The Bears lost their third game in their last four tries on Sunday when Russell Wilson and the Seahawks shredded the vaunted Chicago defense in crunch-time. Are the Bears still a Super Bowl contender?
There's a laundry list of items that help make college football twisted and generally loathsome, but those pertain mostly to the institution rather than the on-field play. College football is, of course, all about regionalism, and Chicago has no reason to care. The coach of the state school is in so far over his head he uses a different offensive coordinator on third down; no matter how hard Northwestern tries to brand itself as "Chicago's Big 10 team", you only need to visit the atmospherically dead Ryan Field once to realize it's a one-sided agreement. But college football does offer the occasional stylistic nugget and the biggest one in recent years has been the 'read option'. The conventional wisdom says it doesn't work in the NFL ,where the defenders are bigger and faster and generally too smart for it to have the same devastating effects it does in the college ranks. Apparently no one ever told Russell Wilson this. On Sunday, the Seahawks used it to spread-and-shred the Bears' defense in crunch-time to steal a 23-17 victory at Soldier Field.
We've been over this before, but it doesn't make it any less true: every Bears loss feels like the end of the world. I think that's what makes this one unique. While real issues did arise as Chicago fell to 8-4, this loss is the rare one in the Lovie Smith era in which the Bears didn't look completely overmatched, lifeless and out of their league. It was, I suppose, a pretty entertaining game.
Listen: I was screaming at the TV, too. Wilson, Seattle's 5-foot-10 rookie QB, is so adored by the likes of Gruden and Simmons for a reason, but when he's doing his thing against your team, it's hard not to go crazy. If Wilson does indeed go onto great things as a pro, this will be one for his canon: slicing and dicing the vaunted Bears defense on Seattle's last two drives to win the game under impossible circumstances, starting the first of which at his own three yard line. Russell Wilson just might be magic, and his ability to convert one clutch play after another likely says more about his acumen than it does about the Bears' blind spots. Wilson was 9-of-12 passing with two touchdowns on those final two drives, and his 47 rushing yards were even more back-breaking. But give the Bears at least an ounce of credit: they were able to interject just when all looked lost and at least make it interesting.
With his heels on his own 10-yard line and :24 seconds left, Jay Cutler took a snap out of the shotgun, rolled to his right and fired the ball down field to Brandon Marshall. The coverage was pretty weak and the throw was by no means great, but Marshall adjusted, found space and leaped to make the catch before racing downfield for some hard-earned YAC to put the Bears in field goal range. This was the play of the year even if it came in a loss, and I'm having a hard time thinking of a more exhilarating offensive play by this franchise in recent memory. Are we going all the way back to James Allen's diving touchdown catch vs. the Browns in 2001, a pass thrown by Shane Matthews? We just might be.
But after Seattle won the coin flip, a physically gassed Bears defense was back on the field and unable to get off it. Wilson converted with his legs and with his arm, using the 'read option' to gain one first down after another. The Bears defense is old, you know this, but they've rarely looked like it so far this season. Wilson changed that. Whether it was the defensive ends blowing contain on stunts or middle linebacker Brian Urlacher doing a poor job as a spy, Wilson, who just turned 24, was able to make Chicago's defense look like a unit past its prime.
Is this a real issue moving forward, or one-time explosion against a unique opponent?
It's hard to say. Wilson rushed for 71 yards on nine carries on Sunday, which is almost twice as many as his previous career high. The Bears weren't ready for the dynamic Wilson-led 'read option' attack, but how could they have been? It's also something the Bears won't see against the Giants, the Packers, the Falcons, or many of the NFC's other elite teams -- though don't be surprised if Colin Kapernick and the 49ers pop in this game film often should Chicago and San Francisco meet in the playoffs.
The bigger issue might be the Bears' failure to adjust. Said Wilson after the game:
"As the game went on, I continued to tell the coaches and they saw it too," Wilson said. "Especially in the end of the game, the read option is wide open."
Kaepernick said something a little similar after torching the Bears a few weeks back, mostly that the Bears' defense didn't throw him any surprises and that he saw what he was expecting to see. It might just be inexcusable stubbornness from Smith. Whatever the case, you don't need a blogger to tell you in-game adjustments are huge in just about every sport, and the Bears will need to make them when facing adversity if they want to advance in the playoffs.
And the playoffs are still what it's all about. The Bears are 8-4 and likely to finish 11-5. They've lost three of four and are suddenly a lot more wounded than they were a few weeks back. What was the bigger outcome from Sunday: the loss to Seattle, or the hamstring injury to Brian Urlacher and the shoulder injury to Tim Jennings? If those are lingering types, the Bears could really be in some trouble.
It's too soon to worry about that, though. Many are suggesting this game was a sign that maybe this defense can't carry the team to a Super Bowl. We've known all along that if the offense didn't start to get it in gear, it was a moot point anyway. The offense continues to take baby steps but the defense needs to hold up and stay in one piece. The Bears' spot in the postseason is likely still reserved, but doubt is starting to creep in with the big picture in mind. Is this still a Super Bowl contender? It better be. Chicago is dying for a championship, and the Bears have at least placed their name in the discussion. Unfortunately, that isn't quite enough.