By Dan Bernstein
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) Competence means losing slower.
An actual head coach and capable, experienced assistants should allow the Bears to make the most of their overmatched personnel, as they mainly did in their 31 -23 season-opening loss to the Packers at Soldier Field on Sunday. The most, however, still isn’t much.
What follows is going to be a damning of the Bears with faint praise, an almost incomprehensible series of compliments arising more from the depths of their previous abyss than real delight in their present or hope for their immediate future. It’s not what makes for the grandest celebration, but they’re no longer a sustained insult to our sensibilities.
This is a far cry from 55-14 and also far enough from 38-17. Moral victories may be shameful for a heritage NFL franchise in a top-three market, but they have to be identified when they occur. That’s what this is for this city right now, its team merely being able to play into the fourth quarter of a competitive and interesting game. Strike up the band.
The offense under Adam Gase had plays called, sent to the field and relayed. They broke the huddle and got to the line with a purpose and with enough time for Jay Cutler to look things over. As expected, Cutler was careful until he wasn’t, forced by score and situation into more passing and higher risk, with Clay Matthews claiming the usual reward of a big interception.
What they did made sense, riding Matt Forte to avoid reliance on shaky protection and gimpy receivers without much recent practice. Instead of shaking our heads, bewildered by everything we’re seeing, the strategy was understandable. That’s new, this idea of having a plan and people trying to execute it.
Chicago kept playing at the end, too, shredding Green Bay’s conciliatory zones for a meaningless Martellus Bennett touchdown that kept it within one score and allowed for an onside-kick attempt. A viewer of a Bears game could remain involved, then, for 59 minutes and 26 seconds, or three hours of real time. Not really pleased, but involved.
An outmanned defense facing one of the best quarterbacks ever was able to limit the Packers to 322 total yards, and the Bears possessed the ball for more time. They only committed six penalties, showing that John Fox’s top-secret practices are at least accomplishing something. Coaches are coaching, coordinators are coordinating.
You’re entirely right to decry this as nothing but loser talk, because it is. The Bears lost, and for a reason – the Packers and most everybody else remain better than they are. The cornerbacks are dismal, the passing game lacks speed and separation, the pass-blocking is leaky and it will be hard to keep Cutler from making signature mistakes when asking him to help shrink scoring deficits with big chunks of yards. They can’t win without some luck and superior strategy, their margin for error destroyed by years of bad drafting and nonexistent development.
I just can’t shake the ghosts of Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker, floating specters in tattered team clothes, groaning incompetence into their headsets as they circle at the fringes of our collective psyche. I turned on the game, and the pain returned. To have it in any way assuaged by the fulfillment of a simple expectation of professionalism – even in defeat – was sadly meaningful. It stinks to have gotten to this point, but to pretend otherwise would be a lie.
There will be more long days this year, and absence of abject misery doesn’t define happiness. It can always be worse.
It has been worse.