Bears 34, Panthers 29: A Critical Reassessment

It wasn't particularly convincing, but the Bears' victory against Killa Cam and the Panthers featured more positives than negatives.

Super Bowl losers live a hermit's existence if their memory even survives at all, but as the Bears' Week 4 victory over the Carolina Panthers began to unfurl on a gorgeous fall afternoon in Chicago, it felt impossible not to think about the ghosts of Mike Brown, John Tait and Adewale Ogunleye. To put it succinctly, the manner in which the Bears evened up their record on Sunday had me wanting to blare "Wolf Like Me", get a fake I.D. and party like it was 2006 all over again. There was magic from Devin Hester, a powerful and consistent running game, a pick-six from the secondary; even a blocked field goal. No one is arguing that the Bears went through some sort of supernatural metamorphosis to become their younger, more successful selves against the Panthers, but have *you* ever seen D.J. Moore and Nathan Vasher in the same place, at the same time?

No, Chicago's win wasn't particularly convincing or reassuring, but it carried with it enough nostalgia to focus on the good rather than the bad.

Much like the Bears' offense, "The Good" starts first and foremost with the running back. Matt Forte may have yet to receive his pay day, but surely there isn't a soul in existence who would deny that he's earned it. Against the Panthers, Forte may have played the best game of his pro career. The Bears came out running early and often on Sunday -- literally, as they did not even attempt a pass on their first possession -- and it was Forte that made it possible by gashing Carolina's unsteady defense for one big gain after another.

Most of this football drunk city may still hold onto faint hope that Jay Cutler can someday evolve into the savior we were told he would be, but it's Forte whom has somewhat quietly become the unquestioned focal point of this team in 2011. In Week 4, Forte was asked to win the game. Cutler was simply told not to fuck it up. 

Yes, if the Bears wanted a quarterback to throw the ball 17 times for 102 yards, they could have probably found one without having to give up a pair of first round picks like they did for Cutler. But over the last three seasons, it has become clear that Cutler simply cannot overcome the dearth of talent that surrounds him. He plays behind an offensive line that continues to be as poor as imaginable. His receivers are equally unimpressive: fast, but tiny, inconsistent, and seemingly never able to get open. The Bears won't be able to run the ball against every team the way they did against the Panthers, but the 180-degree-change game plan deployed by Mike Martz on Sunday could be their best chance to win. Jay Cutler's Bears have always gone as far as their quarterback would take them. Perhaps that was the problem. By minimizing chances for disaster by Cutler and the offensive line, the Bears found a way to keep their QB from getting killed and also from killing the team. Whether Martz has it in him to let a run-first offense survive is an entirely other matter, but at least for a week, it worked the way few ever thought it could.

Still, doubters will exist in droves until Chicago can pass the ball with any sort of consistency. For as jarring as it was to see Forte finish with 202 yards, the puniness of Cutler's final numbers are nearly as eye-popping. No, the Bears won't compete with the Packers, Eagles, and Saints without a reliable passing attack, not with the aerial assault each of those conference juggernauts are capable of displaying regularly. Remember the age of these Bears and how far they advanced last season: "elite" is the only goal. Merely a winning record and playoff birth won't cut it this season, not when they let so much cap space go unused. Through four weeks, even the most optimistic fan can't believe the Bears are on that level.

Of course, there's still time. Until the Bears can figure themselves out, wins like the one over Carolina will be happily taken. "Ugly" is a word popping up all over the place to describe this one, but part of me found Bears-Panthers to be just short of beautiful. For champions of style, it's hard to beat a game that gives us so much magnificence from the only two transcendent athletes on the field. If Hester is a beaming light in a desolate world, Cam Newton is the sun. There was times when their blow-for-blow, back-and-forth reminded me of some of my favorite hip-hop collabs: spit sick shit like your saliva's got the rabies in it or be remembered forever as secondary.

Before this column gets too Free Darko, it needs to be pointed out that Newton is so much more than a style icon. His touch on deep throws is stupendous; those QB draws Carolina loves to call near the goal line seem unstoppable. The Bears beat Cam Newton on Sunday, and that is an accomplishment in and of itself, experience be damned.

Every game may feel like a litmus test in the do-or-don't world of the NFL, but next week's game at Detroit against the upstart Lions *really* feels that way. After Detroit's impossible comeback against the Cowboys, the Bears will be underdogs to the Lions for the first time in many moons. Did you see that Calvin Johnson touchdown? There isn't a prognosticator alive who will pick Chicago to win. You know, it's probably better that way, anyways.

Ricky O'Donnell is a writer and editor in Chicago and the founder of the Chicago sports blog Tremendous Upside Potential. He is always very much available for hire. Follow him on Twitter or reach him at richardpodonnell@gmail.com.

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