By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) This is the in-between. The place where some are hoping against hope.
It seems like the time between Bears games has stretched as we have reached these last weeks, amid this odd season’s unsettling finish. Time flew both during the heady days of the 7-1 start and the lurch of the subsequent collapse. Now, it drags, with Bears fans waiting acutely for something.
Optimists remain, assuring themselves that a playoff spot is just the chance needed to rejuvenate and rise, shaking off 15 games worth of proven limitations. It will finally come together, they believe, essentially convincing themselves that this will become a wholly different team simply because of the opportunity to continue playing.
More, though, are wary of recent dysfunction and established patterns. They can’t deny the obvious, even after last week’s victory kept it all going somewhere. They wonder where, and how. They are unsure how any outcomes can or should influence what’s larger and more important, and if those with power to shape the future see what they see.
It’s far easier to be a player right now, free to give oneself to the drumbeat of routine and clarity of purpose: rise, eat, practice, eat, study, eat, sleep. Submerge in the sea of details of plays, formations, responses and technique. Next opponent, next snap.
The fan has no such luxury, having no control at all. He can drift in the many attenuated hours until the next material activity, free to contemplate how it got to this point.
Although receiving records fall and defenders take the ball and score, both quality of play and sustainability of success remain elusive, most notably against better competition. Something about the philosophy just isn’t adding up anymore. Despite doing so much of what they have long said they need to do, it doesn’t matter enough.
Offensive arrhythmia has existed now from system to system and coach to coach. Spasms of individual talent gain yards amid a loosely-connected process, with obvious communication snafus still hampering efforts. Too often between plays, it’s like the connective wiring is losing insulation – impulses simply dissipate, whether from sideline to helmet or player to player. Timeout, again.
Fervid expectations for Jay Cutler upon his arrival have been cooled to embers by his inconsistency. He is the best quarterback in franchise history, but that’s only another painful fact that doesn’t matter enough. Same goes for Brandon Marshall. The handling of the running back position, meanwhile, defies logic.
Special teams are oxymoronic, a far cry from what underpinned some good Bears teams, and hid deficiencies elsewhere. It still takes a moment to process that the placekicker is not Robbie Gould, but someone other than he.
Elsewhere on the field too, we watch players we don’t know, adding to the weirdness. Joe Anderson, James Brown, Anthony Walters and Jonathan Scott can dine in public unbothered, and could walk into the room unidentified. Their names almost seem actively, intentionally bland, like they’re in witness protection. Or football Pod-People, cultivated in some damp greenhouse of interchangeability.
There is an increasing, palpable sense of awareness that the Bears are nearing a reckoning, but there is only discomfort in stasis. Where the Bears are this year has yet to be determined, and will be soon, by themselves and by others. The same cannot be said for where they are on a grander scale, or how arbitrary thresholds of achievement will be applied to difficult decisions. We don’t even know to what extent it truly matters that they reach the playoffs.
It’s all very strange — the end of a roster at the end of a season, perhaps approaching the end of something more.