By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Slam. Click.

That’s the Bears’ much-discussed championship window, closed and locked. Sealed until further notice.

During training camp, most of us looked at the aging defense and the questionable depth from too many barren drafts, considered the newly-fortified offense, and concluded that there was one more good shot before time and bad scouting conspired to take their inevitable toll.

Turns out we were off by half a season.

The 7-1 start was all giddy fun, watching the predictably unsustainable defensive scoring against also-rans and celebrating that the only thing crazy about Brandon Marshall was his stat line. Not too long ago, you were buying that “Peanut Punch” t-shirt, contemplating the Pro-Bowl candidacy of Henry Melton, and understanding why Lovie Smith waved off early overtures from management on discussing a two-year contract extension.

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The 1-4 record since has been the harsh light of truth burning away layer after layer of wishful thinking. Jay Cutler and his primary target – remarkable though he may be – cannot fully cover for blocking that can’t be trusted. Marshall will break every franchise record he wants, and Cutler will call on every last bit of athleticism and toughness, but there just are not enough points being produced.

This battered old defense couldn’t conquer a team led by an incompetent quarterback and missing its most effective receiver, even as they found their footing after allowing Adrian Peterson 104 first-quarter yards. They could not set the edge when it mattered early, and could not match the physicality of play until it was too late, early though it was.

Any critical boost from special teams seems gone, too. The return game is no longer effective, the once targeted free-agent punter is ordinary, and now the taken-for-granted kicker is hurt. Devin Hester seems to influence games more by dropping passes and being lined up improperly than anything else.

It is time to stare into the abyss, and to feel the looming uncertainty of big-picture instability.

Smith would probably be done in by a second consecutive season marked by an excruciating collapse out of playoff position. GM Phil Emery’s power to fire him vests in three weeks — or after a likely loss in the wild-card round – and could be wielded unencumbered by the kind of meddling from above to which we have grown accustomed. If Emery wants a new coach, he’ll have one.

Cutler will need new paper of his own, and you can bet he’s wondering why he’s bothering to take these unending beatings, when it’s just not going anywhere and there’s nothing to show for the effort. If he really wants a ring, you couldn’t be mad at him for getting antsy about his chances in Chicago.

If the next wave of young talent was ready to go, we would have some idea of the names involved in the reconstruction. It sounds great when a coach sticks out his chin during times of attrition and declares “next man up.” That becomes a problem, though, when the next man sucks.

All of this may have been true before this game, there for anybody who cared to identify and examine the flaws. Voices of reason were audible even when lowly teams were being dispatched by healthy bodies and fortuitous bounces. Smart people asked good questions about actual quality.

Successful limp into the postseason or not, even the most optimistic observer would admit that this is not a Super Bowl winner. Those teams rarely look like this in December.

But it’s one thing to think you know it, something else entirely to keep seeing it.

bernstein 90x130 Bernstein: Bears In Free Fall
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.

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