Every football game leaves us with a defining image, whether it passes through our brains completely in a few days or lasts an entire lifetime. In the Bears' 30-13 loss in New Orleans on Sunday, the enduring moment wasn't anything that happened on the field. Rather, it was Jay Cutler, after the game, struggling to respond to questions from reporters. Oh, there were answers from Chicago's embattled quarterback, yet the audio clips made it sound like they were coming from an entirely different person. Sacked six times and hit countless more, Cutler lost his voice after getting kicked in the throat during the third quarter on one of the Saints' many successful pass rushes. The Bears had other casualties in the Week 2 -- from their rookie tackle Gabe Carimi to safety Major Wright -- but it was the loss of Cutler's voice that was most symbolic of Chicago's afternoon.
After holding their own in the trenches a week ago in the season opener against Atlanta, the Bears were pulverized up front by an inexperienced Saints front seven that couldn't crack the top half of the league in sacks last season. The Bears' offensive line, while hardly an asset, at least looked improved from last year against the Falcons. With the way New Orleans got to Cutler at will yesterday, it might be time to reconsider that assessment. The receivers didn't have enough time to get open, Cutler didn't have enough time plant his feet and make accurate throws. The Bears' passing game was effectively squashed, and with it, so were their chances at victory.
Football is a game of adjustments -- an old cliche, yes, but sometimes those are the ones that ring the truest. If there's another place for blame to go after the Bears' first loss of 2011, perhaps it belongs on Mike Martz. Martz's play calls often make it seem like calling a running play causes his skin to break out in hives, and yesterday won't do anything to dispel the theory. As New Orleans hit Cutler hard on throw after throw, Martz kept calling them, undeterred. Running plays were nowhere to be found after Matt Forte busted off a 42-yarder in the first quarter. It was enough imbalance to make you think the head coach needs a new catchphrase. For a team that perennially boasts it "gets off the bus running", the Bears sure were negligent of the ground game. While the final numbers may be a tad deceiving because they were playing from so far behind in the fourth quarter, throwing four times more than you run is hardly a proven formula for success for any team this side of New England.
Don't forget: if you think throwing against New Orleans is a chore, just wait until the champion Packers invade Soldier Field next week. Green Bay's pass rush and secondary puts the Saints' to shame.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears failed at Objective No. 1: cause turnovers. By the time Charles Tillman -- who else? -- forced a fumble for the defense's first takeaway, New Orleans' victory was already secure. The coaching staff says each week it can't win without forcing at least three turnovers, and they aren't lying. A lack of takeaways is a common thread in seemingly every Bears loss the last few years, and this one was no different. Granted: the Saints under Drew Brees and Sean Payton are nearly peerless so far as offensive proficiently goes. Stopping that locomotive ain't easy. But remember: the Saints, and other teams of their quality, are who the Bears are supposed to be able to compete with if we are to go along with the organization's belief that the Bears are one of the best teams in football. Brees was able to snap off three touchdowns against Lovie Smith's bend-don't-break defense. When Cutler and the offense is under as much duress as it was on Sunday, there's simply no chance Chicago can keep pace with that type of output.
Takeaways, of course, are often the byproduct of several smaller successes. Chief among them is the pass rush. Against the Falcons, the Bears' front seven looked unblockable. A week later, the same group was barely noticeable. Julius Peppers is a fantastic player, probably the best on the team, but he still has games in which you forget he's on the field. Yesterday was one of those. Same goes for Henry Melton, the fresh-faced defensive tackle everyone was so quick to anoint 'Next' after a dominating performance in Week 1. Brees had all day to make decisions and deliver pin-point passes in Week 2. That's simply no way to beat these Saints.
There were positives, or at least one. We'll talk more about Matt Forte's breakout in his hometown during the second half of this column tomorrow, but the Tulane product really was the Bears' entire offense. Forte's continued ascension to the top tier of NFL running backs is critical if this Chicago team is to fully realize its big dreams this year. Thus far, he might be the team MVP.
Because of the might with which this city loves this football team, we want to draw massive conclusions at the end of each game. It is probably best to avoid doing that after this one. Very few NFL teams hint at their ultimate worth so early, just look at Baltimore and Atlanta as other examples. These things take time, and the Bears have it on their side. Exiting these first two games 1-1 should be seen as a victory in itself. It's hardly time to panic yet, just as you shouldn't have been printing your commemorative 19-0 t-shirt after Week 1. The Bears have forever to go until they reveal their true destiny. Through two games, it feels like anything and everything remains possible.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.