tim Jennings seemed to be baiting Eli Manning early on, like he was some third-string clipboard-holder standing in for the starter. Manning has never looked this bad, not even as a rookie. He's six weeks into a nightmare that seems like it could have one hellaciously long run. Though there's little doubt Giants tight end Brandon Myers should have caught that pass late in the fourth quarter (which would have set up the Giants with a first down at the Bears 15), Manning afterward did what lavishly paid quarterbacks with multiple Super Bowl rings ought to do: He took the rap.
Asked how his teammates have reacted to his poor play -- Manning has thrown 15 picks already this year, his final total for last season -- he said, "They've been supportive. I think they know and hope I'm going to bounce out of it, or that I'm going to make the plays and do the things I need to do. I told them I'm going to get better these past few weeks, and I'm going to start making the plays that I need to make. Obviously, I need to start doing that."
So, the Bears should briefly give thanks and go into what amounts to a bye weekend feeling that being a really good team is within their sights, but not in their grasp at the moment. "Work in progress" is the phrase you keep hearing, from Trestman, from Cutler, from Marshall. And to be honest, the pressure is going to be largely on those three, plus Matt Forte and Alshon Jeffery, to deliver as the season passes the halfway point if the Bears are going to beat any really good teams (the Packers come to mind).
Cutler knows this. "We're getting to a point [in the NFL] where 21 points sometimes isn't going to cut it in this league. You have to put up 30, sometimes more. There are definitely games you know it's going to be 21-14, 21-10, 14-10 ... but I think that's going to be more of a rarity than it's been ... I don't think anybody in this league is where they want to be ... at this point ... it's too early in the year. You want to be playing your best football in November and December and make a run. That's when we've got to be better ... There's still a lot of work to be done."