Pyle Ponders: The Right Approach

We won't know for sure if Lovie Smith's approach in the season finale was the correct one until the Bears have played their first playoff game in two weeks. Obviously, his tactic was to play it safe and rest the starters against the Vikings. Whether or not it will have any negative impact only time will tell.

As a former player, I would have taken a different approach. In my view, the Bears are professionals. They expect to play so let them. I thought that the sideline shots of Brian Urlacher said everything. The frustration on his face as the second string defense struggled against Minnesota was almost too painful to watch.

The Bears lost their chance to pass Tampa Bay for fewest yards allowed in a season. They now have the second ranked defense after being number one all season. Some might argue that is a minor point in the overall scheme of things, but I don't think Urlacher, or any other members of the first string defense viewed it that way. Their frustration was obvious.

I think in a situation such as the one Lovie was faced with against the Vikings was a difficult one. You don't want any of the starters to get hurt right before the playoffs. On the other hand, however, there is the danger of a loss of momentum as you head the team into postseason play.

I've never been completely convinced of the dangers of playing on the artificial turf. I know that there have been endless articles on that topic, but all you need to do is to look at the Vikings players. Daunte Culpepper tore up his knee this season, but it was on grass and not in the Metrodome. Historically, most of their starters have finished the season, seemingly injury free. Would the surface have bothered the Bears? Now we'll never know. Lovie chose to play it safe but what we ended up with was a dismal outing.

The backup situation on the Bears is an interesting one. There are players who can come in and fill their positions nicely if one or two of the starters are out. For example, Leon Joe has filled Hunter Hillenmeyer's spot nicely. But what happens when Lance Briggs, Urlacher, Hillenmeyer and the rest of the starters are on the bench? Things don't go quite a smoothly.

It makes me question just how deep the team is at this point. Are all the backups as good as we've assumed they were? Lovie's known the answer to that question all season. And looking at things from Lovie's perspective, that might be a very valid reason for his decision to rest the starters to keep them injury free. But what we were left with was one of the worst efforts I've seen from a Bears team in a long time.

Not everything was bad, however. One really nice play was that fake punt for the screen pass. That was a clever play with a really nice block by long snapper Pat Mannelly. It's always good to have your team show that kind of option. It tends to give any potential opponent something to think about.

I know when I played we used to bring trick plays in right before the start of the regular season. The point of that is to make any team you'll be facing later spend as much time as possible figuring out how to defend against something unexpected. The more time they spend on trick plays, the less time they'll have to work on defending against your regular plays. It's an effective technique.

Rex Grossman appeared pretty relaxed on the sidelines and now we know why. He said he was ‘ready for the playoffs after only six quarters of game action at quarterback'. How can he know? But let's hope he's right. Does that mean Peyton Manning could have sat on the beach for much of the Indianapolis season? I'm being sarcastic of course, but realistically, Rex is an unknown. Who knows how he'll respond to the pressure of the postseason?

So now it's down to the playoffs and we'll all be watching this weekend to see who the Bears will be going against. We'll have the opportunity soon enough to assess whether or not Lovie took the right approach in Week 17. My view would have been: they're professional football players, so let them play. It's a 16-game season. Why take your starters out after game 15? And it's an unwritten rule in the NFL never to leave your best players on the bench.

One more question: Was avoiding the risk of injury worth the possible demoralizing effects of a loss? I've always felt that you want positive momentum as you go into mid January. The Bears are healthy and rested, that's a fact. But will they be ready to play? All we can do now is to hope that Lovie was right.

Mike Pyle played for the Bears from 1961-69, including a Pro Bowl selection following the '63 season.


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