Biggs: 10 thoughts after Bears' loss to Packers
By Brad Biggs, Tribune reporter
10:11 a.m. CST, December 17, 2012
Ten thoughts after the Chicago Bears lost for the fifth time in six games Sunday, falling 21-13 to the Green Bay Packers and raising questions about the rest of this season and future of the organization.
1. Bears fans want a definitive answer for what lies ahead, but with two regular-season games remaining, it’s not easy.
With the Bears now 8-6, there still are a lot of variables in play. The Bears could finish anywhere from 10-6 and in the postseason to 8-8 and on the sidelines, which would be one of the biggest meltdowns since the NFL adopted the current 12-team playoff format in 1990.
Sports radio phone lines are jammed with callers demanding the firing of coach Lovie Smith, who no longer has a game plan to beat the rival Green Bay Packers. The Bears have lost six straight in the series and eight of the last nine after Smith began with such gusto. He talked when he was hired about beating Green Bay and did just that early on, with a 6-2 record against all-time Bears nemesis Brett Favre. Smith accomplished something Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt could never do: He mastered the Packers.
Lately, Smith has been befuddled by Green Bay and you never should underestimate the significance the McCaskey family puts on the rivalry. In an interview shortly after he began his current role, chairman of the board George McCaskey drove home the point without mentioning the Packers, who were coming off a Super Bowl title, by name.
“The Bears have more wins than any other team in NFL history,” McCaskey said. “But we do not have more championships than any other team. Our goal is to be tops in both categories, so when the defending Super Bowl champion is your arch-rival, your division rival, that is extra motivation. We want to get going on the 2011 season. We need to beat them twice. Three times, if necessary.”
Team president Ted Phillips made the decision to pair new general manager Phil Emery with Smith this year, instructing the new general manager he could do as he pleases after this season. Now, you wonder if Phillips’ mandate served only to set the club back while putting the Bears in a position where they wouldn’t have to pay Smith for two seasons not to coach the franchise. Is it fair to Emery, who might not get to hire more than one coach now as GM? It’s worth wondering. But first things first:
*Will Emery fire Smith if the Bears finish 10-6 and make the playoffs?
The Bears are in the wild-card mix along with the Vikings and three NFC East teams and it would be unusual for Smith to be sent packing if he reached the playoffs. However, Smith only has one year remaining on his contract and that is where it could get very challenging. No NFL team enters a season with a lame-duck coach because if it did, it would be a storyline on a weekly, if not daily, basis. But a one-and-out in the playoffs after a second-half collapse might make it tough for Emery to think it was a good idea for an extension, even if injuries did create problems.
*Will Emery fire Smith if the Bears finish 10-6 and don’t reach the playoffs?
It’s hard for 10-win teams to miss the playoffs and it’s more difficult for 10-win coaches to be canned. Smith doesn’t have a built-in excuse like last year when quarterback Jay Cutler missed the final six regular-season games with a broken thumb. Again, the contract status and the possibility of having a lame-duck coach further cloud the matter.
*Will Emery fire Smith if the Bears finish 9-7 or 8-8 and fail to reach the playoffs?
It would be very difficult for Emery to make a case to extend Smith and if he’s not going to do so, he’s got to move on. That would seem likely here.
*Will Smith be allowed to remain if he promises major changes on the offense and replaces coordinator Mike Tice?
Smith cannot have an infinite number of offensive hires. Tice is his third offensive coordinator in four seasons and fourth overall. Tony Dungy got three offensive coordinators when he was with the Buccaneers (and Smith was an assistant on his staff). Dungy went through three play-callers (Mike Shula, Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen) in his final three seasons in Tampa before he was forced out. Jon Gruden won a Super Bowl the following season. Before you suggest Gruden be the fix-it man here, I don’t see the Bears pursuing Gruden and I’m not sure the aging defense can play at a championship level this season, let alone next. Smith has struggled hiring offensive coordinators and they’ve struggled in turn because the personnel needs upgrades.
The Bears could be in a tough spot for the next few seasons if they opt for a tear-down approach a year after Phillips could have cleaned house in one fell swoop. A new coach is going to bring in new systems that do not necessarily mesh with players on an aging roster. You’re talking about a massive overhaul, the kind that would make it difficult to compete against Aaron Rodgers for the next several seasons and make defeating Green Bay an even bigger challenge. Answers will come soon.
2. Realistically, what are the Bears’ playoff chances? It’s a crowded mess. They have what looks to be the easiest remaining schedule, even though games against the Cardinals and Lions are on the road.
Here are the remaining schedules:
Redskins (8-6): at Eagles (4-1), vs. Cowboys (8-6)
Seahawks (9-5): vs. San Francisco (10-3-1), vs. Rams (6-7-1)
Vikings (8-6): at Texans (12-2), vs. Packers (10-4)
Bears (8-6): at Cardinals (5-9), at Lions (4-10)
Cowboys (8-6): vs. Saints (6-8), at Redskins (8-6)
Giants (8-6): at Ravens (9-5), vs. Eagles (4-10)
Rams (6-7-1): at Bucs (6-8), at Seahawks (9-5)
One of the NFC East teams is going to claim the division and another could be in the mix for the wild card. But the Redskins host the Cowboys in Week 17, so only one can finish with 10 victories. The Bears will be rooting for Dallas because they own a tiebreaker, having defeated the Cowboys in Week 4.
The Vikings’ schedule is treacherous. I simply don’t see them in the mix, but the way Adrian Peterson is running – he gained 212 yards in a win over the Rams on Sunday – you can’t write them off.
Who knows what to think of the defending Super Bowl champion Giants? They are reeling after a 34-0 loss at Atlanta but can get back on track this week against another reeling club, the Ravens, who were gashed at home Sunday by the Broncos.
According to Kevin Seifert over at ESPN.com’s NFC North blog, the easiest path for the Bears to reach the playoffs is winning out and having the Giants and Vikings each lose at least one game. That’s not totally far-fetched. Minnesota and New York both could lose this coming week.
None of the scenarios will matter one bit if the Bears cannot get back on track with a victory over the Cardinals.
3. Before dissecting more of this loss and where the franchise is at, let’s dive into a feel-good story. For months, Joe Anderson’s parents Joe Sr. and Audrey were on him about when he would fly them up to see a game. Anderson, who hails from Texarkana, Texas -- the same hometown of former Bears Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher -- spent 13 of the first 14 weeks of the season on the practice squad. He didn’t want his folks to come to Soldier Field to see him stand on the sideline in a sweatsuit.
So, when he got the news this past week that he was being promoted to the 53-man roster, the wide receiver called them and said, “Are you ready to come to a game?”
Joe Sr. and Audrey were at Soldier Field on Sunday when Anderson made his NFL debut with a pair of tackles on special teams, including a big hit on Packers kick returner Randall Cobb at the 11-yard line.
“It was really exciting,” Anderson said. “To God goes the glory.”
Here is what makes Anderson’s story interesting – he had a chance to go to the Eagles two weeks ago but turned down a chance to sign with their 53-man roster. Anderson, an undrafted free agent from Texas Southern who earned a deal after arriving as a tryout player for rookie minicamp, made the decision with no promises, assurances or even hints from the Bears that a promotion was coming his way.
That makes Anderson at least a little bit unusual. On the practice squad, he was earning $96,900 – or $5,700 per week. On the 53-man roster, he earns $390,000 – or $22,941 per week. The Eagles’ offer would have ensured him a minimum of three weeks on their 53-man roster, enough for a credited season, which means a bump in pay for 2013. But Anderson told the Eagles no and he told the Eagles no more than once.
“I don’t like anything being given to me easy,” Anderson said. “So, I wanted to prove myself. Whoever wanted me, they should have drafted me or picked me up. Lovie (Smith) and his staff gave me an opportunity with a tryout, brought me in and we went from there. And they’ve been loving me and taking care of me since I have been here so I am not just going to up and leave because someone else was interested. I said, ‘Hey, I’ll just continue to be patient and wait my turn here.’
“I went home and prayed about it and talked to my family about it and after I made my mind up that I wasn’t going to go anywhere, I came and told coach (Darryl Drake) about it. I said, ‘Look, a team wants to bring me up on its roster and play me, but I don’t want to accept it. I want to stay here and I don’t care if that means being on the practice squad for two years, I like it here.’ I’m loved here. You want to go somewhere where you are loved. I know the plays. I don’t want to go somewhere and have to start all over again.”
Anderson, who played at Texas High School with Patriots backup quarterback Ryan Mallett, admitted the money is a difference for him even if it wasn’t enough to sway him to head for an unsettled situation in Philadelphia. He has a 9-month-old son Brycen. He’s making nearly four times as much now that he’s no longer on the practice squad.
“That is a blessing,” Anderson said.
Smith doesn’t think it’s rare for a player to want to stick in place on a practice squad when greener opportunities – at least in terms of cash – are available elsewhere.
“Joe earned his way on,” Smith said. “He came in, didn’t know much about him at all. He’s a tough guy. Works hard. His primary role will be on special teams. That’s where he is.
“I think once a guy gets to a place and a situation he likes, I think he looks long term instead of a few more dollars and the short term. He knows that we like him. That’s why we moved him up. It’s not based on (the Eagles wanting him). Other teams are always looking on practice squads.”
4. Brandon Marshall wasn’t the first Bears player to call for accountability. Marshall said jobs should depend on it, but he was just talking about the offense. Center Olin Kreutz called for organization-wide accountability at the exact same point in the 2009 season after the Bears were whipped in Baltimore 31-7 in Week 15. I asked Kreutz what was wrong after the loss dropped the Bears to 5-9.
“There is a lot wrong with the whole organization, but it is not Lovie,” Kreutz said. “You can't concern yourself with their job, but you can't help but think about it. It has to be fixed from top to bottom. I have an idea (where it starts), but it's not my place to say.”
Those comments got Kreutz in an intense discussion with then general manager Jerry Angelo. The difference this time around is Smith is not nearly as secure as he was then, when a lockout was looming. Also, "the top," as Kreutz called it, has undergone significant turnover with only president Ted Phillips in the same position as three years ago.
“Everybody involved in offense should be held accountable, even if that means jobs,” Marshall said after Sunday’s game. “Everyone on offense should be held accountable. It’s been this way all year. There’s no excuse. We still have two games left. There’s still hope but at the same time, we need to be held accountable.
“It’s been the same way all year. It’s the same thing every single game. We need to be held accountable. What I have to do is try my best to keep it together and not let this affect me because it’s starting to affect me more than it should. I love this game. I’m very passionate about this game and right now it’s affecting me way too much. I’m trying my all to do my job.”
It will be interesting to see what Smith has to say about Marshall’s remarks when he conducts his Monday news conference. Smith is a part of “everybody” involved in the offense because, well, ultimately it’s his offense.
5. While there was a lot of focus on whether Alshon Jeffery could have weight issues when the Bears drafted him, football questions were based on whether the second-round draft pick from South Carolina would be able to get open in the NFL.
He’s a big receiver at 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, and he struggled getting open against the Packers with the exception of the 53-yard pass interference penalty called against safety Morgan Burnett. Jeffery wound up being called for offensive pass interference on three occasions, once in the end zone, negating a one-yard touchdown catch.
Questionable calls? Maybe. But when Jeffery sees how the officials are calling the game, he needs to adjust his game and not reach out to defenders. Every time it was cornerback Sam Shields. Jeffery creates natural leverage for himself on inside-breaking routes because of his frame. He can shield the defensive back from the ball. But working to get off the line of scrimmage, he lacks the quickness and explosiveness that’s needed. For him to become the kind of big-time playmaker the Bears hope he can become, he’s going to have to develop that part of his game. Or he’s going to have small windows and need to refine other tricks like the ones that failed him here.
“I ain’t gonna put it all on the ref,” Jeffery said. "I have to go back and watch the film. Just part of the game, just have to keep playing football and absorb and just block the officials out, it’s part of football.”
Jeffery said he thought Shields slipped on the touchdown pass but repeated that he would have to watch replays.
“I’m like 180 (pounds),” Shields said. “He’s a big guy. I just try to stand my ground. Keep covering him. Sometimes I played off just to avoid pushing off and things like that.”
Opponents have complained multiple times this season that Marshall was guilty of offensive pass interference but he’s been called only once for that infraction. Safety Charles Woodson, who missed the game as his recovery from a fractured collarbone continues, was thrilled with the calls Sunday.
"I'm very, very surprised, but also very happy that the defensive back got those calls, because we never get those calls,” Woodson said. “For blatant push-offs that those guys get away with, to have those called, that meant a lot to me.”
6. Six of the seven players designated by the Bears to be inactive Sunday were injured. The seventh, third quarterback Josh McCown, was perfectly healthy. But the Bears chose to have McCown in street clothes and running back Michael Bush in uniform even though Bush said he was “down” for the game with a rib injury.
It was worth asking Bush what the deal was because he was in uniform but wasn’t used in the third quarter when the Bears had two cracks from the Packers’ 1-yard line. Matt Forte was stuffed for no gain on second down and again on third down. That’s one of the critical roles the Bears signed Bush to fill: scoring from the goal line. But Forte, who never has excelled in short yardage, was called on and failed while Bush was in uniform on the sideline.
Here's my entire postgame chat with Bush:
Q: Were you OK to play?
MB: “I didn’t get in. I was down.”
Q: Then why did you have a uniform and not Josh McCown?
MB: “I don’t know. You are asking the wrong person. I was dressed. I was in uniform.”
Q: Do you have a broken rib?
MB: “No. It’s not broken.”
MB: “I’d rather not say.”
Q: When you have played you have been good in short yardage. Does that make this specific situation frustrating?
MB: “Yeah, but that wasn’t ... I don’t know what to tell you. I really can’t tell you too much.”
I asked McCown about the matter and he had no answers. McCown isn’t going to have success as a running back in that situation, but he was a healthy body.
7. Maybe more puzzling was the nonsensical decision by the Packers to attempt a fake punt return midway through the fourth quarter with a 21-10 lead. The Bears were accomplishing nothing on offense and desperate for a spark. Mike McCarthy’s decision gave them a bonfire.
The Packers elected to have Randall Cobb field the punt and lateral it across field to wide receiver Jeremy Ross. But Ross never caught the pass and Eric Weems batted it away from him so Anthony Walters could recover it at the Packers’ 16-yard line. It turned into a field goal and made it a one-score game.
The Bears knew something was up.
“We had an alert up,” special teamer Blake Costanzo said. “No. 10 is not usually out in the slot so we had an alert. We alerted it even before the kick. We had sniffed it out. Crazy call. I don’t understand it but the coach must have seen something and that is why he gets paid the big bucks.”
Weems said it was obvious something was up and that comes from film study and personnel review during the week.
“(Ross) never plays corner on punt return,” Weems said. “I have seen the film. They tried it against Detroit but he didn’t throw it, he called for a fair catch. So, I knew once 10 was out there, I knew they were trying something and I called an alert. I called the slot to be ready. Anthony Walters was ready.”
I haven’t personally seen a special teams decision this weird since Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg elected to kick off to start overtime in Champaign, Ill., in 2002. This was straight bizarre and the Packers are fortunate the Bears didn’t get a touchdown to make it even more interesting.
8. For a while you were waiting for Abbott or Costello to show up on the offensive line because the Bears pulled off a football version of “Who’s on First?” Jonathan Scott and Gabe Carimi played right tackle. Carimi and Chris Spencer played right guard. James Brown, Edwin Williams and Spencer took turns playing left guard. The only injury was to Scott, who ultimately could not finish the game with a hamstring pull. Brown was benched and somehow Williams got into the action again.
“It doesn’t really matter,” center Roberto Garza said. “The guys are in there to do a job and we all have confidence in each other. Everybody prepares like a starter and all the guys were playing.”
But how about all of the combinations?
“You do the math,” Garza said. “I don’t know. It’s nothing we haven’t done in the past. We have injuries and guys have to roll in there.”
If general manager Phil Emery needed any more proof the line is his No. 1 area of need this coming offseason, this should have reinforced it.
9. In winning eight of the last nine games in the series, the Packers have dominated the rivalry but most of the games have been relatively close. Five of the eight losses have been by one score or less but they games just haven’t felt close. I bounced my theory off defensive lineman Israel Idonije, that the final scores have not been real indicative of how these games have felt. The Bears have seemed plain lost in some of them.
“It makes full sense,” Idonije said. “It feels like we’re climbing uphill, trying to find something. The opportunities we have, we’re not making them. That’s the difference. Opportunities to win the game, we’re not making them. We make a few of those, you know, the calls and the things that usually go our way, they’re not going our way. It’s like you’re in quicksand and you keep fighting and fighting waiting for something to happen. It’s tough.
“We just gotta find a way. That is how it’s been of late, not just against the Packers. It’s been a grind. Just in general, it’s been a grind. You gotta tighten your chin strap up, bite down on your mouthguard and you’ve got to fight through it. Two (games) left.”
10. Still getting a lot of draft questions about Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and the possibility he could be a replacement for Brian Urlacher. But many wonder if Te’o will be available when the Bears draft – no higher than 21st if they reach the playoffs.
Some believe Te’o is a sure-fire top-10 pick. Some think he could be had in the middle of the first round. Some have even suggested his stock has slipped because of concerns about his speed. One man doesn’t have all the answers and cannot predict the draft, but I called one national scout who has been on the money in the past.
“The kid is a productive player,” the scout said. “Is he better than some of the other guys that came out the last couple years? A couple of them. He’s in the mix to be a mid-round pick. He does what you ask. He is a three-down linebacker. There are not many times you get a chance to get a three-down linebacker. When you do, you better draft them in the first round. Does (Brian) Urlacher ever come off the field? Does (Lance) Briggs ever come off the field? There you go.
“When you get a three-down backer you have added value. I never would have drafted (Brandon) Spikes in the first round. I would have drafted him in the second round because he is not a three-down linebacker. People may say he can’t run and this and that. I saw that. He plays on the third downs. He must be able to run a little bit or he wouldn’t be playing on third downs. Listen, between now and the draft people are going to poke holes in every player. That’s just the way it is.”
10 a. The Bears had their college scouts from all over the country in this past week for a major pre-draft meeting in advance of the bowl season and the college all-star games that will come next month. It will be general manager Phil Emery’s second draft and his first with the expanded front office.
10 b. A real positive on defense has been the play of Corey Wootton. Some wondered if the addition of first-round pick Shea McClellin would light a fire under Israel Idonije. Maybe it has sparked Wootton, who is second on the team with seven sacks after having 1 ½ in this game.
10 c. The guy gets beat up with regularity for poor play so it’s worth noting it didn’t look like left tackle J’Marcus Webb was overmatched. It’s too bad the rest of the line wasn’t better.
10 d. One area the offense has been solid in all year has been third down. The Bears were converting 40 percent entering the game and promptly went 0-for-9.
10 e. Bears tight ends were targeted for zero passes. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s Jermichael Finley caught five passes for 61 yards.
10 f. Randall Cobb had six receptions for 115 yards. Formerly an electric returner at Kentucky, Cobb is in his second season. He is everything the Bears used to think Devin Hester could be on offense.
10 g. The Cardinals’ season has been coming apart piece by piece, week by week before they stopped a nine-game losing streak with a win over the Cardinals on Sunday. The future of coach Ken Whisenhunt is in jeopardy. If Whisenhunt is fired, don’t be surprised if former Bears wide receivers coach Todd Haley is considered for the job. Haley, now the offensive coordinator for the Steelers, held the position in Arizona when the Cardinals reached Super Bowl XLIII. Haley is well thought of by the Bidwill family and has head-coaching experience with the Chiefs. Based on the meltdown in Kansas City this season, Haley was less a part of the problem there than others.
10 h. Fox has assigned the broadcast crew of Dick Stockton, John Lynch and Jennifer Hale to call Sunday’s game against the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.
10 i. The NFL has assigned referee Terry McAulay and his crew to handle Sunday’s game against the Cardinals in Glendale, Ariz.