CHICAGO — Once the thought of Bears coach Lovie Smith losing his job seemed ridiculous.
After 13 games, though, and Sunday’s 21-14 defeat by the Green Bay Packers, nothing seems out of the realm of possibility: from Smith and his staff getting the ax to general manager Jerry Angelo and his staff joining them.
It would be difficult to imagine this happening if they win two of their final three.
However, if they manage to lose all three, including the season-finale at Ford Field against the woebegone Detroit Lions, it could be time to at least get the proverbial guillotine out and dust it off — if not merely for the sake of showing what awaits if this type of play goes beyond 2009.
On Sunday, the Bears displayed some of the same problems they’ve had all year.
They fell behind 13-0 at the outset. Someone is either outmatched our out-game planned—or both—from the start each week. The Bears have had only two leads after first quarters all year.
They fought back, and in the process saw wide receiver Devin Aromashodu make eight catches. This is a receiver who sat on the bench and rotted all season while Devin Hester struggled, especially in his last four games.
The eight catches represented Hester’s career high and Aromashodu did it in his first Bears start and second NFL start.
But then again, Aromashodu didn’t get a $40 million deal and have his position changed from all-time great return man to wide receiver by this coaching staff and management staff.
“You think that if Devin Hester was up, maybe he would have had a day like that today,” Smith countered. “The last time we played the Packers we were able to do some things in the passing game, too; I don't think you can look at it that way.
“As far as we're concerned it's a guy taking advantage of a great opportunity and it's always good to see players step up, similar to how Jamar Williams did last week. You get your opportunity to step up and he did.”
All of which leads us exactly to Jamar Williams.
The week after the Bears backup linebacker made 20 tackles subbing for Lance Briggs — most for a game by any Bear except Brian Urlacher in Smith’s tenure as coach —Williams found himself back on the bench behind Nick Roach and Hunter Hillenmeyer.
They just couldn’t get Williams on the field.
And on the first play from scrimmage, Hillenmeyer got blocked. Roach got taken out of the play completely. The Packers’ Ryan Grant ran 62 yards for a touchdown despite facing a Bears’ “elephant package” alignment using an extra safety to stop the run.
For some reason, when opponents come in with special alignments like the Packers’ or Bengals’ inverted wishbones or the Bengals’ unbalanced line, or the 1-5-5 alignment Green Bay’s defense used Sunday, it works.
When the Bears try an elephant alignment or a fake field goal, it blows up in their faces.
How can a team constantly fall behind early in games and get burned by opponents’ innovations every week?
There was also the little matter of 13 penalties for 109 yards, including three key screw-ups by Angelo’s last first-round draft pick, left tackle Chris Williams.
“We haven't been a team that's been penalized that much,” Smith said. “Some of them were in critical situations for us.
“Whenever you lose yardage like that on a day like today of course it hurts you quite a bit.”
Smith apparently has a habit of not seeing laundry strewn about the field.
The Bears haven’t been a team penalized much?
They are now fourth in the NFL with 91 penalties and third in penalty yards with 761. They were fifth in 2007, fifth in 2006 and fourth in 2004 in penalties under Smith. And last year an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on cornerback Charles Tillman against Tampa Bay probably cost them a playoff berth.
Penalties are caused largely by lack of discipline, according to Smith. Discipline is something coaching can impact.
The coaching staff impacted the game in a few more messy ways Sunday.
Facing fourth-and-one at the Packer 45 with a 14-13 lead and 1:30 left in the third quarter, Smith opted to punt.
This is a 5-7 team at the time, lacking one win this year over a single winning team and needing to win the worst way to remain in playoff contention. In the worst way they need a big first down.
At 5-7 against your biggest rival and with the playoffs all but gone, the ship was kind of leaning there Lovie, and Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio were scrambling to get to the high end. It seemed like as good a time as any to take a chance and put the pitiful 2009 season on the line.
“It was a full yard,” offensive coordinator Ron Turner chipped in with protection for his boss’ decision. “If it was half or something like that but it was a full yard, still a lot of time left, we had the lead and I don’t think we were across midfield.”
A full yard. Wow. Thirty-six inches. That’s a lot. Well, it is to a team ranked 31st in rushing at the time, and now last in the league. It seems like the last time the Bears converted a big third-and-one, it was Thomas Jones carrying the ball.
“It was a difficult decision,” Smith said. “But at the time we were playing really good defense and thought we could pin them down there and really go from there.
“Those are always good decisions. We'll be a little bit more conservative in those situations based on how we're playing at the time defensively.”
So Smith played it conservative because he had faith in his strong defense. This defense hasn’t stopped a good offense when it really mattered since the second week of the season. And when that happened, it was Pittsburgh’s offense. The Steelers aren’t even a winning team now.
Smith also brushed off inquires into why the Bears called timeout and then before the next play asked for a review of tight end Greg Olsen's dropped pass. They wound up losing the challenge and another timeout.
Of course, they needed the timeouts later, but Smith only said things were hectic and messed up on the sidelines and that they needed time to sort something out before they could waste a timeout — with a stupid challenge that no one in the stadium could realistically think they would win.
He wouldn't explain what the exact problem was on the sidelines when asked.
Somehow, this explanation seemed plausible. It’s very easy to believe things were messed up on the Bears’ sidelines.
It probably happens a lot.