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Monday, December 21, 2009
Quitting by degrees?

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

To give up or resign; let go; relinquish.

The definition of "quit" has a lot of wiggle room, particularly in sports and especially in football, in which an extraordinary amount of effort and passion, in addition to talent, is required to compete.

Teams have been accused of quitting on their coaches, coaches of losing their teams. At the end of most pro coaching tenures, one of the two possibilities is mentioned, though both sides are highly offended at the very notion, of course.

Are there, however, different degrees of quitting? And how do the 5-9 Bears fit into that rather broad characterization?

Lovie Smith
Lovie Smith danced back and forth on Monday between differing concepts as to why his team is performing so poorly.

On a day at Halas Hall in which the anxiety was palpable, it was clear that in a dysfunctional franchise, everything is uncertain. By defending the talent of the team as Bears general manager Jerry Angelo did Sunday, it could be interpreted that he was indicting head coach Lovie Smith and his staff for failing to lead these terrific players to better results.

Smith also danced back and forth Monday between the concept of mental mistakes (his fault), physical mistakes (his players' fault) and really inexplicable physical mistakes (Angelo's fault or, in Jay Cutler's case, Jay Cutler's fault).

To wit:

"We haven't made plays is what we haven't done," Smith said. (Players' fault.)

"The guys have showed up," Smith said. "I think they're willing and they're trying. ... We've talked about the core of our players and what they bring to the table and what we're trying to get accomplished. For whatever reason, we haven't." (Angelo's fault.)

"There's no excuse for making mistakes, I'll say that," Smith said. "And I can't say there's been a lot of mistakes being made. There have been some. We've been in position, times when we haven't made plays. I'm going to say it's more of us not making plays than a lot of mistakes that are causing some of these things." (Players' and Angelo's fault, we think.)

Brian Billick, the former Ravens' coach who provided color commentary on Sunday's broadcast, said in an interview on the "Waddle & Silvy" show Monday morning, that he has never seen a player or team flat-out quit in an NFL game, but that there's quitting and there is, well, quitting.

"In order to compete in the National Football League, you have to show up every Sunday with an absolute premium on passion, focus and intensity," Billick explained. "If not, you're not going to play well and you're going to play as though you quit. It's one thing to say a player quit. It's different to say maybe he didn't come into game with the prerequisite passion, intensity and focus."

In other words, was Cutler passionate enough when he threw one pass 30 feet out of bounds, Sunday? Did any of the Bears on the field have the proper intensity when they failed to score with a first-and-goal from the Raven's 4-yard line? Did the coaching staff have sufficient focus when they called for the Greg Olsen fade route on the fourth-down pass that failed from the 1-yard line?

Patriots wide receiver Randy Moss was accused of quitting recently by -- of all people -- two opponents and in -- of all situations -- a New England victory. But in the case of Moss, held to one catch for 16 yards that ended with a fumble, he and his team are obviously easy targets and suddenly vulnerable to taking shots from those who have been lining up for years at the chance.

In the case of the Bears, accusing this team of quitting is almost giving them an easy out, a better option than the alternative, which is simply that they are a very bad football team that has lost more games by 20 or more points (four so far) than any Bears team since 1997, when the Dave Wannstedt-coached club suffered the indignity five times.

More disappointing, Smith said, have been the games the Bears have lost by close margins.

"Those teams [that won by 20 or more points] were better than us that day," he said in an odd bit of rationale a coach could only find comforting in a season like this one.

With the Minnesota Vikings looming this Monday at Soldier Field, a team that drubbed the Bears 36-10 at home three weeks ago, even a full complement of passion, focus and intensity may not be enough. For the Vikings, home-field advantage in the playoffs is at stake, and after a 26-7 shellacking at Carolina, a measure of their own passion may be necessary.

"If we don't play better [against the Vikings]," said Alex Brown, "we're going to get embarrassed [in front of] a lot of people Monday night. So that's the reality of this season, I guess."

Brown cited two consecutive defensive plays against the Ravens' Ray Rice in which the same call yielded 28 yards followed by one yard.

"I think that summed it up," Brown said. "You just need everybody to do their job, that's it. Do their job and put a lot of heart and effort, and we can get that done. But we've been so inconsistent this year and that's the problem."

Brown contends, as most athletes would, that all errors are physical, or else players wouldn't be in the NFL.

"I think a season like this kind of wears on you, but I believe once you get on the field, it's not mental," he said. "You've got to be able to go and play. We're professional, this is what we do. You have to put past play aside and go out and do it again and play well."

Teammate Rashied Davis agreed to an extent.

"We're professional athletes," he said. "We don't quit. We play as hard as we can. We don't always execute as well as we should, but we always play hard."

And yet, he also allowed for emotions to enter in at a time like this.

"There could be times when somebody could be frustrated," he said. "I could see that happening. Someone is frustrated or tired or disappointed at something. I could possibly see that affecting them. Or something could be going on at home, just like anyone. We're human."

Unfortunately, only the good teams are superhuman.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com