Throwing yourself fully into the NFL has been a war of the head vs. the heart for several years now, but rarely is the dichotomy wrapped and presented as neatly as it was in Sunday's Week 7 matchup between the Bears and Redskins. Over the course of four quarters, Washington and Chicago reminded you, modern football fan, about everything that makes us hate the game we love so much.
From an entertainment standpoint, Bears-Redskins was about as good as it gets. It was all there: a pair of unstoppable offenses, multiple massive swings in momentum, breakout performances on each side and a fourth quarter finish packed with the type of down-to-the-wire drama that makes the sport undeniable. In the end, the two teams combined for 49 first downs, 858 yards and 86 points. Washington took home a 45-41 victory and the Bears left bruised, broken and defeated in more ways than one.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler found himself in a spot he knows all too well in the second quarter, thrown to the ground by a Redskins defender in the backfield. Only this time, Cutler never got up. The play looked innocuous enough but Cutler couldn't even make it to the locker room without help. A quarter later, Lance Briggs, one of very few stars on an otherwise disappointing defense, exited with a shoulder injury. He wouldn't return.
The game should have been over right there. The Bears rarely have a decent starting quarterback; their backups will put you through the type football torture that cannot be unseen.
When Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie started while Cutler was hurt in previous years, the Bears might as well have punted every first down just to save themselves the physical abuse and televised embarrassment. Really, the otherwise well-adjusted people who watched Caleb Hanie quarterback the four games (all losses) down the stretch in 2011 or the 2010 game Collins started against the Panthers — where he finished with 32 yards passing, a 6.2 QB Rating and WON — carry real emotional baggage because of it.
This is just what cheering for the worst quarterbacks ever will do to a person. It probably should have been the case with Josh McCown, too. The math checked out. He's a 34-year-old who was coaching high school football when the Bears called to sign him two years ago. He fit the profile of someone who could join Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and the rest of the Bears' unparalleled stable of awful quarterbacks in recent years.
Only that never happened. McCown started moving the ball. Suddenly, Washington couldn't stop him and the Bears had the game tied in the fourth quarter.
When McCown hit tight end Martellus Bennett for the go-ahead touchdown with just under four minutes remaining, the exuberance of the score was trumped only by the feeling of resignation that Washington had way too much time to answer.
That's exactly what happened. Robert Griffin III led the Redkins on an 80-yard drive and Roy Helu sealed the victory with a three-yard touchdown run with 45 seconds left. The Bears had lost three of their last four games.
* * *
The loss hurts for the Bears, but the aftermath was much worse. Cutler is now out at least four weeks with a groin injury. Briggs will miss 4-6 weeks with a fracture in his shoulder. The Bears weren't a great team heading into the game — they were already crushed by injuries and their deficiencies on the defensive line and in the secondary were clear as day. It stands to reason the one-two punch of losing your best offensive and defensive player in the same game will effectively end the season before it even had a chance to reach its halfway point.
The Bears accomplished plenty of good things this year, and there's certainly reason for optimism moving forward. Marc Trestman was always a sneaky hire but now looks like a savvy one. He clicked with Cutler in a way no other Bears play caller ever has. The offense became the team's identity for the first time maybe ever. The offensive line, forever Chicago's Achilles heel under Lovie Smith, was totally rebuilt in one offseason and has played incredibly well. The Bears have given up the fourth fewest sacks in the NFL, a mind-blowing accomplishment given the dire state the unit was in a year ago.
But this is no time for silver linings. NFL football turns our country into a horde of compassionless lunatics because it always feels fleeting. Every game counts way too much, careers of stars can be altered on one down and the offseason feels eternal. That Chicago has to wait until next September for their team to get another fair shot the most disheartening thing of all.
Forget the brightside, let's wallow in our own misfortune. For Bears fans, Sunday was a stomach punch of ruthless proportions. Consider the following:
The Bears were damn close to 5-2
The Bears didn't lose because Cutler got hurt. If the defense had any pulse, Chicago would be heading into a bye week as leaders in the division with a battle in Lambeau against the Packers looming. The injuries to Cutler and Briggs — while completely devastating — aren't season-ending, and the extra win would have put the Bears in a much better spot for a possible postseason berth.
And they were so close! Think about it:
- Robbie Gould, who hadn't missed a field goal all season and is automatic from inside 50 yards, missed a 34-yard chip shot in the third quarter. Maybe the Bears are able to get into field goal range to win the game on their final drive if they had those three points.
- A bogus offsides call on an onside kick in the fourth quarter could have changed the game. The refs said Zack Bowman broke the 'literal plain' on the kick and Washington was awarded a ball Chicago rightfully recovered.
- Complaining about the officiating is inherently lame, but there was another clear hold that wasn't called on Washington when they picked up a third down late the fourth. And yes, I realize I just complained about officiating twice in a row.
This always happens to Bears quarterbacks
Cutler's time in Chicago has always been defined by reasonable excuses. His first three years here, he didn't have any receivers. His first four years here, he played behind what may have been in the worst offensive line in the league. He never had continuity with the playbook, as the Bears shuffled through unworthy coordinators every year.
This season was different, though. The Bears have three great targets in the passing the game in Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Bennett, the type of big pass catchers Cutler always called for. The line was solid. Trestman's playcalling was world's better than anything Mike Tice, Mike Martz or Ron Turner ever did. Cutler was playing the best football of his Bears tenure on an expiring contract. It would be a shock if he didn't return the Bears next year, but the groin injury certainly throws a wrench into negotiations.
It's Cutler's third serious injury in five seasons, on top of two concussions he's sustained. He just can't catch a break, and with it neither can the Bears. Cutler is sublimely talented and should rewrite the Bears' paltry passing record books, but somehow Sid Luckman — who through his first pass in 1939 — continues his stranglehold as the best quarterback in franchise history. It's truly sad.
Injuries to Bears quarterbacks are nothing new. In the '80s, the Bears had two promising seasons destroyed when Jim McMahon was taken out.
First, in Week 11 of 1984:
In a violent game against the Los Angeles Raiders in Chicago, McMahon sustained a season-ending injury when he was brutally tackled by two Los Angeles defenders. He suffered bruised ribs and a lacerated kidney on the play, but limped to the huddle and breathlessly called the next play, despite difficulty breathing and increasing pain. The players could barely hear him in the huddle, and when McMahon attempted an audible at the line of scrimmage the Bears receivers were unable to hear his call. McMahon was on the verge of collapsing on the field, clutching his flank and rasping in his attempts to convey his situation. Offensive linemen helped McMahon stand and leave the field. McMahon went to the locker room, and reported urine that "looked like grape juice."
It got even worse in Week 12 of 1986, with the Bears as the defending Super Bowl champs. McMahon fell victim to one of the dirtiest plays you'll ever see. A full two or three seconds after he threw an interception, Green Bay's Charles Martin slammed him to the ground for no reason whatsoever:
Ever since, the Bears have been synonymous with terrible quarterbacks. There's too many name, but let's just say the mere sight of the names of Hanie, Krenzel, Henry Burris and Chad Hutchinson can cause a citywide panic. It was supposed to change with Cutler, but it's mostly just been more frustration. McCown looked great against Washington, but can the Bears really count on him for however long Cutler is out?
It just seems like way too much to expect McCown to carry the team. And he will have to, because ...
This defense is terrible
The Bears were already without their pair of starting defensive tackles, starting middle linebacker and nickelback. The injury to Briggs — who has played brilliantly this season — is the death blow to a unit already on life support.
Defense was the backbone of Lovie Smith's teams for nine years, but the core has all aged together at the same time. Julius Peppers is broken, and the pass rush has been pathetic. The Bears ranked No. 30 in the league with just nine sacks all season. It's put more pressure on the secondary, which hasn't been up for the task. The corners are still great — though Charles Tillman hasn't been close to 100 percent healthy all season — but the safeties are awful. Chris Conte's fingerprints have been all over seemingly every big play Chicago has given up this year. When you can't pressure the quarterback or effectively defend deep balls, it spells trouble.
The Bears rely on interceptions and fumble recoveries just as they did under Smith, and they're still great at it. Chicago is second in the NFL with 18 takeaways. Problem is, that's the only way they can stop anyone.
Without Briggs, opposing offenses might hang 50 points on the Bears every week. It certainly doesn't feel like a stretch for the next game against the Packers, even if many of Aaron Rodgers' weapons are banged up.
* * *
Maybe this eulogy is premature. Maybe McCown will play as great as he did on Sunday the entirety of the time Cutler is sidelined by injury. Maybe the young players now forced into action on defense will provide a spark. Who knows. But the condition the Bears left Washington in isn't promising.
Two years ago, a broken thumb for Cutler derailed a 7-3 start. Last season, injuries on defense helped sabotage a team that started 7-1. The Bears began this year 3-0, but success in the NFL is always fleeting. It would be enough to make a person turn away entirely if football's gravitational pull wasn't so strong.