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Bears 24, Buccaneers 18: A Critical Reassessment

Matt Forte carved up the Tampa Bay defense as the Bears rode their star tailback over the .500 line in London on Sunday.

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Since April of 2009, the narrative surrounding the Chicago Bears has started and ended with Jay Cutler. How could it not? Factor in Chicago's historical ineptitude at sports' most important position, the savior-like welcoming Cutler received upon arrival, and how reliant elite-level success in the modern NFL has become on vertical passing, and it's only right that each game was seen as a prism to judge the Bears' best and most desperate attempt to eliminate the franchise's personal bugaboo. After two full seasons of  riding and dying with every Cutler throw, though, it became obvious that the prophecy was a lie: Cutler was no savior, at least not in the traditional sense. No, Jay Cutler wouldn't single-handidly cure the Bears of all that ails them, let alone recuse us from eternal damnation. Cutler is a piece -- a good one -- but one that can't overcome internal or external limitations. Jay Cutler needs help, and Chicago was at mercy waiting for it to come.

On Sunday, in front of Wave-crazed British football fans packed into historic Wembley Stadium, we were reminded once again, just as we have been all season, that Cutler's biggest support was always right under his nose. Matt Forte hacked apart Tampa Bay's defense just as he has every other this year: he displayed patience, speed, agility and any other virtue we associate with domineering tailbacks as he powered a Chicago victory that puts his team on the right side of the .500 line. This may still be Cutler's team if only because of the importance of the quarterback, but it's the running back who is the Bears' best player and brightest star. When Brian Urlacher said after the game "If he's not the best player in the NFL right now, I don't know who is", he wasn't just preaching the company line. Forte really has been that great. To amend Urlacher's statement a bit, if you don't believe Forte is *one* of the best players in the NFL right now, you obviously haven't been watching. 

Chicago is a sports city that will forever champion its own blue collar, and Forte embodies some of that. But there were times in London when Forte looked damn close to a man intent on making art. His first touchdown run in particular was the type of dynamic display Devin Hester and only Devin Hester has been able to sporadically produce for this team post-Payton: it was graceful; an 'oh my Lord' moment packed with so much quick-twitch improvisation your breath couldn't escape your mouth if it tried.  The 32-yard scamper drew comparisons to O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen on national post-game shows. Yes, Forte deserves that company too, at least in the time vacuum of this season.

Forte's expiring contract has been at the forefront of media coverage all year, and his display at Wembley should elevate this to an international trending topic. But before Halas Hall is rushed with pitchforks and #PayForte hashtags, take a step back to consider it's impossible Forte will be playing football elsewhere in 2012. The Bears offered him a deal, they simply had a different perception of their running back's market value than the man himself. As it turns out, Forte looks like a genius for holding out for more cash. As his feats continue to be framed with a historical lense (each game from here on out could begin with "Matt Forte is the first player to accomplish X since X"), the Bears are forced to come up closer to the player's proposed figure. Hell, if Forte employs people who know what they're doing, the number will be going up. The Bears are likely only losing money while Forte remains in limbo. That's alright, too: the franchise tag exists, and it will surely be deployed if Jerry Angelo and his bosses can't be convinced Forte is worthy of leading man money. My guess is he'll get a long extension, probably after the season ends. Just let it go, everyone. Matt Forte will be able to feed his family with pieces of luxury yachts sometime soon, and it will be made possible by the Bears.

That's a good thing, because without Forte's brilliance Sunday's affair against Tampa Bay would have turned out like so many other Bears games in the Lovie Smith era: downright blundering and hard to watch.  

The Bears specialize in their own unique blend of frustrating even when they win, and Sunday Chicago found a way to sprinkle the anti-pixie dust all over Wembley for a period in the second half. This game never should have been so close, with Josh Freeman, Captain Comeback for a new generation, having possession down six with just under two minutes remaining. Freeman couldn't pull off the magic he often makes look routine, and the Bears survived. But the fact that the Buccaneers even had a chance Sunday afternoon is troubling in and of itself.

Freeman was picked off four times on Sunday by the standardly opportunistic Bears D, the type of bold number in the turnover column that will have Smith sleeping sound, at least for a week. But if Freeman hadn't been rendered so ineffective, there was a real chance here the Bears could be flying home with an L. Give the defense credit for refusing to blow a game in which the offense showed a pulse. Just know that sometimes the Bears won't be so lucky when they dangle a win in front of an opponent. The Bucs couldn't grab the carrot, but the elite teams will. If the Bears want to join that class, they need to stop making everything so damn hard.

The Bears have their bye next week, one they very much earned. Waiting on the other side is a Monday night trip to Philadelphia for a date with Mike Vick, followed by a visit from those upstart Lions. These next two games will go a long way in determining exactly who these Bears are. While they're still trying to figure it out, it would seem smart to transfer the honus from the quarterback to the running back. If the Bears can rise and fall with Forte, they should like their chances.

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.