CHICAGO—This was about as satisfying as alcohol-free beer, a bottle of warm water on a 95-degree day, or a Twinkie that Hostess forgot to fill with whipped cream.
The Bears' season-opening 19-14 victory Sunday over the Detroit Lions counts in the win column, make no mistake. After self-congratulations, the players and coaches certainly reminded everyone of this fact.
"It's the first game. A win is a win," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "We're going to take it any way we can get it."
Cutler pretty much summed up how they got the win with his statement. They took it in a way that bordered on distasteful for several reasons.
When your offense starts at Detroit's 41, 43, 37, and one-yard lines and comes away with three total points, calling it a glorious victory might be a bit of an exaggeration.
Considering the Bears averaged their 40-yard line for a starting point and they rolled up more yardage (463) than in any game since they beat Miami on an Oct. 27, 1997 overtime contest 36-33, it's a "W" with an asterisk—an asterisk in a type face far larger the "W."
They got more receiving yards from a running back (Matt Forte, 151) than in any other game they've ever played except one, and they had a defensive effort that would have made Buddy Ryan envious. Yet they found a way to make this a game; they actually would have lost if NFL rules makers had just one ounce of gray matter.
The big controversy in this one will always be about how the NFL could have a rule that kept Calvin Johnson's 25-yard TD catch from being a catch. Make no mistake, it was the rule as written—not the officials—that turned this game's conclusion into a joke.
The Patriots have the "tuck rule." The Bears now have the "luck rule." The Lions might call it something that rhymes with luck.
If that wasn't a touchdown, then why even have the goal line?
Referee Gene Steratore's official explanation to pool reporter Mike Mulligan was the following: "The ruling is that in order for the catch to be completed, he has got to maintain possession of the ball throughout the entire process of the catch."
Johnson came down with the ball in the end zone with a roll, then dropped it as his hand came to the turf near the back of the end zone at the end of the play after his entire body had been down in the end zone with the ball in his possession.
"The process was not finished until he finished that roll and the entire process of that catch," Steratore said.
Let us not be diverted from the real issue by these technicalities.
The Bears were on the one-yard line in the fourth quarter after Lance Briggs had made a spectacular sack, strip, and recovery on the Lions' one. However, the Mike Martz offense, which put up historic numbers in its debut, could not gain 36 inches when necessary.
It looked like Ron Turner's old offense at the goal line. Fortunately, Forte made a spectacular catch later that actually did count to save coach Lovie Smith the embarrassment of facing questions about how he blew a victory by going for a fourth-and-goal at the one while trailing 14-13 in the fourth quarter.
Smith faced the questions about his silly gamble anyway, and his answers were predictably dissatisfying if not shady.
"I felt like we were playing great defense, and I just didn't feel good about having three points in that situation," Smith said. "The worst-case scenario would have been for us not to get it, and we still had them backed up."
"It was a field position game throughout. I'd make that call every time."
In fact, he had been in that same situation early in the game, but opted to let Robbie Gould kick a chip shot field goal.
That was different, he explained, because it was the first possession of the game.
Actually, it made more sense to kick the later field goal because the Bears had proven offensively that they couldn't gain a yard on the ground when they really needed it. They had tried two runs on that series from the one and already failed.
A field goal would have taken off some pressure by at least giving them a lead. With the way their offense was handing over the football (four turnovers on Sunday), gambling for a five-point lead instead of taking a certain one-point lead made no sense.
Smith expressed confidence that his defense would keep the Lions backed up at the one if the gamble failed, but on the other hand said he wanted the comfort of a five-point lead rather than two points.
So which is it, is he confident in the defense or does he need to gamble?
"Just like ended up happening at the end, if you let a team hang around and be within one score, they can win the football game," Smith said. "I wanted to at least put it where they had to make a touchdown. I didn't feel like they would be able to get that."
The defense not only had held the Lions to 110 total yards for the game before their last possession but had three takeaways of their own. Why not express real confidence in them?
Even here it's difficult for Bears' coaches to feel good. How does a team that is bottled up all game and using Shaun Hill at quarterback instead of injured starter Matt Stafford, drive from their own 17 to the Bears' 25 in 1:20 with only one timeout?
It's the old prevent defense, of course.
"It's two-minute, they've got one timeout with a minute and 30," said cornerback Zack Bowman, who got beat in the jump ball on Johnson's non-catch. "So our big mindset and big focus was just to keep them in-bounds, force everything inside, make tackles, tackle them, and just keep them in-bounds to let that clock wind down more and more and more."
They didn't execute it very well because the clock didn't wind down enough. Only a really bad NFL rule let the Bears' prevent defense prevent defeat.
So even a defense that had allowed only one second-half first down until the final Lions' drive found a way to leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth except their own.
"It reminded me of the Green Bay game last year," Briggs said. "You play great defense all game and then you give up one big play.
"We were put in some certain positions today, and we held strong. Big ups to our defense and our offense, special teams, everybody."
Especially to the NFL rules makers.