After review, call him Lucky Smith

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David Haugh
Monday, September 13, 2010
— Even if some Bears fans have stopped believing Lovie Smith, his players haven’t.

So after Smith rushed over to cornerback Zack Bowman during Sunday’s replay review of Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson’s apparent game-winning 25-yard TD reception with 24 seconds left, Bowman felt confidence almost nobody else in Chicago shared.

“Lovie came over to me right away and said it wasn’t a touchdown so I said to myself, ‘All right, let’s play the next play,’ “ Bowman said. “I was over the top, in position to get the ball and (Johnson) just jumped higher than I did. I was like, where in the world did he come from?”

You could say Johnson appeared out of the sky, the same place the Bears’

19-14 heaven-sent victory over the Lions came from.

The Bears may be 1-0 in the standings. But they’re 0-1 in the minds of many who watched the season opener at Soldier Field. They barely beat the worst team on their schedule despite giving up four sacks and committing nine penalties.

Yes, the Bears outgained the Lions in total yards 463-168 but, thanks to four turnovers and a coaching gaffe by Smith, they needed the enforcement of a bad rule to feel good.

The rule—which has been around for years—states that in order for a catch to be completed, a wide receiver must maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch. A runner needs only to break the plane of the goal line but receivers apparently are required to hold onto the football long enough to count its laces.

So it didn’t matter that Johnson leapt high above Bowman to make the grab, got both feet down in-bounds and landed on his keister in total control of the football. It only mattered that when the ball popped out of Johnson’s right hand as he placed it on the ground, referee Gene Steratore ruled no catch—after the side judge closer to the play already had signaled touchdown.

“The process was not finished until he finished that roll,” Steratore told a pool reporter after the game.

The interpretation made Steratore so popular around town that he should throw his hat into the ring for mayor. He easily could have interpreted Johnson’s play as a catch and still defended it by saying the process had been completed before the ball fell out of Johnson’s hand.

How fitting in a game that defied logic that it swung on a rule that betrays common sense.

Usually when Lions are perceived to have been treated this unfairly, PETA gets involved. To his credit, Lions coach Jim Schwartz wanted no part of an excuse everybody would have understood.

“To point to one play like that for the reason we won or lost is not going to be us,” Schwartz said.

We still don’t know who the unbeaten Bears are, other than the winners of the Battle for the Basement in the NFC North. All we know is the Lions came within an official’s judgment of beating the Bears with their backup quarterback. That can’t be overlooked.

“We’re going to take (a victory) however we get it,” Jay Cutler said.

Rationalizing a win always beats rationalizing a loss. But this victory felt like a defeat—to everybody but those in the Bears’ locker room. Most fourth-quarter comeback victories remove doubt from a coach on the heat seat. This one enhanced it.

Let’s forget about why the Bears trusted Bowman alone on the game-winning drive in three-deep coverage to defend the only player on the field who could single-handedly beat them. The defining coaching miscalculation of the game—and nearly of the season—came with 9 minutes 4 seconds left in the game with the Bears trailing 14-13.

The Bears faced fourth-and-goal after three straight failed plays at the 1. A field goal would have given a defense dominating quarterback Shaun Hill, subbing for injured starter Matthew Stafford, a 16-14 lead to protect.

Isn’t that the formula every self-respecting defensive-minded football team follows? Kick the field goal and turn the lead over to a capable defense that had given up a mere 101 yards up to that point.

“I felt like we were playing great defense and just didn’t feel good about getting three points in that situation,” Smith said. “The worst-case scenario would have been not to get it and get them backed up and still make them punt and get good field position. I’d make that call every time. ... That call helped us win the game at the end.”

The Bears did many things well against the Lions.

Matt Forte looked swifter than ever with two clutch touchdown catches. Cutler showed a laser arm and a burglar’s guts. Brian Urlacher reminded everybody what the defense missed in ’09, and Julius Peppers showed us why the Bears thought he was worth $91.5 million.

But however he spun it, Smith’s decision not to kick the field goal was not one of those things. Forte and an official’s review bailed Smith out to help the Bears start 1-0.

Nobody needs to watch a replay to confirm that.

Last updated: 2:59 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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