For the 2007 Bears, the excuses outnumbered the victories in their embarrassing fall from Super Bowl XLI to a 7-9 record and last place in the NFC North.
Among the factors cited for the disappointing follow-up were the "Super Bowl hangover" that has plagued losers of the big game the year after: injuries, old age and a lack of turnovers that traditionally have characterized Lovie Smith teams. Add to that the unfortunate trade acquisitions of defensive tackle Darwin Walker and safety Adam Archuleta, and you've got the recipe for a six-game drop-off.
The injuries clearly took a toll, starting with the season-opener. Former Pro Bowl safety Mike Brown and nose tackle Dusty Dvoracek, who had won the starting job after spending his rookie season on injured reserve, were both lost for the season with torn knee ligaments. Brown was the brains of the secondary and an emotional leader on and off the field. Dvoracek had already proven to be the team's best run-stopper.
Just as critical were the 12 games that Pro Bowl cornerback Nathan Vasher missed with a partially torn groin muscle. In his first three seasons, Vasher picked off 16 passes – the active leader on the team. Other injuries weren't as severe but chipped away at the defense, the heart of the team. Tackle Tommie Harris made his third straight Pro Bowl, but he wasn't nearly the same player as he played through knee and hamstring injuries much of the season but amazingly never missed a game. The training camp acquisition of Walker was supposed to provide insurance in the middle of the line, but the veteran missed five games with minor injuries and was a non-factor in at least five others. Counted on to be part of the solution, Walker was more like part of the problem.
When a torn triceps forced unrestricted free-agent pickup Anthony Adams onto injured reserve and out of the final four games, it meant that each of the Bears' top four tackles were seriously affected by injuries, and they missed a total of 24 games.
Without the anticipated push in the middle from the D-line and minus Vasher and Brown, the franchise's all-time leader with seven defensive touchdowns, the Bears weren't able to put the kind of pressure on opposing offenses that characterized their Super Bowl season, when they forced a league-high 44 turnovers. A flurry of takeaways late in the season, when it was too late, still enabled the Bears to finish with 33 – eighth best in the league.
Archuleta came up way short as a complement to, and then a replacement for, Brown, as he struggled in coverage, missed tackles and finally was benched for the final five games.
In the first 13 games of 2007, the Bears had a league-low nine interceptions. In 2006, the Bears forced at least two turnovers in 13 of 16 games. In `07, there were six games in which they had one or zero takeaways.
The Bears went into last season believing they were still youthful enough to keep their window of opportunity open for at least another year. At most positions, that is true, but signs of aging were evident along the offensive line early and often.
LG Ruben Brown and LT John Tait
Nam Y. Huh/AP Images
At 35, left guard Ruben Brown was unable to finish his 13th season when a persistent shoulder injury finally required surgery, and then understudy Terrence Metcalf played himself back onto the bench after five forgettable starts. Right tackle Fred Miller, 34, became more susceptible to speed rushers and false starts, but there was no one better to replace him. Left tackle John Tait will be 33 before the Super Bowl and would benefit from a move back to the right side, and center Olin Kreutz, who will be 31 by training camp, missed his first Pro Bowl in seven years.
Given the starting job at tailback all to himself for the first time, Cedric Benson was decidedly underwhelming. The fourth-overall pick in 2005 didn't resemble a legitimate NFL starter until his final two games, when he averaged 7.0 yards per carry, but he suffered a season-ending fractured ankle in Week 12. In his first nine games, Benson averaged just 3.0 yards per carry, although the offensive line must share the blame for that embarrassing number.
The offense was further handicapped when quarterback Rex Grossman played so poorly that he was benched after three games, precipitating the quarterback shuffle that has become synonymous with Bears football.
Brian Griese started the next six games and played decently before a minor left shoulder injury provided coaches with an excuse to give Grossman another chance. He performed much better for four games before an ankle injury ended his season. That gave third-stringer Kyle Orton a chance to start three games, and he did well enough to completely muddle the QB picture for next season.
NOTES & QUOTES
Since Lovie Smith took over the program in 2004, the Bears are the only NFL team with a winning record against both teams in the NFC title game. They are 6-2 against the Packers and 2-1 against the Giants. …
Despite a disappointing 7-9 record, the Bears finished with back-to-back wins to conclude the season for just the third time in 21 years. They were the only consecutive wins during the 2007 season. …
Although linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson has already resigned after just one season, Bears GM Jerry Angelo agrees with Smith's desire to keep the coaching staff intact.
That might seem a strange game plan for a 7-9 team that saw five assistants depart on the heels of the 2006 Super Bowl team that went 13-3, including defensive coordinator Ron Rivera, who was not offered a new contract, and defensive line coach Don Johnson, who was fired while still under contract.
"He's got to feel comfortable with the people that he works with every day, and that obviously is Lovie's call," Angelo said. "He feels real good about his staff. We have made changes on our staff before. If that were what he felt was in our best interest, I'm sure he would have done it. We've won with these coaches, and we feel that the problems that we have can be corrected with this staff." …
Lloyd Lee, a defensive assistant for the Bears the past four seasons, will replace Nickerson as linebackers coach.
The Dartmouth graduate worked with the Bears' nickelbacks last season and has been an assistant linebackers coach in the past. He was the defensive quality control coach his first two years in Chicago. …While RB Cedric Benson has yet to return first-round value, the fourth-overall pick in 2005 has demonstrated that he gets stronger as the season progresses – when he stays healthy, that is. In the first nine games of his first three seasons, Benson has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry, but in the last seven games of those seasons, he has averaged 5.2 yards per attempt.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"We have to play good defense, that's first and foremost. What's good defense here in Chicago? Good defense is takeaways, not giving up big plays, playing aggressive with top effort. Unfortunately we weren't able to get those takeaways, and we gave up far too many big plays on defense." – Bears GM Jerry Angelo