The Bears ended one of their most disappointing Decembers in recent memory with a 17-13 win over the Vikings in Minnesota to salvage an 8-8 season. Still, as mentioned in the game preview article, a win beats the alternative. As everyone packs their gear and gets ready to watch the playoffs on television here are the 5 things we learned.
1. The Bears have to fix the play calling problems for next season.
On the second play from scrimmage, Earl Bennett lost the ball while being tackled but the play was ruled down by contact, the Bears were going to keep the ball. Instead of being at the line to run the next play as soon as possible they took so much time getting a play to Josh McCown that Leslie Frazier had time to watch the NFL Network Gameday crew break the video down into its component parts, run it in super-slo-mo and finally decide to challenge. The call on the field was overturned and the Vikings took over on offense.
Timeliness of getting plays into the huddle has been an issue all season and has forced the Bears to use more timeouts in the first and third quarters than any other team in the NFL. It has been a too common site this season to see Jay Cutler calling a timeout and walking back to the sidelines with a scowl on his face because the coaches were late getting a play in.
The plays get called by Mike Martz who is up in the coach’s booth to quarterbacks coach Shane Day and transmitted to the quarterback. There is no provision in Martz’s offense for the quarterback to call his own play or audible depending on his read at the line of scrimmage. The quarterback wouldn’t have the time to audible anyway. It also costs timeouts that Cutler or his backup have better need of at the end of a half or game. If Martz is brought back as offensive coordinator the play calling has to be streamlined before next season.
2. Kahlil Bell is not playing like he wants to be the No. 2 back for next season.
That statement doesn’t mean that Bell is showing the stuff of a No. 1 back. It’s saying that his ability to hang onto the football is jeopardizing his chances of being a back on anyone’s team next season. Last Sunday against the Packers, he put two on the ground but the Bears got both back, one was recovered in the end zone for a touchdown.
This week the ball popped out of his arm as he was on his way to the turf. It wasn’t because of a hard hit or because he was stripped. The ball popped into the air as he was trying to draw it back into his body while he was going down.
The Bears have exclusive rights to Bell for the 2012 season and it’s almost certain the Bears will be bringing him back next season with the ability he’s shown as a tough runner who’s hard to bring down. It would be very surprising if Marion Barber returns to the team next season to compete for that role. Next season will be his last chance to show the Bears, or any other team in the NFL that he can be trusted with the ball in his hands.
3. Josh McCown’s audition was dramatically marred by terrible line play.
However, there is a body of work to evaluate with McCown and it says that the Bears need to completely clean house at the quarterback position for next season. McCown brings a lot of toughness to the position. He’s mobile and can run when he needs to plus he’s shown enough pocket presence to know where the rush is, even when he isn’t given time to get away.
The drawback to McCown is he was the best of a lot of bad options at the time (or at least of the options the Bears were willing to consider). That doesn’t mean he should be the quarterback choice with the inside track to the No. 2 position next season. Even though McCown has looked better than Hanie, his passer rating is still subpar for the two games he started and it never rose above 75.0 in any of his other stops in the NFL.
Another indictment on the Bears’ quarterback position is that after a full season in an offensive system he was drafted to fit in, Enderle was declared inactive for the game with Hanie the backup. Apparently the coaching staff didn’t think Enderle has developed this season to even give him a series or two.
4. Speaking of quarterbacks, how foolish are the Vikings for not considering Joe Webb as a potential No. 1 quarterback at any point of the season?
It’s true that Webb wasn’t drafted out of a quarterback factory and was considered more of a run first, pass second quarterback when he was drafted and looked a lot like that style of quarterback last year in his rookie season but he has shown a lot of growth in the position in the opportunities he’s had this year.
He had a bad statistical day throwing the football Sunday but gave the Bears’ defense all kinds of problems in trying to chase him down. Just as Josh McCown had trouble looking good, Webb’s offensive line didn’t do him any favors over the course of the game.
Webb is a better option for the Vikings over Christian Ponder right now for two reasons. He can extend a play like few quarterbacks have the ability to. He practically wore out the Bears defensive front as they had to chase him all over the backfield. Even when they caught him, he had the field awareness to find a receiver and complete a couple of hard to believe passes. He had enough arm to get balls to receivers even when he was being wrapped up by a Bears defender.
The Vikings offensive unit also seems to show more life with Webb under center than with Ponder. They move the football with Webb at quarterback. He came within one yard of leading them to a comeback victory over the Lions and, if it weren’t for problems with the Vikings field goal unit, would have won the game against the Bears.
The one thing going against Webb in his effort to prove himself as a quarterback and get an opportunity with the Vikings, he was a sixth round pick and Ponder was the 12th overall in the last draft.
5. Even with it being a “finish the season and go home game”, the Bears didn’t play like their golf clubs were calling them.
Okay, I’ll admit that this one isn’t much, but take a look at the performance of some other teams that were in the same situation as the Bears in week 17. Atlanta’s game against Tampa Bay was over when the teams came out of the tunnel for kickoff. Even a couple of teams that snuck into the playoffs gave uninspired performances during the afternoon.
The Bears could have easily packed it in after the avalanche of disappointments the final month of the season turned into. That they didn’t demonstrates a respect for the coaching staff that a lot of others can’t inspire.
It’s not going to be an easy thing for the Bears and their fans to watch the action next weekend considering the growth and cohesiveness the team was developing over their five game win streak. Still, the test of a team over the entire season is whether they can withstand the inevitable injuries and still, not only keep themselves afloat in the standings, but also continue development as a team as the playoffs approach. When injuries set in, the Bears fell short in that test. Next September, we’ll see what they’ve learned.