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Monday, November 16, 2009
Bears find new ways to falter

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

And now, boys and girls, we're going to discuss the most common reason the Bears think they've been losing games this season.

Ready?

They've been shooting themselves in the foot. Feet?

As a cliché, it ranks right up there. It certainly sounds painful, which anyone who has watched the Bears lately would agree is appropriate. It's self-mutilating, which again, given the circumstances, is not necessarily a bad sentiment.

But what does this mean, exactly?

A quick Google Search -- how can you not love Google? -- shows that there is some disagreement over the origin of shooting oneself in the foot. Yahoo! Answers actually put it to a vote and the winner suggested the phrase came from "soldiers not wanting to fight in the war, so they would literally shoot themselves in the foot to cause a non-life-threatening injury and escape active duty."

"Cowardly, you must agree," the writer submitted.

But one of the runners-up suggested that "in Britain, 'shooting oneself in the foot' means meaning to harm another but accidentally harming yourself ... the phrase is used in Britain to imply accidental self-harm."

In other words, the gun goes off in the holster.

When the Bears speak of this, and they speak of it often, I suspect they mean something closer to the second definition. They don't intend to line up in the neutral zone. They accidentally throw interceptions and have only the best intentions when they miss a block or a tackle, blow a route or pass coverage.

Escaping active duty is not something that fits anyone, except possibly Tommie Harris. OK, cheap shot.

Let's look at a few examples to which I believe they're referring.

PENALTIES

In his Sun-Times blog, Bears beat writer Brad Biggs did some impressive legwork on the team's penalties that is both revealing and, more importantly, spared me the five or six hours it must have taken to break it all down.

The Bears are sixth-worst in the NFL with penalty yards per game (509 total) and seventh-worst in total penalties (61 in all) going into Monday night's game between Baltimore and Cleveland. According to Biggs' count, the Bears are on pace to match their penalty average under Lovie Smith, which means their feet should more closely resemble Swiss cheese.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in analyzing the Packers' penalty problems, found there is a much stronger correlation between offensive penalties and a team's record than defensive and special-teams penalties. To that end, the Bears' offense has committed 30 of their 61 penalties, including 15 false starts. Seventeen of those 30 were committed by offensive linemen (compared to 12 by the defensive front four). They've had 12 offensive holding calls.

A good team that just makes dumb mistakes? Or a bad team because they make dumb mistakes?

EXECUTION

All in favor, say, "aye." Sorry, couldn't resist.

But this is another popular foot-shooting example. "We just need to execute better," the Bears say, as if it's a teeny-tiny formality.

I could be wrong, but is execution not at the heart of everything a football team does? Not executing properly in football is like a baseball player saying, "If only we could hit and pitch well, we'd be great."

The Bears speak of not staying in their gaps on defense, which might be perhaps the single most important fundamental next to tackling, and they haven't done that particularly well either this season.

The offensive line has had trouble holding their blocks. Although Smith said it's unfair to blame sacks solely on the offensive line and interceptions solely on the quarterback, I'm still going to take that chance and offer the Bears' 19 sacks allowed (15th in the NFL) as a general indictment on execution.

TURNOVERS

The Bears' turnover ratio of minus-5 is 27th in the league, and although Jay Cutler's 17 INTs is four more than second-place Jake Delhomme (and is largely responsible for the poor turnover ratio), Smith's defense has forced only 13 fumbles and recovered six (15th in the league). The Bears' nine interceptions are a little more encouraging (12th in the league), but the Bears are tied for 25th in the league in passes defended with 40.

RED ZONE INEFFICIENCY

Shooting themselves in the foot doesn't seem to quite fit here. The cynics among us would say it's more like Cutler would have shot the Bears in the foot but he missed.

The Bears have made 31 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line, compared to 29 after nine games last season. In the red zone, they have 22 scores (13 touchdowns, nine field goals) as opposed to 26 last season (17 touchdowns, nine field goals). They have six turnovers, two on downs in the red zone, compared to one last year and two on downs.

All of this might not be so alarming unless you consider the Bears were a less-than-stellar 5-4 after nine games in 2008 and finished the season 9-7 and out of the playoffs. For the 4-5 Bears to finish 9-7 this season and still, in all likelihood, find themselves out of the playoff picture, they will have to win five of their last seven.

Assuming they can beat St. Louis, Baltimore and Detroit is a mighty brave assumption given the past five weeks. A braver assumption is imagining this Bears team adding two more against the likes of Philadelphia, Minnesota and Green Bay.

And that's to finish 9-7 and likely out of the playoffs.

So what makes them believe they can still win and still contend?

"It's because of the way we lose games. It's not like teams are just dominating us," Devin Hester said, conveniently forgetting about Cincinnati and Arizona. "This last week, we lost by what, four points? And we were in the red zone like three, four times. If you count half of those red zones as touchdowns, we win the ballgame.

"So it's not like we don't have any hope or every team is outplaying us because we're always in the game. It's just two or three penalties or mistakes we make cost us the games. That's the toughest part of this situation and that's why we walk around and still have faith. We're killing ourselves."

If he puts it that way, shooting themselves in the foot doesn't sound all that bad.