By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) Imagine watching a kid on a trampoline chanting in rhythm to the physics — “2 … and 1 … and hav-… -ing fun.”
The Chicago Bears are a strange, up-and-down sort of team. Bouncing with the beat of fans’ hearts as they’re bad … then great … then gross … then flashy … then omigoshdontthrowitthere … then Kyle Fuller! And that’s fun, but worrisome. Like a kid on a trampoline.
This isn’t the day after the loss to the Buffalo Bills where the gas mileage on the bandwagon skyrocketed from all the jumpers off. Being the only media person in Chicago who didn’t give up on the team then (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it no matter how untrue it is), it was hardly comforting looking at a Bears team that seemed to be carrying over the 2013 season into this one. Some shiny offensive plays, some bad decisions behind center and a run defense written by Hitchcock.
Then the seemingly improbable victory over the San Francisco 49ers had the axles bending and the tires puffed out again. They beat a maybe-Super Bowl-caliber team, which means more than losing to a definitely-from-Buffalo team, right?
But the Bears weren’t that underachieving loss to the Bills any more than they were that win over the penalty-prone 49ers. Because then the New York Jets game happened, and the Bears won in New Jersey, but it felt dirty and incomplete. Like living in New Jersey. There is a grayness to this team right now, and this question won’t go away from my head.
What are the Bears?
They’re one of only five teams through three games with positive overall grades on both offense and defense from Pro Football Focus (Washington, Baltimore, Detroit and San Francisco are the others). They’re also a team with the best receiving duo in the game in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, plus a tight end who’s the rare mix of good blocker and dangerous receiving threat in Martellus Bennett. Combine that with Matt Forte’s versatility out of the backfield and Jay Cutler’s arm, and they’re a juggernaut. But they’re not. At least not so far.
Part of that is Marshall and Jeffrey being less than healthy for more quarters than not. Some of it is the Bears’ inability as of yet to run the ball effectively — they’re last in the league in yards rushed and have zero rushing scores. And then there’s the enigma that is Cutler, who leads the NFC in touchdown passes (eight) but is also the guy who made an awful decision against the Bills and a few questionable ones against the Jets. So … exactly Jay Cutler.
The defense has been markedly better this season from last. The Bears are tied with the Patriots for the league lead in takeaways. The rookies Fuller (league leader in interceptions with three), Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton have stepped up and shown the future isn’t bleak. Chicago is still giving up too many rushing yards as a unit, is middle-of-the-pack regarding passing yards with a duct-taped secondary, but the Bears are only allowing 20.6 points per game so far. The offense can score three touchdowns in a half, which plays into the popular theory that if the defense can be just mediocre enough to not negate the other side, this is a playoff team.
But do the Bears feel playoff-ish right now? A 2-0 mark on the road is fantastic for any team against any opponents, but I can’t get the ringing of the Rich Kotite tribute band Geno Smith and the Fabulous J-E-T-S out of my ears. The 49ers are 1-2 with local media already calling the election with less than 20 percent of games reporting, and the Bills last Sunday woke up and realized they are the Bills. It’s obvious they aren’t a threat to the Seattle Seahawks at the moment.
Three games in might be too early to start doing a diagnosis of a team that isn’t win-less or loss-less. Sunday against the Green Bay Packers might dilute the muddiness, but if the Bears are ambiguous, what are the Packers, for that matter? A should-be 0-3 team if not for — brace yourself — the Jets shooting themselves in the foot. Yet, they still frighten the hell out of me because Aaron Rodgers. And because Eddie Lacy coming to breakfast. And because Julius Peppers exacting the revenge some fans secretly want to see to both affirm their cries of “How could we lettim go to da Pack?” and to satisfy their sadistic fetish of wanting Cutler eaten alive by a puma.
The Packers were fairly embarrassed by the Lions on Sunday in a game in which Matthew Stafford did little to show he’s no longer Matthew Stafford. Stafford has more than 100 more yards thrown than Cutler so far but five fewer touchdown throws, one more interception and is 14 points lower in quarterback rating. Metrics like Stafford more than Cutler, but nerdery is more predictive of 162 baseball games than 16 football contests. And while both guys can dumb themselves out of a win, Cutler’s receivers minimize that chance more than Stafford’s, even if Calvin Johnson is the game’s best, and Chicago coach Marc Trestman is to be trusted until proved otherwise.
The Vikings? Whatever.
Should the Bears make the playoffs as things stand right now? Yes. Will they? This division certainly allows for it. The conference is open to a weak wild-card team or two.
Right now, it’s the jumping on a trampoline. That uneasy feeling of happiness for the child’s happiness, but you can’t help but think there’s going to be a faceplant and emergency room visit. Just keep bouncing, please.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.