Bears still have time, but not much margin for error

Updated: December 19, 2006, 5:48 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

The Chicago Bears are going to finish the regular season 14-2, have the home-field advantage during the postseason and then, if they're not very, very careful, get eliminated in the NFC Divisional playoffs.

Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRELast season's playoffs didn't end well for Bears coach Lovie Smith and QB Rex Grossman.
Have you ever seen a more dysfunctional, less impressive 12-win team than these guys? Have you ever seen a coach who plays the paranoia card as often as the spectacularly tone-deaf Lovie Smith? Have you ever seen fewer players unwilling to at least acknowledge what everyone else with at least a beer cup's worth of objectivity sees: that the Bears are walking a line as thin as the laces on a football?

Sunday afternoon, as I was cleaning my cache of semiautomatic weapons and surface-to-air rocket launchers, I watched the Bears-Tampa Bay Buccaneers game with my kids and our 26 pit bulls. Oh, wait, that was defensive tackle Tank Johnson, who, incredibly enough, is still employed by the Bears.

Anyway, the more I watched, the more I realized how flawed and fragile this team is. The Bears aren't posers. Posers don't go 12-2. They're not frauds. Frauds don't clinch a first-round bye as early as Game 14. But they're also not the NFL's best team. Or second best. Or third. Or fourth. Or maybe fifth.

I know they have the league's best record. I know they're 4-0 in their division and 10-0 in their conference. But the other three NFC North teams are a combined 14-28 and in danger of being optioned to NFL Europe. And the rest of the NFC is so stressed out that it needs a spa day. It's the two-bagger conference, if you know what I mean.

In mid-October, the Bears needed the collapse of the decade to beat gawd-awful Arizona on the road. Two months later at home, they needed overtime to beat a Tampa Bay team that scores less often than guys in leisure suits. If you have to struggle to beat the Cardinals and the Bucs on opposite ends of your regular season, you've got a major problem.

The Cardinals' Dennis Green had it right when he went Danny DeVito after the Oct. 16 loss. "The Bears are who we thought they were," he raged. "If you want to crown them, crown their ass," said Green, YouTube's Sportsman of the Year. "They are who we thought they were and we let them off the hook."

The Bears deserve a fist bump, not a crown. Of their 12 wins, 10 have come against teams with records of .500 or worse. Next up: the Detroit Lions (Hello, No. 1 pick! Goodbye, Matt Millen!) and Green Bay Packers.

In a game of NFL word association, you'd say, "Bears," and I'd say, "Watching the Super Bowl on their home plasmas." You'd say, "Home-field advantage." I'd say, "2005 Divisional Playoff at Soldier Field: Carolina Panthers 29, Bears 21." You'd say, "Kyle Orton." I'd say, "Rex Grossman and his 1.3 quarterback rating."

ESPNRadio.com
From AllNight on ESPN Radio: Bears defensive back Dante Wesley says the team is always behind Rex Grossman and continues to support Tank Johnson. ESPN Radio
There are too many moving parts on this machine. The tailback tag team of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson can barely tolerate each other. Grossman is like food on a cruise ship: You don't know if you're going to love it or ralph in your state room. And the defense suddenly needs mouth-to-mouth.

The Bucs, led by third-string quarterback Tim Rattay, outscored the Bears 28-7 in the second half of Sunday's game. The Bucs.

Six days earlier, the Bears gave up 27 points to the St. Louis Rams. If defense wins championships, the Bears better find some help for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. And fast.

Did I mention the injuries? Offensive tackle John Tait missed the last game, though it didn't seem fatal. Cornerback Nathan Vasher was out. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris is lost for the season. So is safety Mike Brown. Jones has some cranky ribs. Charles Tillman is nursing a sore back.

And yet, Mr. "The Glass Is Completely Full" Smith acts as if it's a huge deal the Bears are unbeaten against the rest of the NFC North mopes. He recites the Bears' overall record like it's a weather update. Last week, 11-2. This week, 12-2. Next week, after they dispose of the Lions, 13-2.

But it doesn't change some essential truths about this team. First of all, they aren't the '85 Bears. Never were – even when they were winning big during the first six weeks of this season. Never will be. Aside from the fact that the '85 Bears would crush your thorax the moment you walked off the team bus, they were likable, eccentric, charismatic.

The '06 Bears reflect Smith. Mostly bland. Defensive. In a state of denial about all sorts of things, including, oh, I don't know, defensive tackles, assault rifles, and wee-hour fatal shootings.

Four days after police raided his suburban Chicago home and found unregistered firearms, Johnson was still on the team. Three days after Bears management read him the riot act, and two days after his friend/roommate/bodyguard was shot and killed at a Chicago nightclub (with Johnson at the same club), Johnson was still on the team.

Smith didn't absolve Johnson, but during his weekly news conference Monday he did seem to suggest that the defensive tackle's career with the Bears still had a heartbeat, however faint. If so, then Smith needs a refresher course on tough love.

There is a lot to like about these Bears, but more to dislike. They are either five games from a Super Bowl championship or three games from a January playoff loss. Right now, I'm leaning toward the loss. Too much Bears indifference, arrogance and self-importance.

What's that phrase they tell alcoholics? The first step toward recovery is admitting you've got a problem.

That's what the Bears have to do: admit they've got a problem. There's still time for recovery. Barely.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

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