Bears Sinking to Level of NFL Laughingstock

On a day when Mike Ditka fell asleep on the ESPN set during “NFL Countdown,” the team he once symbolized zonked out on the biggest play of its season. The Chicago Bears do not deserve to be anywhere near the playoffs because its sidewalk-slush defense, once the hallmark of the franchise and identity of the city, was pushed into Lake Michigan in the final six minutes Sunday. Already, the Bears had allowed first downs to the Packers on two 4th-and-1 gambles, including a Mad Max handoff to John Kuhn for a yard at the Green Bay 22.

Aaron Rodgers and his coach, Mike McCarthy, did not think the Bears could stop them. They were right, in that the Bears couldn’t have slowed 11 junk-traders playing flag football in Grant Park. Shaking off two early interceptions and seven weeks of rust while a broken collarbone healed, Rodgers lined up in the shotgun in the ultimate predicament — 4th-and-season — while needing at least eight yards at the Bears 48. He shook off a blitz, a questionable defensive strategy in that situation, eluded Julius Peppers thanks to a Kuhn block, rolled to the outside and noticed that wideout Randall Cobb had broken free of any and all defenders down the left sideline. This is known as a blown coverage, and with 38 seconds left, throughout scattered precincts of a grunt universe, you could hear the collective shrieking of Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Richard Dent, Dan Hampton and anybody else who ever made defense a calling card and Hall of Fame ticket at Soldier Field.

“We had a blitz on. We lost an edge,” Bears coach Marc Trestman said. “Aaron was able to get outside. Once he got outside, things happen. When you’ve got a zero blitz on, things can happen. And we just lost coverage with our eyes in the backfield.”

City of Broad Shoulders?

City of Defrauded Ticket Holders is more like it.

The Bears have not made a big play in years. Or is it eons? Sunday, while Rodgers was returning to the playoffs with a 15-play, 87-yard drive that won the NFC North, they predictably failed in the defining moments of a 33-28 loss and now must begin a complete overhaul of a decrepit defense that allowed 54 points and 514 yards in Philadelphia the week before. For years, under Lovie Smith, they emphasized defense at the expense of offense and whiffed with Rex Grossman at quarterback in their only Super Bowl appearance since the 1985 champions-and-entertainers extravaganza. Now, under Trestman, they have no defense to accompany a potent offense. All of which is trying the patience of a town unified like few others by its pro football team. You’d be going on 29 if you were born in 1985, and closer to the point, this team now has missed the playoffs six of the last seven years. No matter who’s coaching — Trestman, Smith or Iron Nap Ditka — they can’t beat a Green Bay team that has won three straight division titles and hasn’t missed the playoffs in six years.

This trend was supposed to change when Jay Cutler was traded to the Bears in 2008. Finally, it seemed, the Bears had a quarterback after years of paying scant attention to a position that only is the most important in team sports. But when Cutler wasn’t prone to injury, he was wearing a boo-boo face on the sideline, unfortunate body language that hinted he was a loser. When a high ankle sprain forced him out in midseason, Josh McCown was handed the reins to Trestman’s offense and, shockingly, became one of the league’s most efficient, productive passers. Cutler’s return three games ago forced McCown to the bench, amid much doubt in the locker room and among Chicago’s cheerleading media.

The results with Cutler: a shaky victory against Cleveland, which fired coach Rob Chudzinski on Sunday after one season, followed by one awful rout and one painful elimination punch. Cutler played well enough against the Packers, putting together impressive touchdown drives and avoiding interceptions. But when it was time to answer the Rodgers in the final half-minute, in a defense-mushy league given to wild offensive heroics to end games, Cutler fell short again. He had three shots from the Green Bay 45, but Tom Brady he is not, missing connections with Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall. His final attempt, deep to Jeffery, was intercepted by Sam Shields, and the fans once again left the lakefront in silence, frozen and unfulfilled.

The issue now is whether the Bears should cut ties with Cutler, who would become a free agent, or try to secure him either with a short-term franchise tag or a long-term deal. General manager Phil Emery sounds inclined to keep him for the long haul, telling ESPN Radio: “If you put a franchise tag on a player, that’s a player that you like. We like Jay. If you like a player, you want to move forward in a multi-contract year basis, not a short term.”

It seems smarter to let him go, pay significantly less money to keep McCown as the starter and draft a rookie backup who can develop in Trestman’s free-wheeling system — can you imagine Johnny Manziel in Chicago, where he’d never buy another drink? With the going rate of quarterbacks, Cutler might want $100 million for the long haul, and that is a laughable thought. When Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan produced iffy seasons after receiving nine-figure deals, would anyone have faith that Cutler would stay healthy and produce enough to merit such money?

Why tie it up in a 30-year-old who really hasn’t won anything and is 1-9 against the rival Packers? Why not give the job to McCown, a folk hero who seemed to be a lot more fun in his short stint than Cutler ever has been in Chicago or Denver?

“I’ve said it before: I’m convinced Jay is a franchise quarterback,” Emery said. “The rest of that as far as where we are going in the future, we’ll work out that in the offseason. Certainly, I’m pleased with Jay. I think he’s grown in certain areas. When he’s been healthy and been on the field this year, he’s been playing at his highest level ever during the course of his career.

“I think he’s improved in the leadership area. I think his demeanor has improved. I think the time off made him appreciate the great coaches that we have. He’s told me that our coaches are on fire with their game-planning, execution and getting guys ready to play.”

The feeling must be mutual, of course. Cutler and Michael Vick, likely to be made available by Philadelphia in a trade, would be the two biggest QB names on the offseason market. Arizona or Tampa Bay might interest him, but I doubt Cleveland, Minnesota or Jacksonville would. After a loss that he said was “tough to swallow,” Cutler said he’d like to return.

“You’d love to. You can’t predict the future, though,’ he said. “I’m not really going to get into what’s going to happen. It always works out how it’s supposed to.”

Just as it always goes with the Bears.