Kickers and punters have long been the black sheep of the NFL, the twerpy little brothers who look like accountants or bloggers or engineers -- anything but football players, really. They are mocked incessantly by teammates and former players, the everliving punchline of pro football's Tough Guy Club, a stable in which they'll find inclusion. It's an unfortunate truth that all too often these specialists still play a huge role in deciding their team's destiny: whether it be in the battle for field position or, of course, knocking those always crucial three points through the uprights at an opportune time. It creates what just might be the funniest dichotomy in pro sports: kickers are treated like a lower life form until it comes time to decide a game, when all of the blocking, hitting and receiving their more muscle-bound teammates did to put them in that position has its fate determined by a fragile, tender little foot.
We don't throw parades for kickers, we don't host eulogies for them either. Still, when news hit on Tuesday that the Bears had placed Robbie Gould on IR, effectively ending his season, the groan let out by Chicago was audible. It sounded like a city becoming resigned to its fate; it sounded like a dream being deferred for another season.
That Gould won't kick again for the Bears very likely will not decide the team's ultimate future. The Bears are still equally hard-pressed to beat the Packers on Sunday with or without their kicker; they'll still need to pray for a Washington loss somewhere in the final three games to reach the playoffs. Gould's injury was more than tangible, though. It felt like piling on, another punch to the stomach, another obstacle to overcome. A very unpleasant fact is forming in front of the Chicago Bears: it's just not going to happen this year.
It's a heart-breaking sentence to type. The Bears started the season with Super Bowl hype, with the local Bourbonnais middle school predicting a championship victory over the Patriots the moment the Bears arrived in training camp. This looked to be the best team the Bears had put together in a long time, but one that would still need a substantial amount of good luck to capitalize on its full potential. That luck has run out.
Can't we just jump back to the days following Nov. 4? That's when the Bears thumped the Titans in Tennessee -- breaking 50 points for the first time since 1980 and filling the city with more than a little hope that this team could go all the way. Bears fans drank Nashville dry and clearly outnumbered Titans fans at LP Field. It was the ultimate party in every way. Things had never been so good.
Since then, it's been all downhill. Jay Cutler sustained the sixth concussion of his career against the Texans the following week, Aldon Smith had himself a season's worth of sacks (5.5) against Chicago's cement-bound offensive tackles the week after that. Only a home victory over the Vikings offered Chicago a little oasis, but even that came with a heavy price: the Bears' best offensive lineman, Lance Louis, would be lost for the season, and Charles Tillman, Matt Forte and Devin Hester each exited as walking wounded.
An overtime loss to the Seahawks placed doubt in Chicago's collective mind; it also saw the Bears lose Brian Urlacher for the rest of the regular season and maybe Tim Jennings, too. Last week vs. the Vikings was the knife twist: losing to Christian Ponder, who passed for all of 91 yards, taking a critical blow to their playoff chances. That Gould was hurt in warmups and won't kick again only makes sense. It isn't a real disaster until someone pours salt on the wound.
Here's the thing: Chicago wants a Super Bowl more than it wants anything, and the chance was there for the taking. It would have been a storybook ending to win it with Urlacher and Tillman and Lance Briggs -- the trio that has been doin' work for Lovie Smith's Cover-2 for a decade. The storybook so rarely becomes a reality, though. The Cubs didn't win the World Series on the 100th anniversary of their last; Derrick Rose couldn't will the Bulls past the two free agents that spurned his hometown franchise in the 2011 playoffs. The things that are too good to be true usually are just that. This is the story of the 2012 Bears.
This fall from grace is disheartening but not totally unexpected. The roster was always top heavy, always had a glaring hole at offensive line. That Urlacher even held up as long as he did after well-documented knee problems in training camp only adds to his legend. Really, to pull this off from the beginning would have required so much good fortune.
It's a collapse that isn't all that dissimilar to what's happening with the Lakers right now. The names are the same, still huge. The faces are the same too, if slightly aged. But it's that pop, that that urgency, that little bit of extra oomph that the Bears don't have right now. Well, that and a properly functioning offense. When the Bears beat the Titans in Week 9, Urlacher's pick-six was the team's seventh defensive touchdown in their first eight games. They haven't scored since. This was always unsustainable.
Maybe it's better this way. There's plenty of time to debate Lovie's future, though I have always felt like he's gotten a raw deal. Still, perhaps the time has come for a new voice in the locker room, a new scheme, a new calling-card. It isn't over yet for the Bears, but it feels like it is. The pain has never been more palpable.