CHICAGO — Coming off last season’s second-half collapse, the Bears are flirting with another implosion — one that could have franchise-altering consequences.
They lost for the third time in four games Sunday and failed to beat yet another playoff contender as the Seahawks rallied for a 23-17 overtime win that put a hush over Soldier Field.
There was a simple explanation for the Bears’ demise last season — Jay Cutler broke his thumb in Week 11 and Chicago’s playoff chances basically departed along with him. The Bears lost five games in a row with Cutler out, missed the postseason for the fourth time in the last five seasons and GM Jerry Angelo was fired, in part, because he failed to put an adequate backup quarterback on the roster.
Who will take the blame if the Bears have another meltdown?
Following Sunday’s loss to the Seahawks — a game in which the Bears squandered a four-point fourth-quarter lead and wilted defensively in overtime — head coach Lovie Smith pointed the finger at himself.
“That hasn’t happened very often around here,” Smith said. “Terrible job I did getting our football team ready. I thought we were ready to go. Some decisions I made really hurt us early on.”
He did not wait for questions from reporters to address the decision he knew he was going to be asked about and criticized for — on a 4th-and-short play from Seattle’s 15-yard line early in the second quarter, Smith decided to run the ball with RB Michael Bush instead of bringing on the field-goal unit for a 32-yard try. Bush was stopped short of the first down, and all the Bears can do is wonder what the result would have been if PK Robbie Gould had the chance to attempt that 32-yarder.
“I should have taken the field goal in a game like that,” Smith said. “I feel like we had momentum. I wanted to really knock them out and get them on their heels a little bit. That was a big play in the game.”
Smith has been criticized much more often for being too conservative during the course of his career than for being overly aggressive, so it seemed out of character for him to pass on a chance at a field goal in that situation. It was also strange to hear him contradict himself during his postgame press conference. Two minutes after he said he should have tried the field goal, he said he would probably have made the same decision — to try to pick up the first down — if he had a chance to do it all over again.
QB Jay Cutler — who lost a game in which he had a passer rating of better than 100 for the first time Sunday — said teams have to “play smart” in those situations. He passed on a chance to state clearly that he thought it was the wrong decision.
“I’m not going to second-guess it,” he said.
Plenty of Bears fans (and Smith, I think) are second-guessing it, though.
At 8-4, the Bears still have the same record as their top competition for the NFC North title (the Packers) and would make the playoffs as a wild card if the season ended today. They also have put themselves in a position where the thought of them missing the playoffs is not all that hard to conceive. They play the only team they have defeated — the Vikings — since Nov. 4 next week, but the Packers, who have beaten the Bears the last five times they have played them, will be heading to Soldier Field after that and the Bears no longer have the cushion they enjoyed at the midway point of the season.
“This is a tough time,” Bears WR Brandon Marshall said. “This is the time where it’s easy to point fingers at people. The one thing about this organization, this team, this coaching staff, the players, we are going to come together through adversity. Through training camp and OTAs, little things that happen, I’ve been able to witness that. So that’s the promising thing for this moment right now.”
The Bears have to cling to fonder memories — the ones from training camp, OTAs and their 7-1 start — at this point because they are giving themselves more reason for doubt than to believe.
Smith was not in sugar-coating mode Sunday. He knows what is on the line for him in the next four weeks and knows what more outcomes like Sunday’s could bring. The Bears said when they hired GM Phil Emery in January that he would have to work with Smith for a year. That time will be up after the season, and failing to make the playoffs after a 7-1 start or failing to win a playoff game this year would leave Smith with a résumé that included a trip to the Super Bowl in the 2006 season and one playoff win in the six seasons since that ’06 campaign.
The Bears are hanging on, but they don’t hold the tight grasp on postseason positioning they once did. To Smith, his Bears didn’t look like a playoff team when they failed to convert on 4th-and-short in the second quarter or when Seahawks rookie QB Russell Wilson led Seattle on two touchdown drives — one of which stretched 97 yards — in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“If you’re going to win and be able to get in the playoffs and play good football this time of the season, you’ve got to be able to pick up a 4th-and-short like that,” Smith said.
The Bears, according to Smith, are not doing what good teams do, and we’re heading to Week 14. They did the things playoff-caliber teams earlier season, but the competition was not as tough, and it’s getting harder to remember those games.