The beginning and end of the 2010 Chicago Bears’ season look like complete opposites. And the defining change during the season took place during a week the Bears didn’t play.
In some circles it’s being hailed as an epiphany. Or perhaps it was an intervention.
True to his low-key nature, Bears coach Lovie Smith merely refers to the point when his team’s fortunes changed as “the bye.”
The real details of how it transpired remain murky because Smith and all involved would rather keep it that way, but there is no doubt that without this transformation during their week off at the end of October, the Bears would not be in Sunday’s NFC playoffs as a second seed against Seattle. In fact, Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Martz, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli and possibly even general manager Jerry Angelo might have been seeking employment.
“I think once our coaches had a little more time to evaluate our team, and not focus on the upcoming opponent, they saw some things that maybe we weren’t prepared to do at that time,” Angelo said.
Either Smith, famous for saying the team “gets off the bus running,” imposing offensive line coach Mike Tice or someone with the worn-out Bears defense or possibly even common sense told Martz “enough already” with the Greatest Show on Turf imitation.
With a makeshift offensive line struggling to keep quarterback Jay Cutler upright, the Bears went back to their basic instinct of handing the ball to Matt Forte.
“We were pass heavy,” Forte said.
Smith does not describe it as himself or Tice threatening Martz, but more a case where everyone involved came to a common conclusion to go forward on the ground.
“We just needed a little bit of time to grow and see exactly what we would be, a lot of new parts that we had,” Smith said. “As far as change … we kind of figured out a little bit on what direction we wanted to go.
“But I think we’re really the same team. You would like to see improvement from the early part of the season any year.”
Improvement did occur, and it became most evident on the offensive line. It’s not the same group that let Cutler get sacked six times by Seattle in a 23-20 Oct. 17 loss. After the bye, guard Roberto Garza returned from arthroscopic knee surgery to play the right side, where he had been earlier in his career. It was one of the few injuries suffered by a fortunate team that has only one veteran player on injured reserve, backup linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer.
Tackle Chris Williams made his NFL debut at left guard in the first Seattle game, with rookie seventh-round draft pick J’Marcus Webb playing right tackle. And the line stayed the same after the bye and gradually improved from one which regularly got Cutler stomped to acceptable, and then to one that made the offense capable of scoring 78 total points over two games. The two-game total was the team’s highest since 1989.
The offense never consistently piled up gaudy numbers like New England or New Orleans, but made strides nonetheless. Forte rushed for 717 yards over the final nine weeks after scratching out 352 the first seven, and during an eight-week span the Bears were the only team to run more times than they passed.
With the ability to pick up more yardage on earlier downs by running, they went from last in the league at converting third downs (17.9 percent) after seven weeks to 27th (32.8 percent) by the end of the regular season. They stopped turning the ball over — yes, even Cutler — losing it only 13 times the final nine games after coughing it up 18 times the first seven.
“They’re the reason we played so good the second half of the season,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said of the offense. “They held on to the ball, they’ve converted third downs, we ran the ball, and they kept [the defense] on the sidelines and kept us fresh.”
Whether the Bears advance to the NFC Championship Game likely will be due greatly to Urlacher, $91 million man Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and a veteran defense with five 30-something players. It’s a group that held Green Bay to 10 points at Lambeau Field when the Packers had their season on the line but the Bears had nothing to gain.
“This thing picks up, the pace and tempo are going to pick up now,” Marinelli said about the playoffs. “That’s a fun part of this thing. [The players] understand it. … We’ve got some elite players who play as a team.”
Nevertheless, that defense won’t be able to carry the Bears if Cutler morphs, during his first postseason start since high school, into the version of himself who threw four interceptions to Washington’s DeAngelo Hall one week after the loss to Seattle.
“Sometimes, of course, we’ve lost some games and you’d like to have some things back,” Smith said. “But Jay should be leading a playoff team because he does everything you want a quarterback to do. He can make every throw you want him to make.
“He’s a tough guy. … He’s run at the perfect time this year and we don’t have any complaints.”
They just can’t fall in love with his arm in the playoffs. More than anything else — even with a special-teams threat like Devin Hester and the league’s fourth-ranked scoring defense — the Bears can expect to go nowhere if they try to pass 45 times and hand it to backs 12 times, like they did in the earlier loss to Seattle.
Fortunately for their Super Bowl prospects, the Bears have the newer, more flexible Mike Martz making sure it doesn’t happen.
“‘Flexible’ has probably never been a word that has been associated with my name,” Martz pointed out.
It is now, regardless of who made it happen or how it really occurred.
Copyright 2010 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. STATS LLC and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.