At 7-3, life was good for Chicago Bears players, coaches and fans. Coming off five straight wins, everyone was helping themselves to the Kool-Aid. It appeared the defense had regained its elite form and the offense was scoring more than 30 points per game. Special teams were on fire and the coaches appeared to be making all the right decisions. Media pundits were calling the Bears Super Bowl contenders and Jay Cutler a potential MVP candidate.
Then one patch of Soldier Field grass gave way under the feet of Johnny Knox, a motion that elapsed in less than a second, and everything was turned on its head: Cutler out with a thumb injury. The engine stalled and the machine broke down. After 10 games, the Bears had an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs. Four weeks later, they're out of the hunt.
So long season. It was fun while it lasted.
After four straight losses, all those that were helping themselves to double shots of that sweet sweet Kool-Aid are now calling for mutiny. Fans and media alike want heads to roll. Everyone from Ted Phillips all the way down to Levi Horn must go. Clean house. Start over. The hole at the bottom of the ship is too big to repair. Leave the vessel; we'll start new.
QB Jay Cutler
Kelley L. Cox/US Presswire
If only it were so simple.
I think there was one single mistake that sent Chicago's season hurtling into the abyss. A mistake for which many can take a portion of the blame. A mistake that, had it not been made, would have kept the Bears alive this season. Yet does one mistake, even a crucial one, justify blood?
Emotion plays into this with everyone involved, especially the fans that live and die with this team. After four straight losses, and your playoffs hopes shattered mercilessly, it's completely understandable, and expected, to be upset. But best decisions aren't made angry. Deep breaths. Find that happy place. And if that doesn't work, call Sam Hurd; I'm sure he's got something that can calm you down.
If we step back and look at things objectively, you find one ridiculous oversight with this team, and then a number of smaller critiques that, when added up, looks worse than the sum of its parts.
The front office made some poor personnel decisions. Signing Roy Williams and Brandon Meriweather to hefty contracts were questionable moves even back when they were made. In hindsight, they were just ridiculous. Yet the Bears seemed to counter every bad move with a good one. Tyler Clutts, Chris Spencer and Marion Barber, even despite one huge mental lapse, were all offseason acquisitions that paid off.
The same goes for the draft. Nathan Enderle and J.T. Thomas were wasted picks but it appears the team's first three selections – Gabe Carimi, Stephen Paea and Chris Conte – were solid. If they can stay healthy, all three should have long, productive careers in the Navy and orange.
People were calling for GM Jerry Angelo's head on a stick when he let longtime center Olin Kreutz walk. Yet Kreutz signed with the Saints for half of what the Bears were offering and lasted just six games before retiring permanently. Looking back, that was a very smart move on Angelo's part.
Yet despite that, the offensive line has once again been a detriment to the team, especially late in the season. Losing two starters (Carimi and Chris Williams) didn't help but it appears now that even those who were playing well earlier in the season – Roberto Garza and Lance Louis – have regressed recently.
Many question loudly the hiring of Mike Martz and building a roster based on his system. The calls for his firing were especially fervent after trading away Greg Olsen. Against that argument, one can't really argue. The scheme is too complicated to learn in one season, let alone a few weeks, meaning no player could be signed or traded for to fill roster gaps due to injury. No one runs a system like Martz. It's not like a West-Coast scheme, where anyone who has played in a similar offense can step in right away. It takes years to fully grasp Martz's system, which thoroughly handcuffed the offense this year once starters began to fall.
Yet remember, when guys were healthy, Martz's offense was deadly. During the team's five-game winning streak, Chicago averaged 32.2 points per game. Had Cutler not gone down, there's no reason to think that wouldn't have continued. In his second season under Martz, Cutler looked like the franchise quarterback for which the Bears traded. Even with injuries around him, it's doubtful his production would have fallen off that much.
QB Caleb Hanie
Jason O. Watson/US Presswire
The real killer with this team has been lack of depth, specifically at the quarterback position. The club was not able to weather injuries to the offensive line, at safety and at wide receiver. That falls on the front office. It's partially the result of trading away high draft picks on Cutler and Gaines Adams. Yet no one could have predicted Adams' future and few, if any, are now questioning the Cutler trade. It's the risk you take to get the best passer this team has had in 50 years. The club overcame a lack of depth by staying healthy last year. This season, it came back and bite them.
Yet believing Caleb Hanie was a dependable backup is the most-egregious mistake this team made all year – the one decision that doomed this once-promising club. Had the organization dropped Hanie in the offseason and found a capable veteran backup, it's doubtful the team would have lost four straight. As it was, Hanie proved to be incapable of running an NFL offense and the Bears are now out of the playoffs.
You can't blame Martz entirely on this one. He didn't trust Hanie last year, choosing twice to insert Todd Collins ahead of Hanie after Cutler went down with injury. This offseason, he still wouldn't commit to the kid and was unwilling to sing his praises at The Scouting Combine.
Yet the lockout put the team in a tough spot. That coupled with drafting Nathan Enderle, which was entirely a Martz pick, didn't give Chicago many options. Throw in the complexity of Martz's offense and you see how Angelo's hands were tied.
I firmly believe that, had Cutler not been hurt, this team would currently be preparing for a playoff run. There are some weak spots on the roster but which NFL team doesn't have those. It was Cutler's thumb that doomed the Bears in 2011. Does that mean every decision maker in the organization deserves to be fired?
This year was the first draft since 2008 where Chicago had both its first- and second-round draft picks. Going forward, many of those depth issues should get resolved with team having its full compliment of picks. Like we said, you can't get a franchise quarterback for nothing. A lack of depth for a couple of seasons was a worthwhile price to pay.
So even though the organization completely blew it with Hanie, that doesn't mean everyone in the media guide should be fired. It was an awful mistake, one that cost the Bears this season, but given the positives and potential of this roster next year, it doesn't make a lot of sense to start fresh at this point. If the team falters in 2012, then yes, things need to change. But by adding depth at a few positions and signing a capable backup QB the Bears should be in a good position to make another strong run next season.
Put away the dynamite. It's not time to blow up Halas Hall just yet.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.