Bears searching for an identity
After the season's first loss, question marks seem to be the theme for the Bears
CHICAGO -- Four games into the season, who would've thought we'd be talking to Tough Lovie and Mellow Martz?
Then again, who thought the Bears would be 3-1 after a wild, unpredictable first quarter of the season?
Who thought the Bears would cut a coddled one-year wonder after four seasons and four games while picking up a past-his-prime former first-round pick who was released to make room for a guy they released in the offseason?
Who thought Mike Martz would use the word "pizzazz" in a sentence?
Question marks seem to be the theme for the Bears right now, as we all look for answers following a 17-3 loss to New York that left Jay Cutler concussed, Mark Anderson temporarily out of a job, and offensive coordinator Martz begging to heap the blame on himself.
"I didn't see it coming," Martz said. "When we got there, we didn't have our pizzazz. We just weren't ourselves. That's a coaching issue from the get-go."
Pizzazz and zeal and pluck aside, we really don't know the identity of this team, and it seems neither does the positive-thinking brain trust of the Bears, which seems to be offering mixed messages publicly.
We still don't have a true read on the enigmatic Cutler, who had two great games, one mediocre one and then got knocked out Sunday night with a concussion at the end of the first half. He got off only 11 passes and was sacked nine times. It would've been an even 10-10 split if he wouldn't have flipped a ball forward as he was being run out of bounds.
The quarterback was a no-show to his usual media appearance Wednesday, but was seen on the practice field during individual drills.
Officially, he was listed as a limited participant in practice, further confusing his status for Sunday's game in North Carolina.
Asked to expound on the limits of Cutler's practice, Smith bared his rhetorical claws.
"What does limited mean?" Smith said. "He took a few reps. He didn't take as many as he normally does."
Tough Lovie indeed.
Smith is famously self-defensive to reporters, but he's also known to be protective of his players. He's a players' coach in some regard, and I'm sure it's because he actually cares about them.
This season, his leash has been tighter than normal. Smith has been benching starters or outright cutting them, the latter a move you usually see in the offseason, when most teams cut underperforming veterans. When asked if he regrets getting rid of respected veterans Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye this past offseason to keep Anderson, Smith scoffed.
"We don't have any regrets," he said.
Must be nice to live with no regrets, but I don't buy it.Smith said there was no special reason the Bears cut Anderson this week, but it's obvious he wanted to send a message to the rest of the team that status will no longer get you playing time. Deactivating Tommie Harris because his play has declined is one thing, but no one saw this move coming.
"It felt like this was the week to go into a different direction, no more than that," Smith said. "It wasn't any particular thing. We just felt like we needed more production on the line and felt like Mark had a lot of opportunities."
Smith keeps saying nothing has changed at Halas Hall, but no one outside of the team bubble seems to agree with him. And his actions seem to indicate a special concern for the present. And that's not a bad thing. In the NFL, all you can do is focus on the now, and this Bears team still has a lot of promise if the line can keep Cutler cogent and upright.
But while Smith is stressing accountability in his actions, Martz is using words to downplay his players' responsibilities in the offense's woeful performance in the Meadowlands.
It's a strange dichotomy, Smith being stern and Martz being concerned.
Martz has been so overwhelmingly protective of his players, especially his sack-taking protege, he took the blame again for a bad offensive performance.
Martz's main point in his weekly chat with reporters -- it lasted nine minutes and a Bears flack ended it in mid-question -- was that he was overfeeding the offense, giving it too many little details to think about, which in turn, has made the Bears too tense to focus on the bigger picture.
I think my coaches at Harding Middle School expected more out of us, and we ran only five plays.
Basically the answer to every question thrown to Martz was: Blame me, please.
Where's the accountability there? I didn't see Martz whiffing on blocks like Greg Olsen was, or looking tentative in the pocket like Cutler.
"I've gone through this before," Martz said, speaking calmly and softly as if he were trying to lull reporters to sleep. "I'm not trying to be John Wayne. John died a long time ago. I'm just being very honest and very blunt."
OK, just so we're clear: John Wayne's still dead and the Bears' abysmal offensive performance was all Martz's fault.
"Let me tell you this: I just feel terrible," Martz said. "I tried to do way too much in a short week with these guys. They're not ready for that. We've got a bunch of young guys trying to learn how to play, and we lost our poise, and got on our heels. We couldn't do much of anything right. That's just an old coach's fault right there. The calls, whatever, whatever went wrong, that game is my responsibility. The preparation for that game, we felt good about it. But it was way too much stuff for those guys to deal with. Just leave it at that, if you would. These guys are going to be fine. I promise they will be just fine. We'll make sure of that."
So why aren't the Bears letting him talk after games again? Is it his soothing voice or his overly vague explanations?
"We all had something do with that loss, not just Mike," Smith said. "Any one of the players or the coaches would say the same thing. We're all looking in the mirror a little bit."
Now I'm no football genius, but a lot of the team's problems Sunday night seemed pretty clear-cut.
The offensive line couldn't block and Cutler was tapping the ball in the pocket like he was burping a newborn. Maybe his mind was flooded with play possibilities, but he's a veteran and is paid like a franchise quarterback.
Cutler has the arm and the brains to run a playoff team, but he still has to show it in Chicago.
New offense or not, he should know not to take more than three seconds to evaluate his options and make a play. That's the life of an NFL quarterback.
I'm guessing the crux of Martz's Q&A is that Cutler and receivers were often on the wrong page because the play calls are too complex. Maybe it was on Cutler, who has been known to make a mistake or 26 in a season, but I'm guessing the coach's point was focused on the receivers, the line and the tight ends.
Martz is trying his hardest to be diplomatic and nurturing in his first year with the team, at least publicly. As a new coach, maybe he doesn't feel comfortable dissing players in public. (I know he doesn't have such qualms in private.)
Martz also seems to be trying some reverse psychology in the media and is basically insulting his offense by saying it's not smart or seasoned enough to get a big boy's helping of the playbook.
That's what it sounds like to me. I understand this is a new offense, but aside from the dormant running game, it looked pretty good in the first two games.
Maybe he's gotten a little giddy and tried to add too many plays and tweaks the past two weeks, but that doesn't explain the first-half meltdown we saw against the Giants, which saw Cutler get sacked nine times, losing one of his three fumbles, and get knocked out of the game. If you watch the broadcast again, you'll see the linemen and tight ends just get beat by the Giants' defensive line, which didn't get much help from any exotic blitzes. The only non-lineman to get a sack was corner Aaron Ross on a straight corner blitz. That turned out to be the killer sack, because it was the only one where Cutler's head smacked the ground. It was also his last pass attempt.
The line has played unquestionably bad, both Olin Kreutz and coach Mike Tice admitted as much.
Judging Cutler's performance was trickier, considering the dangerous conditions.
But there were some glaring mistakes. On one play, Cutler rolled right on a designed play and in midroll, planted his feet and cocked his arm as if he was going to chuck it 50 yards. Only Osi Umenyiora chopped his arm down and caused a fumble. I admire Cutler's toughness for standing there, knowing he was going to take a shot, but I question his decision-making. There were several plays like that.
As Smith said, and really every coach says, last week's loss was on the entire team. In truth, everyone should take a look at himself to see how he can play better at Carolina this week and down the road. This could be a special season and we could look back at the Giants game as a bump in the road to Arlington, Texas.
"It was a good wake-up call for all of us," Martz said. "When you win, you kind of look past some things, you accept some things that normally you fix, because you won, in spite of things. This gets us back and hyperfocused on some of the little details that as coaches you kind of get through and get past."
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.