Professional football is a cruel and unforgiving thing, a distinction that's true even without stretchers and injury carts carrying motionless players off the field. The Bears learned this lesson in 2011 the only way you can: the hard way. A 7-3 start marked by the most competent offense this city has seen in decades let imaginations run wild all over this football drunk city, but the harsh reality of America's most brutal pastime set in and ruined everything before the Bears were allowed the opportunity to find out how good they really were. On Sunday, the 2011 Bears were permanently laid to rest in their last home game of the season. The Seattle Seahawks scored 31 unanswered points in the second half and ended Chicago's postseason delusions once and forever with a 38-14 beatdown at Solider Field.
The Bears were close, and that's why it hurts. Not on Sunday, mind you, even if they actually led by a touchdown at halftime. Success in the NFL requires an equal mix of skill, strategy and good fortune, and for the first 10 games, the Bears had it all. Then down went Jay Cutler with a season-ending thumb injury against the Chargers, followed the next week by another season-ending injury to running back and team MVP Matt Forte. Just like that, football season in Chicago was over, as if there was ever any hope to begin with. This is a pain that not even 1,000 lbs. of pot and 10 kilos of blow can cure. The Bears had a chance in 2011, and it was whisked away ruthlessly without even the slightest hint at sympathy.
There's no room for feelings in the NFL, a hard truth backup quarterback Caleb Hanie is no doubt aware of. Had Cutler not went down, it's likely that Hanie, a free agent after the season, would have another NFL contract in his future without taking a snap in 2011. Now Hanie's chances of playing football anywhere next season appear impossibly remote. The Bears' backup has moxie, but as he overthrew screen passes, took bad sacks, and threw a pair of pick-sixes against Seattle, he learned another hard truth: moxie is never enough, not when some of the world's greatest athletes have trained relentlessly for years to knock your head off. There's simply no time to learn on the job in the NFL, not with only 16 precious regular season games, not when your team is in the heat of a playoff race. The Bears will not make the playoffs this season because Caleb Hanie couldn't get them there. For that, he will never receive another NFL paycheck. This world of ours is cold and hard.
Each Bears game has been an exercise in frustration since the Cutler injury, and Sunday's home loss to Seattle was no exception. The Bears didn't even lull us into false security this time: as soon as the Seahawks' Red Bryant intercepted Hanie and took it to the end zone for six, there was no denying the inevitable. The Bears simply aren't a very good football team without their starting quarterback and running back. On Sunday, they didn't even fight. A lack of a will is perhaps the biggest sin of all in sports, but it's almost understandable given the circumstances. For the Bears to win, their aging, too-proud defense not only has to come close to pitching a shutout, they also have to score themselves. This defense has done some remarkable things over the course of Lovie Smith's tenure, but asking this much is simply too heavy of a burden.
Two games remain in the 2011 season for the Bears, but it's hard not to already think about next year, if you can keep your mind off the Bulls and Blackhawks . In the wake of Sunday's loss, many were calling for GM Jerry Angelo's head, high-profile media members included. I think it's fairly ludicrous: the Bears have holes, but so does every team this side of the newly-defeated Packers. If Cutler and Forte stayed healthy, there was a very real possibility Chicago could have been Green Bay's stiffest test this postseason. Dock Angelo points for feeling comfortable with Hanie as the backup quarterback, or for not spending the extra $20 million-or-so the Bears had in additional salary cap room. But firing the GM usually means a fresh start, and this is not a situation that demands it. At least not yet. The Bears need to be tweaked, on the offensive line, at receiver, with depth, but you can't blow everything up just yet. They were so damn close.
The Bears may never have another opportunity as good as the one they lost this year, though I'm sure the same thing was often said about the Dallas Mavericks before they finally won the 2011 NBA title. Yes, it's a certifiable sports tragedy what happened to our beloved native football team, but such is life. The world owes us nothing. For the fifth time in six seasons, nothing is what Chicago will receive in terms of postseason football.
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.