The Chicago Bears were bursting during training camp.
The thought from the first day of summer workouts was that the Bears were not only going to challenge the Green Bay Packers for superiority in the NFC North, but they would play like one of the elite teams in the conference and would make a deep run in the playoffs.
The basis for that optimism was that they had an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman who was entering his second year, and players were used to his attacking system. The Bears were loaded at the skill positions with wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte. They had just re-signed quarterback Jay Cutler to a new contract that would secure his presence as the trigger-man for the offense.
The Bears were the second-highest scoring team in the league last year as they averaged 27.8 points per game. While they weren’t close to the Denver Broncos’ 37.9 ppg, they could hold their own with any other team in the league in that category.
They also appeared to have an improved defense. Not a good defense, since the Bears were among the worst teams in the league in that area last year, but they brought in Jared Allen, Willie Young and Lamarr Houston and had drafted defensive back Kyle Fuller. If they could play like an ordinary defense and check in with the No. 15 or 16 ranking, they would be a formidable team.
The potential that the Bears saw for themselves in training camp has turned out to be disastrous. Instead of making a run at first place in the division, they are 3-5 and in last place. The Packers (5-3) and Lions (6-2) appear to be significantly better than the Bears, and even the Minnesota Vikings are playing with fight and moved ahead of the Bears when they defeated the Washington Redskins in Week Nine.
The explosive offensive gameplan appears to be a one-year wonder at this point. The innovative head coach with the creative offensive gameplan seems like a Milquetoast of a leader who is afraid of offending his players. The defense had a couple of decent moments earlier in the season, but is now playing like hard cheddar cheese that has gone through the grater.
The Bears hit the midway point of the season after they were hit with a bomb by the New England Patriots. Instead of using Forte and the ground attack to take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands, the Bears simply got shredded 51-23. The defense couldn’t tackle Rob Gronkowski and Cutler could not lead against a New England defense that should have been vulnerable because of injuries.
Now the Bears must go to Green Bay to try and get their season back on track. Even if they got their miracle, it’s doubtful that one upset would allow them to rekindle their dreams, but at least it would be a step in the right direction.
The problem is that when Aaron Rodgers sees the Bears, he is generally at his best. He was earlier this year when he led the Packers to a 38-17 win at Soldier Field as he completed 22-of-28 passes for 302 yards and four TDs.
That kind of performance against the Bears is almost typical for Rodgers. He is 8-1 in his last nine starts against Chicago, and that includes leading the Pack to a victory over Chicago in the 2010 NFC Championship game.
On the other hand, the shaky Cutler wilts at the sight of the Packers. He has thrown 12 touchdown passes and 21 interceptions against the Packers since coming to the Bears in 2009, and there’s no reason to believe that another meltdown is not likely this week.
The combination of Cutler and Trestman was supposed to put the Bears on even footing with Rodgers and Mike McCarthy. The opposite appears to be happening.
As Rodgers and McCarthy demonstrate their consistency, Cutler and Trestman conduct their off-key symphony. The Bears are falling further behind in the race.
Not only are the Packers maintaining their position, the Lions appear to be growing under Jim Caldwell as they have learned how to win the tight games that tortured them in the past.
Minnesota rookie head coach Mike Zimmer was dealt a bad hand at the start of the year when All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson’s heinous and abusive behavior came forward, but Zimmer has found a way to help his team survive. If Peterson can convince his team that he belongs on the field and his suspension is lifted, the Vikings may become a dangerous opponent.
Cutler’s seven-year deal contains only three guaranteed seasons worth $54 million. They are clearly committed to him through the 2015 season, but if things don’t improve dramatically, they might be tempted to eat the $16 million they will owe him in 2016.
No one has ever doubted Cutler’s arm strength, quick release, or athleticism. However, his accuracy, decision making, and leadership have been questioned since he was a rookie with the Denver Broncos in 2006.
If there was ever a time for Cutler to show off his talent and demonstrate some leadership, this week is the time. One more loss and the Bears’ season will go down the drain.