Fear of change
From the QB to the coaches, the people running the Bears are set in their ways
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler emerged from the gloaming Wednesday and it was clear nothing had changed.
The 1,000-yard stare, the mumbling, clipped tone, the casual disregard for questions.
Cutler had the whole package working, so yes, it's clear he's back to normal.
"I can't change the way I play," he said simply.
Of course, he's talking about football, answering the question of a reporter who foolishly asked him if he would start sliding now that he's been concussed.
As if anyone would admit that. "Yup, I'm afraid of contact. Don't tell Lofa Tatupu."
(Cutler claims this was his first concussion. If that's true, it's a miracle, considering he played at Vanderbilt.) So, no, he's not going to be some emo, introspective warrior poet, nor is he going to pull back if he has a chance to run for a score. Remember that helicopter dive against Detroit last year? (And to be clear, not all of his nine sacks resulted in him hitting the ground. One was running out of bounds, others were fumbles.)
Regardless of the situation, it's pretty clear Jay Cutler changes for no one.
And for that matter, neither do his bosses, Lovie Smith and Mike Martz. They adapt and they adjust; perhaps not as quickly as the remote-control coaches among us would like, but Cutler, Smith, Martz, whomever, they don't change.
Despite the criticism that has swamped him in recent years, Smith will always stay faithful to his Cover 2 and Martz will always call more passes than runs, even when the Chicago Bears shred a terrible Carolina Panthers team for 200-plus yards on the ground.
Good coaches stay committed to their philosophies, and despite what you've heard, Smith and Martz are good coaches. Indeed, there's a reason the Bears are where they are right now.
It's an interesting time for the Bears. At 4-1, they are among eight teams with one loss, alone atop of the NFC North. But at the same time, they are looked at with the skepticism saved for public transportation and politicians.
Last week, Smith bristled at being an underdog in Carolina. The Panthers moved to 2.5 point favorites in what looked like a classic trap line to get suckers to take the home team.
But there's no argument this week, as the Bears are strong 7-point favorites against Seattle. (Not that anyone looks at the point spread or anything.)
It's not just Las Vegas that looked at the Bears without orange-and-blue googles.
On Wednesday, one reporter asked Cutler if he considered the Bears a "good" team.
Cutler laughed. Heck, I almost laughed.
"Yes," he said. "You might not, but that doesn't really matter to us. We're 4-1."
The problem is, do we fall for 4-1? Are we suckers for the present?
In 2009, the Bears were famously 3-1 going into their bye week and getting the white-glove treatment from the city.
Then the bottom dropped out.
No one likes to get fooled, especially with so many warning signs that this team is more lucky than good.
But even after Calvin Johnson's no-catch, the Green Bay Packers' penalty implosion and the Todd Collins Experience, it's coming to the point that the Bears look almost destined to break a three-year slump and return to the playoffs.
But there are still holes, gaping, Chris Williams-size concerns.
And sometimes it's hard not to focus on the holes. After all, no one calls the city to offer a complement on the streetlights when the road is pockmarked like Baghdad.
How many teams win a game when your quarterback throws four picks and no touchdowns, as Collins did last week?
How many teams win a game in which they let the opposing quarterback complete 75.6 percent of his passes, as Aaron Rodgers did in a 20-17 loss?
How many Bears teams have won games with almost no rushing game, as the Bears did in their first three wins?
I could go on for paragraphs. Martz's system has looked as advertised at times, but he has yet to jell with his personnel, and it shows.
The Bears are the worst team in the league on third downs, converting a lousy 21 percent. On third downs of at least 10 yards, they are 2-for-22. Thanks a patchwork line that's getting another makeover with a now-healthy Chris Williams moving from left tackle to guard, the Bears are also the worst in pass protection, with 21 sacks allowed, albeit with 10 of them coming in one game.
They are the third-lousiest offensive team inside the red zone, with a 28.6 touchdown percentage (four touchdowns on 14 possessions). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Matt Forte is averaging six inches a carry on his six runs from inside the 3-yard line.
On defense there are fewer negatives to point out, but one is the lack of finishing power. The Bears have nine sacks on the season, five of which came against the Panthers with a saucer-eyed Clausen doing his best impersonation of Papke from "Necessary Roughness." Another problem is defending against cutback runs. In the past two games, the New York Giants and Panthers had seven runs of 20 yards or more.
For his part, Cutler has had two good games, one mediocre one and one horrific, in descending order. At times he looks like he and his receiving corps are in different systems.
Forte's career-best, 166-yard game this past Sunday came after he compiled 134 yards in the previous four games. His 68-yard touchdown run against Carolina is the team's only run of more than 18 yards this season.
Yes, there are plenty of positive stats to go up against these, but that's not the point.
These aren't typical numbers for a first-place team, not in the NFL. But with little imagination, this flawed team could be 7-1 when the Minnesota Vikings come to town on Nov. 14.
It's not crazy to think about the Bears making the NFC Championship or the Super Bowl. The defense is playing that well, the kick returners are on fire and Forte and Johnny Knox are game-breakers.
The Bears' final four games are a true gauntlet: New England, at Minnesota, the Jets, at Green Bay.
I see Chicago at 9-5 heading into the final two games, which will probably make them one of the more intriguing teams toward January.
But that's still too far away to think about. For now, the skeptics will remain vigilant and the coaches will continue to tinker.
The truth is, until they start losing the games they shouldn't be winning, the Bears really don't have to change for anyone.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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