With 10 minutes to go in Week 11, everything looked rosy. The Chicago Bears were putting the finishing touches on a victory over the San Diego Chargers, the team's fifth in a row, bringing their record to 7-3. The Bears were about to head into Week 12 with an 83 percent chance of making the playoffs.
All they had to do was stay relatively healthy.
Just as everyone was starting to clear their schedules for January, the bomb was dropped. Jay Cutler lined up his offense and fired a pass to Johnny Knox on a slant pattern. Yet Knox slipped, and the Chargers' Antoine Cason made the easy interception. Cutler raced back and pinned Cason near the sideline, allowing Lance Louis enough time to come across the field and make the tackle.
Cutler's hustle saved a score but he broke his finger in the process and was lost for the season. Still, no one felt the team would completely collapse under backup Caleb Hanie. Then Chris Williams went down, followed by Pro Bowler Matt Forte and then Knox. Within the span of one month, the Bears went from a potential Super Bowl candidate to a 7-8 squad prepping for next season.
It's a campaign from which to learn, one that was on the doorstep of greatness yet fell precipitously to its death. The fact Chicago is sending five players to the Pro Bowl, the most since 2006, just reiterates how much talent has been wasted this season.
"That's the most frustrating thing about seasons like this, and last year, being that close. It's that we know we're a good enough team to get there," said Lance Briggs. "We were really hoping that we could get into the playoffs and get Cutler and Forte back, but we didn't get it done. So we're going to have to reload."
LB Brian Urlacher & LB Lance Briggs
Jerry Lai/US Presswire
While no one is using the team's mounting injuries as an excuse for the recent losing streak, they still recognize it as a huge factor in the fate of this squad.
"We got hit by the injury bug really bad this year," Briggs said. "That's still no excuse for not getting to the playoffs. But when those injuries started mounting, we were rolling. Defense was playing well, offense was scoring points and special teams as well."
The overwhelming belief at Halas Hall is that the current Bears roster, had it stayed healthy, would have challenged for a title this year. As such, no one feels wholesale changes are needed. A few tweaks is all that's necessary to make a run at it next season – that and better luck in the injury department.
"I don't think we're very far away," said Brian Urlacher. "You've seen this year when we're healthy what we can do. We're pretty close to being one of the better teams in the NFL. We've just got to stay healthy and stay together and keep playing hard, but I think the consensus around the locker room is that we're pretty close to where we want to be."
Outside of losing Chris Conte, the defense has remained relatively healthy all season. It's been the maladies on offense, specifically Cutler's thumb injury, that sent this group spiraling out of the playoffs.
"Jay, you're not going to replace Jay, obviously, especially at that point in the season," said Urlacher. "I think Josh [McCown] has done a good job last week and hopefully he'll do a good job this week, too, but it's hard to replace those guys. Jay's an elite quarterback. You're not going to replace him."
Cutler was on pace for one of the best seasons of his career. Through 10 starts, he had thrown for 2,319 yards, 13 TDs and just 7 INTs. It appeared he was finally reaching a comfort level in coordinator Mike Martz's offense. With Forte performing at a Pro Bowl level behind him, Cutler was in charge of an offense that was averaging more than 30 points per game during the team's five-game winning streak.
Yet as soon as he went down, the offense sputtered and failed to find any rhythm until last week, after Hanie had been benched and the season was already lost. The defense held up its end of the bargain through Hanie's first three starts yet appeared to wear down in the second half of the Seattle Seahawks contest in Week 15, then last week as well, presumably from overuse.
For these reasons, the Bears players and coaches have to catch their breath and start working toward next season.
"For everyone, for us as a team and we know for the fans, it's been a disappointing year. But we have the talent, and we have the guys and character in this room to win football games," said Israel Idonije. "The core group of guys that we have, we have the talent to do something special.
"So that's really what's so disappointing. We were right there. Before things kind of started slipping away, we were in a great position and we were just really poised to do something special. For that to slip away makes it tougher."
With Urlacher, Briggs and Julius Peppers all on the wrong side of 30, the window of opportunity could soon be closing on the foundation of this defense.
"Those guys are phenomenal players, and they'll continue to play at that level. They have the ability and they do the things necessary to keep themselves at the top of their game. They'll continue to do that," Idonije said. "But the reality of it is, every year you have to have a sense of urgency. Every year has to be that year that you figure the formula to make it to the big game and to win. So for us, yeah, this next year coming up is the most important year. We've got to get it done."
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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.