There can’t be anyone that was more critical of the Chicago Bears — and coaches Lovie Smith and Ron Martz — than I’ve been in the past year. I already spoke at length as to why I thought the pairing of Martz and erratic quarterback Jay Cutler was doomed to failure, and I was more than prepared as the season started to watch my beloved Bears crash into the NFC North cellar; when asked, I predicted to anyone who’d listen that I thought Chicago was a legitimate threat to finish behind the improved Detroit Lions.
Instead of planning for who they’re going to pick in next year’s draft, the Bears are fighting for the NFC title, and are only one game back of the 9-2 Atlanta Falcons for the best record in the conference. Is it possible that Chicago might not only make the playoffs, but could host a game in January? I never would have thought it was possible — and yet, here we are.
The reasons for the Bears turnaround are really pretty simple. The defense has suddenly sprung back to life (the Bears have given up the 2nd fewest points in all of the NFL, just behind division rival Green Bay), giving up 8 points a game fewer than they did in 2009 and putting them in position to win every game they play, while also allowing only 80.5 rushing yards a game, 2nd-best in the league. They’ve also been better at limiting backbreaking turnovers — or more so, Jay Cutler has been limiting them of late, having thrown only 3 interceptions over his last four games, all wins.
Martz’ pass-wacky tendencies have also been limited as the season as worn on. After early losses in which the running game was nearly invisible, the Bears have focused on giving Matt Forte the ball and establishing the run. In their 16-0 shutout win over the Dolphins two weeks ago, Forte and backup running back Chester Taylor carried the ball as astounding (for a Martz-led offense, that is) 36 times! Defense and a running game that can control the clock and wear out defenses: that’s how the classic Bear teams of the past have won, and to a large extent, that’s how they’re winning now.
Can it continue? I thought Chicago’s early-season victories were fluky — a win on the terrible Calvin Johnson TD-that-wasn’t call that should have resulted in a loss on opening day, and wins against terrible teams in Dallas, Buffalo, and Carolina. Also, the Giants destroyed them in Week 4, and they have unimpressive losses against mediocre teams in Seattle and Washington — at home, no less.
Yet they did beat Green Bay earlier in the season, and the victory against Philadelphia this past Sunday in a game where Cutler played as good a game as he has in his time wearing a Bears uniform — as well as the impressive performance by the defense in limiting the damage done by Michael Vick — has made me, for the moment at least, a believer. It’s been a difficult season for me as a Bears fan — I haven’t rooted for them to win, mainly because I believed (and deep down, still believe I guess) that Lovie, Martz, and Cutler all needed to go for the franchise’s future to be bright.
But at some point, the results on the field are all that really matter — and the Bears are winning — so, sucker that I am, I guess I’m along for the ride. A question I asked recently of a friend was whether or not someone can “bandwagon jump” if it’s their own team they’re doing it with — I’m now going to find out. I’m breaking out my Bears jacket from the closet and embracing this team, for better or for worse. If Cutler really has matured as a quarterback, if the defense continues to channel the great defenses of years past, if Lovie doesn’t foul it up and Martz can keep his worst tendencies in check — then in what’s been a wacky year already in the NFL, Chicago might just be for real.