It took a momentous event to drag me out of my post-holidays, pre-moving-to-Ecuador stupor. The Bears/Packers NFC Championship showdown was not only exciting, but also so confusing that I needed to sort through my feelings. So unusual that I struggled to find a context for it. So infuriating that it sent me into prolonged flights of homicidal daydreaming.
As I stumbled from the bed to the couch Sunday afternoon, I felt that apprehensive excitement that an inevitably meaningful game creates. Bears/Packers for the Super Bowl was in a class with Bulls/Knicks ’92 Game 7, Super Bowl XX, Cubs/Marlins ’03 Games 6 & 7, Tyson/Holyfield I & II, among others. Even if the play itself wasn’t particularly great, the game would be a True Test, a matchup that would tell us everything we needed to know about this Bears team. That it could have also granted Bears fans carte blanche in making fun of Cheeseheads was just a nice side prospect.
So, when Jim Cornelison came out to sing, I was already emotionally erect. He quickly reminded me why Jim Cornelison should sing the National Anthem at every single event that’s ever held here or abroad:
Maybe it was all the mushrooms I’d taken the night before, but three hours later when Caleb Hanie threw the game-ending interception with 37 seconds left, I found myself more in a state of bewilderment than anger.
Not to bury the lead, but in the name of the fairness for which P.C.H.A. is so well known, here are:
The Top 5 Bears Responsible For The Loss Who Aren’t Jay Cutler
5) The Coordinators
Rob Marinelli (Defense): In the first drive of the game, the Packers covered 84 yards in 4 minutes to score a touchdown. It was the type of opening drive in which one team’s coaches find such a big hole that there’s no way for the other team to react on the field. In Marinelli’s defense, he adjusted and the Bears played the Packers about as well as possible the rest of the way… the only other TD they surrendered came when the Packers started at mid-field. Also, nobody could have known that the opening TD would be so important… I, for one, thought both teams would put up a decent amount of points. But starting in a 7-0 hole turned out to be the difference… even with all that went wrong with the Bears, the score was 14-14 the rest of the way.
Mike Martz (Offense): It’s been an up-and-down season with Coach Martz, ranging from the inane to the sublime. But the one thing that will never change is his regard for his own cleverness. The Bears got the ball at their own 29 with 2:53 left in the game. In 1:38, Hanie drove the team to the Green Bay 27… 8 of the 10 plays in the drive came from the shotgun. So what does Martz call on 3rd and 3? A slow-developing reverse that anybody who’s played an hour of Madden knew wouldn’t work. Instead of taking two downs to get 3 yards and the first down, Hanie had to force a throw on 4th and 5 that was picked off and ended the game.
4) Todd Collins
His inept performance engendered more pity than ire… if a 12-year-old gets into a drunk driving accident while drag racing, you really should mostly blame the parents. Most athletes want to play for as long as someone will pay them. But if Todd Collins thought he could still play quarterback in the NFL, he’s delusional and should seek help; if he knew that he couldn’t, he took $2,000,000 from the Bears under false pretenses.
3) Lovie Smith
Smith has had Caleb Hanie on his roster for two years and on the practice squad for another… last year he was the No. 2 QB. The Bears brought in Todd Collins because they felt they needed a veteran option… we’ll get to that later, but fine. But this wasn’t the first action Collins saw this year. In Week 4, Jay Cutler was sacked 9 times in the first half, and realized at halftime that he had a concussion… we’ll get to that later as well. So Collins played the second half of Week 4 and all of Week 5 against the Panthers. He was beyond terrible. Over 6 quarters, he was 10 for 27 for 68 yards, an average of 2.5 yards per attempt. He had no TDs, 5 INTs and a passer rating of 5.9. It was so bad that Smith immediately moved Hanie to the No. 2 QB spot after the Carolina game, only to inexplicably switch them back during the bye week. I knew with absolute certainty that the Bears had no chance to get a first down with Collins in the game. Smith should be applauded for realizing his mistake, but why did it take him two series to figure out what any Bears fan could have told him four months ago?
2) The Bears P.R. Team
OK, maybe they didn’t have anything to do with the loss to the Packers, per se, but proved critical in the loss of Jay Cutler’s ability to remain a credible Bears QB. Every shot of Cutler moping on the sideline, standing and walking around without a noticeable limp, when he was out with a vague knee injury, was another nail in the coffin. The moment the Bears knew he wasn’t playing again, he should have been brought to the locker room away from the cameras, and the media should have been given as much information as possible. Neither happened, which left Bears fans seething and guessing.
1) Jerry Angelo
Let’s say you’re the General Manager of a major NFL team. You’ve bet the future of your team and career on a physically-talented, mistake-prone quarterback who hadn’t made the playoffs since high school. Let’s say he also has no discernible leadership skills and is a diabetic who likes to drink. And you’ve signed him to big bucks through 2013.
You might think, say, having a rookie named Caleb Hanie as the only backup is a bit of a risk. It might be wise to bring a veteran in. You could go for someone over-the-hill with some success under his belt (Jeff Garcia, Derek Andersen, etc.) or someone with physical skills who’s been around the block but never found success (Troy Smith, David Carr, etc.). Or you could pick someone over-the-hill with no physical skills or past success.
OK, then. Maybe Angelo saw something in Collins nobody else did… I mean, he found Johnny Knox at Abilene Christian and Matt Forte at Tulane (and Michael Haynes and Cedric Benson, but still). Maybe bad luck was why Collins had a 71.8 lifetime rating and had only been a starter for one season, a 6-10 effort for the Bills… in 1997. But after Collins craps the bed in Weeks 4 and 5, you have to cut your losses. Even if there’s nobody else out there, you KNOW he can’t play in the NFL. So why is he even still on the roster for the Packers game? Why is he still the number 2 QB ahead of Hanie? When even JaMarcus Russell is an upgrade, why have you not found a better solution?!?
This Is What It’s All About
I’ve enjoyed the commercials of football fans watching their teams pull out an amazing victory, especially the Saints fans during the Super Bowl… at least, I did until the 500th time I saw it. I know that I’ll never see it on ESPN, but I’m sure there’s some great footage of Bears fans when they realized that they hadn’t misheard Joe Buck… Todd Collins was heading into the game and Jay Cutler was sitting on the bench, after no visible injury or any warning, with the game still well within reach. With the crowd literally still cheering Brian Urlacher’s goalline-to-midfield interception, the spark that the Bears desperately needed. Shot after shot of people on the verge of a stroke, speaking unintelligible words, wandering aimlessly around their living rooms. The NFL Playoffs, ladies and gentlemen.
The way that you’re first introduced to an athlete colors your opinion of him for a long time. It’s not that it can’t be changed… an athlete that you thought of as colorful can show himself to be unreliable; one that you thought worthless can prove invaluable. But you’re more apt to give an athlete you like extra time and leeway to prove himself.
For Bears fans, our relationship with Jay Cutler began with suspicion. Some of it was us… we’ve been so beaten down by our previous relationships with quarterbacks that we tend to overreact like Bonnie Hunt’s character in Jerry Maguire. Some of it was him… he had never really done anything except get out of Denver by acting like the biggest whiny bitch possible.
Were we a little quick to assume the worst when there were a few bumps? Absolutely. But his emotional distance didn’t help the situation. Every shot of him pouting on the sidelines, burying his chin in a big overcoat, staring vaguely into space after a bad turn of events, just confirmed to us that he didn’t care. Maybe part of it was his natural grostesqueness, but Cutler often looks like apathy personified.
So we never really trusted him, not even during the good times. We were willing to give him another chance, but never got rid of the nagging suspicion that the other shoe was just waiting to drop. But, finally, heading into the NFC Championship, we’d started to let our guard down a little. Not only had he been successful, but he’d changed. During the first half of Sunday’s game, the Bears offense was going nowhere. But Cutler didn’t panic, and didn’t make any of his patented gamekilling decisions. His throws were definitely off… he missed Hester several times down the field. But he also took the yards on the ground when they were there, and he threw the ball away rather than throwing it up for grabs. After the initial clusterfuck, the defense had tightened up and was keeping Aaron Rodgers in check. Devin Hester loomed as a threat. Matt Forte was running the ball well. Cutler hadn’t made any mistakes that killed us. We counted ourselves lucky we were down only two touchdowns and getting the ball first.
And then came Lee DeWyze.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence. Maybe Lee didn’t get into Jay’s head with his siren’s song. But immediately after DeWyze came sauntering in with his soulful lyrics and Hootie-esque guitar playing, Cutler decided he couldn’t do it anymore.
Now, all we’re left with is a bunch of conflicting facts to talk over with our friends as we try to work out whether he abandoned us.
-Did you see him on the sideline… typical Jay… he couldn’t have cared less.
-His friends are standing up for him, though. Do you think Urlacher or Briggs would be defending him this strongly if they thought he was sandbagging?
-He got sacked 52 times this year and never complained publicly about his horrible line. Doesn’t this prove his toughness?
-But, the only other time he was knocked out was against the Giants, when things were also not going well for either him or the team. He was getting kicked around and came back from the halftime locker room with a vague injury. I’m not saying, I’m just saying.
-Could you imagine Brett Favre or Peyton Manning or Drew Brees pulling this shit? You’d have to drag them off the field. At the very least, there would be shots of them pleading with or screaming at the medical staff. Cutler was just sitting sullenly and half-heartedly riding a stationary bike.
-In 2002, Tom Brady was knocked out of the AFC Championship with a knee injury, but was well enough to play in the Super Bowl two weeks later, and nobody called him a pussy (maybe a pretty boy, but they’re just jealous).
-Brady had Drew Bledsoe behind him and he won… life isn’t fair.
-I suppose it also isn’t fair that Jay looks and acts just like Spaulding Smails.
-Maybe he just isn’t The One.
As a sports fan, I’ve only felt this mixture of unease and confusion and anger and resignation once before. In 1988 and 1989, the Jordan-led Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, first 4-1 then 4-2. In 1990, the Bulls pushed them to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals. Whoever won the game was probably going to win the NBA Finals. It was the final hurdle for the Jordan Bulls to claim their crown. It came against their biggest rival, who had tormented them for years. And Scottie Pippen sat out the game with migraine headaches.
Obviously, there are many differences between the Jordan Bulls and the 2011 Bears. But there are many similarities between Cutler and Pippen’s injuries. Like Cutler, Pippen was a few years into a career with tons of potential but no real resume. Like Cutler, the Bulls needed Pippen to reach that potential if they were ever going to win anything. Pippen also had the reputation for not working as hard as he should, for choosing partying over practice. If it turned out Pippen wasn’t the player the Bulls thought he was, it would have set them back for years. Sitting out a game of such magnitude without a visible injury seemed inconceivable, betraying, weak.
I had migraines as a kid, and know how debilitating and painful they can be. There were times I literally threw up from them and could barely pick my head off the pillow. Logically, I knew it was unfair to blame Pippen for getting one without serious proof that he was for some unfathomable reason faking it. At the same time, I couldn’t help feeling that he was soft, that he couldn’t be trusted, that he’d failed a True Test. Michael Jordan apparently felt the same way. I’m sure a sprained MCL is also painful and debilitating. I just can’t fathom that it kept Cutler from playing… or at least, I can’t accept it.
Pippen is proof that an athlete can rebound from this type of incident. There’s a chance that Jay Cutler could follow the same path and eventually show us enough to trust him again. But the odds aren’t good that our relationship is going to make it. Even with Pippen, it took years of hard work and patience and, most of all, six championships.
And Cutler didn’t make it any easier by heading out to dinner afterwards at Mastros Steakhouse with Kristen Cavallari, that fucking skank.