2011 was a crazy season for our Chicago Bears. After the lockout ended, the Bears overcame a slow start to begin to look like one of the league’s elite teams. Then quarterback Jay Cutler went down. Hope soon followed him. All the team’s issues were suddenly exposed, from the physical (poor offensive line play) to the philosophical (why is this coaching staff so unable to judge QB talent?) Here are my ten high and low points of this season in Bears football.
- Big wins. Two deeply satisfying wins that stand out were opening day against the Falcons and the home game against Detroit. The first hinted at what could come. The second punctuated its arrival. This team could have gone places.
- Hester’s TD vs. Detroit. Don’t call it a comeback—no, seriously, don’t, we need this guy for another two years—but the most consistent returner since the Dalai Lama returned to form this year. The history books will remember the day he became the all-time kick return leader, but that merely confirmed what we already knew. The Hester highlight for me was his 83-yard return TD against Detroit while battling illness and an ankle injury. It’s easy to forget that the reason Hester is so dangerous a runner is the combination of his famous speed/elusiveness with his less-hailed toughness. It was also heartening to see Lovie Smith finally comprehend an important lesson we’ve known since 2007: the guy needs to focus on returns. Keeping him off the line of scrimmage paid dividends this year. Would you rather have the greatest returner of all time or a receiver who would struggle out of the practice squad? Glad to see someone asked that question.
- Matt Forte in general. Stuck in a perpetual contract week, Forte essentially was the offense. Going into week 12, Forte accounted for forty percent of the team’s yardage. He was the team’s leading receiver and almost doubled runner-up Johnny Knox’s reception total. Best of all, his true value is the fact that he’s a great pure running back—we’re not talking about Darren Sproles here—who will continue to contribute even if the Bears take some pressure off of the checkdown. He’s got two, maybe three years left to his prime if this knee injury heals. Show him the money!
- Better safety and wide receiver play. Two positions that the Bears have long needed to address slightly, somehow, improved. The secondary is far from solid, but the emergence of Chris Conte, Craig Steltz, and a healthy Major Wright have upgraded it from “soaked Kleenex” to “possibly broken condom.” The wideouts similarly made strides this year, but it had more to do with an overdue repositioning than anything else. Earl Bennett should have started opposite Johnny Knox from the start, maybe with Roy Williams (Ed.: how this joker is still on an NFL roster is beyond me) and Sanzendropper in the slot. That’s not a half bad lineup.
- The emancipation of Jay Cutler. Jay, you tell Mike you said fuck him for all of us. I used to think they were in cahoots, just two bros who love chucking up the ball while running for your life like a Soviet missile train. The turning point was the Minnesota game. Cutler’s on-air message for Martz was a revelation. So Jay doesn’t like 27-step Madden drops? So he thinks this play calling is suspect too? Wow, I like this guy after all! Especially when he didn’t apologize for it, and proceeded to turn around his season. Cutler’s principled stand and his ensuing productivity converted a lot of people this year. Like a third and 14.
- The employment of Mike Martz. Get out of the house, buddy. Go talk a walk. Spend some time with the kids. Cause your offense? Your crazy, algebraic, da Vinci Code offense? It doesn’t work so well. The Mike Martz system is essentially a sensible NFL playbook transpiring 15 yards downfield. But it had alchemical properties. It would make a crappy O-line suddenly better by having to protect for twelve seconds. It would turn one of the league’s best running backs into a receiver. Simplify for the sake of a QB who’s never started an NFL game? Sacrilege! So either your system doesn’t work unless we beeleeve, or you’ve been dining out since the 90’s on an offense starring Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Isaac Bruce, et al. We gave up Greg Olsen for this?
- Caleb Hanie. I was originally excited to see Hanie. I didn’t think—no one thought—he could be that bad. I still place a lot of blame on Martz for not adapting to his diminished skill set, but ultimately, Hanie was godawful. Don’t be surprised if Webster’s updates the spelling of “heinous.”
- Tebowing. Bet you didn’t know that Marion Barber is a devout Christian too, and his mantra for ball-carrying comes from Mark 17:9: “For it doesn’t go into his heart but into his stomach, and then out of his body.” This is right after the passage where Jesus asks a guy if he’s an idiot. So clearly, our Savior was indeed the MVP of this game. Because it wasn’t Tebow. The Bears had lost even more miraculously the prior week, when the difference in the game was Urlacher mightily batting a TD into the arms of a Chiefs receiver on a Hail Mary. (Jesus has his whole crew against us!) We could have—should have—ended the Tebow myth once and for all. Instead, it played out like a chapter from Job. As in, if Caleb Hanie has a ‘job’ next year, there is no God. Single worst loss I can remember in the last decade.
- Jerry Angelo. He gave away Olsen for no reason and let Kreutz walk over $500k. But nothing encapsulated how poorly this guy’s GM skills are perceived like the Forte saga. If this were the Patriots, who are good at this, getting that production out of a criminally underpaid RB would be genius. Here, however, we know Jerry stumbled into Forte, and we also know he sucks at valuing players. Just pay the guy, we said. You’d end up blowing the money on someone like Roy (or Chris) Williams anyway. I don’t resent Angelo for Hanie. I’m saving that up for three years from now when he’s failed to even think of life after Urlacher. Sorry guys.
- Our division is going to be one of the two best divisions in football for the next few years. The Bears need to address longstanding issues now or never. Two of the NFL’s most talented young teams are only going to get better, and without serious problem solving, that spells out a future of exciting third place finishes.