What’s wrong with the Bears? Inquiring minds, including Smith’s, don’t know

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David Haugh
Monday, November 9, 2009
— If you are looking for answers from Lovie Smith to explain why his team responded to a sense of urgency with apathy, keep looking.

You might say Smith didn’t have a clue after the Bears’ 41-21 loss Sunday to the Cardinals at Soldier Field.

“I don’t have a lot of reasons to give you on why we played that way,” Smith said with a straight face.

There are 5.5 million reasons why that’s not acceptable.

As one of the league’s highest-paid head coaches, Smith is the most qualified person to help everybody understand why his historically inept defense gave up 31 points again in the first half. That happened for the second time in three weeks—and only five times in Bears history before this season.

Smith is best-equipped to explain how the Bears gave up 182 yards rushing to the worst running team in the NFL. And why a defense that can look so dominant for a 5-minute stretch in the fourth quarter needs to fall behind 34-7 before showing a pulse.

If Smith cannot offer plausible reasons why the Bears played as awfully as they did, exactly who can?

More significantly, if the head coach fresh off a jarring 20-point loss cannot take a stab at what went so wrong, should anybody believe he grasps the ability to make it right?

This isn’t another call for Smith’s job. After the Bears miss the postseason for the third straight year as is now likely, Smith should be given a playoffs-or-else mandate for 2010. Given Smith’s resume and contract—he has $11 million and two seasons left after this one—that’s fair, firm and fiscally responsible.

This has nothing to do with how Smith acts at the podium either.

This has to do with whether Smith knew Sunday how the season got away from the schizophrenic Bears. Or if anybody on the Halas Hall payroll without a degree in psychiatry knows.

Asked if he can fix something without identifying the problems, Smith said something the Bears had given Chicago no reason to believe.

“Sure we can fix it,” he said. “First off you need an opportunity to fix it. When you play a game like this, you want to play immediately and that’s the good thing about this week.”

Sorry, Lovie, there is nothing good about this week. Not the weather, not even the Packers losing.

The Bears got embarrassed at home and it doesn’t matter if they play again in four days or four hours. Nothing that happens against the 49ers on Thursday will change what we learned against the Cardinals.

Which is, to tweak a phrase from the last time these two teams played, the Bears aren’t who we thought they were. They are not a team eagerly awaiting the playoffs. They are a team eagerly awaiting free agency and the NFL combine.

This is what mediocrity looks like. A 24-point win followed by a 20-point loss. Stability has left the building, and so should talk about the Bears being a wild-card team.

The painful truth? Many of us overestimated the impact of Jay Cutler playing quarterback and Smith calling defenses. Through four wins and four losses, the proof on the field indicates Cutler cannot do it alone and Smith might not multitask as well as it appeared earlier in the season.

Is doubling as defensive coordinator making Smith less effective as head coach?

Sometime between Tommie Harris getting ejected for punching Deuce Lutui on the fourth play and Cutler getting a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for yelling at an official, that question became fair to ask. When a team unravels emotionally as easily as the Bears do, accountability starts with the head coach.

But it doesn’t end there.

Players still need to make plays and avoid silly outbursts such as Harris’ punch or Cutler’s penalty. It had to infuriate Bears fans seeing defensive players celebrate with 7:48 left after two straight three-and-outs—the most indicting stretch for a defense that didn’t show up. Where was that effort and intensity the rest of the day?

When a team can look awesome and awful so close together, it suggests that talent exists but something else is missing. It suggests either chemistry or leadership problems prevent that team from reaching its potential.

Cutler was asked if the Bears had a chemistry or leadership problem.

“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”

As Cutler left the podium, he was overheard muttering at the notion. But inside the locker room, Adewale Ogunleye acknowledged the need for an underachieving 4-4 team to undergo such introspection.

“When you get beat as soundly as we did, any question you have you can ask … (but) I don’t think chemistry is a problem,” Ogunleye said. “We get along. Maybe we get along too well.”

And leadership?

“Yeah, definitely it’s a problem,” Ogunleye said. “I’m a leader, so I’ve got to go out there and be a better leader. I’ve got to find ways to help us and not just lead by example but let these younger guys know we’re going to need you and have everybody’s confidence level at a high.”

There might be reasons for the Bears to still have confidence but, like Smith, I can’t come up with any at the moment.

Last updated: 12:00 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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