- Melissa Isaacson, espnW.com
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It is a somber time at Halas Hall. With all pretense of meaningful games now gone, the defiance that gave way to frustration that gave way to anger has faded, revealing a bit of quiet candor this week.
Question it all, if you'd like. They have no more fight left when it comes to the criticism. But do not mistake not performing consistently with not caring, at least not in the case of veterans such as Lance Briggs and Alex Brown, who have seen more downs than ups in Bears uniforms but will never get used to it.
"If you're competitive and you're in 11 fights and you lose seven of them, yeah, you're pretty upset and you don't know what to do because it's like God, you want to win so badly and you go out and you prepare to win, but it's not happening," Brown said. "The other teams are making plays and you're not making enough when it counts. A situation like this is just very hard."
As a light snow fell outside Halas Hall on Thursday, a Sunday game looming against St. Louis that would appear meaningless and yet still carries as much pressure as any against a one-win team, Briggs revealed just how much this defense has missed the ability and leadership of Brian Urlacher, and how much the Bears' inexperience has truly hurt them.
"To me, we're a little bit younger than we used to be, and I'm not trying to make excuses why we're not successful," Briggs said. "But it's a different atmosphere than what it was in the past. Guys who are getting shuffled around, guys who for the first time are starters for a full season, these are not guys who were in the huddle three years ago [when the Bears were in the Super Bowl], so things are changing. Times are changing."
Defending at first the notion that the defense has struggled the entire season, Briggs conceded when the Bears' horrific numbers on third down were brought up (at 45.5 percent, they're ranked 30th in the NFL).
"That's something that was automatic pretty much since I've been here -- getting off the field on third downs," Briggs said. "But now you turn on the film, to me it's something that's so simple, it's something maybe guys are not seeing. They're young and trying to get a feel for the game and it just happens. Then the next play, something else happens where someone didn't see something or didn't get over in time, so it kind of starts to stack up."
But Briggs disputed the theory that other teams have simply caught up and solved the Bears' Cover 2 defense.
"I don't believe that, that's not what I see when I look on the film," he said. "You look and it's third-and-7 and they throw to the checkdown, which means the defense did what we were supposed to do. We wanted them to throw a short route, and he just dived for the first down. [But] in a lot of cases in previous years, we would've broken it up and gotten them down before the line of scrimmage."
Briggs did not practice Thursday and looks doubtful for Sunday with a knee injury, but he did not see the wisdom in shutting him down the rest of the season.
"That doesn't seem very beneficial to me," he said. "Your offseason, that time away, it starts to eat at you. You start itching to want to come back. You want to get in as much football as possible before this '09 season is over."
At 4-7, however, the itch is more of an ache.
"I guess the worst part is it sucks to be disappointed another year," Briggs said. "You go into the season with a lot of high hopes, thinking things are going to go well and they just don't go that way.
"It's one of those deals where after the season, you go on a nice little trip and go soul-searching. You go back and you find the coach back in high school or Pop Warner who affected you first and you sit down with him and he puts on some old film and says, 'Remember these days, when football was pure?' and all that good stuff. And he brings you back down to earth and lets you know it's OK. Next year you'll get another crack at it. And that's kind of how each year goes as far as disappointment. You take some time when it's all over to get back to you."
For Brown, his two children are the best kind of distraction. But they can't make the ache go away.
"My 2-year-old, she doesn't care that we just got spanked by the Vikings," he said. "I still care, but I think about other stuff. I try to get my mind off it sometimes but it does sit with you. You don't get rid of it.
"I've been here eight years, and we've been to the Super Bowl once, so I've had to deal with it seven times. You don't get used to it, though. You never get used to it."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.