Lovie Smith walks off the field after yet another loss
Urbandictionary.com has many definitions for the phrase "epic
fail", which we take it from the young people is a newer addition to the
English lexicon. One of the better definitions is:
"A mistake of such monumental proportions that it requires its
own term in order to successfully point out the unfathomable shortcomings of an
individual or group."
To us, that's a pretty good way to describe the 2009 Chicago
Bears season. The team entered 2009 with the second-to-easiest schedule in the
National Football League, and a new quarterback with skills not possessed by a
Chicago Bears quarterback in perhaps 60 years. Bears General Manager Jerry
Angelo made several shrewed moves in free agency to assemble what were thought
to be the final pieces needed to eek out at least a playoff berth while the
core players left from the 2006 Super Bowl season had the least bit of talent
left in them. Many were sure the Bears would at least clinch a playoff berth.
But instead, fans were forced to endure perhaps the most disappointing season
against expectations in 90 years of Bears football.
Entering the season finale of the 2008 campaign, the Bears
were poised to clinch a wildcard playoff berth if they could defeat the Texans
in Houston as long as they had help from two other unlikely circumstances: the
Philadelphia Eagles would have to beat the Dallas Cowboys and the Oakland
Raiders would need to upset the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida. The Bears
jumped to a 10-0 lead behind average-but-adequate quarterback Kyle Orton, but
its defense blew it in allowing three straight Texans touchdowns. The Bears
would end up losing the game 31-24, but also lost themselves a playoff berth as
both Oakland and Philadelphia pulled off unlikely wins. Only the Bears failed
to do what they needed to do.
In January 2009, Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith worked quickly
in firing two coaches on the defensive side of the ball, and hired deposed
Lions coach Rod Marinelli as defensive line coach and Assistant Head Coach.
Smith called Marinelli the "best free agent available." Smith also announced
that while another of his cronies Bob Babich would retain the title of
defensive coordinator, in 2009 Smith would take over defensive playcalling for
all games-hardly an orthodox move. Once again, as he did in 2007 when he fired
popular defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and announced that the media needed to
"trust that he would make the right decisions for his team," Smith was remaking
his staff to his liking to the disdain of observers.
The Bears were not expected to make any large free agent
signings in March, as they had spent most of their available cap space in
awarding large extensions to veteran players. Those players included Brian
Urlacher, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, Nathan Vasher, Alex Brown, Desmond
Clark, Olin Kreutz and Devin Hester. For the most part these extensions were
not proving to be successful, as clearly Urlacher, Vasher and Kreutz at least
were regressing. Angelo did surprise by quickly signing Carolina backup
offensive lineman Frank Omiyale to a $14 million contract, and would later add
Cleveland free agent tackle Kevin Shaffer to replace the departed John St.
Clair. The Bears would later add safety Josh Bullocks, linebacker Pisa
Tinoisamoa, and surprisingly 13-year veteran Orlando Pace on a three-year deal
to play the crucial left tackle position. With the signing of Pace to start at
left tackle, the right side would be manned by 2008 redshirt tackle Chris
At the same time, an interesting and perhaps unprecedented
situation was developing 1,000 miles to the west of Chicago in Denver. The
Broncos had shockingly fired longtime head coach Mike Shanihan, replacing him
with 32-year old Patriots assistant Josh McDaniels. In March, it was revealed
that McDaniels hoped to swing a three-way trade that would bring Patriot backup
quarterback Matt Cassel to Denver to replace Pro Bowl three-year veteran Jay
Cutler. McDaniels was weary of Cutler's reputation for being a gambling
quarterback, and thought Cassel could more safely run McDaniels' ball control
offense as he did in 2008 with the Patriots. Cutler caught wind of the news as
everyone else did, and began an immediate campaign to be traded out of Denver.
No one could imagine the Broncos trading a fourth-year Pro
Bowl quarterback, and although the Bears were immediately mentioned as being
one of the interested teams when it was announced the Broncos would indeed have
no choice but to trade Cutler, it seemed even more improbable that the Bears
would make such a move. The Bears historically have been a team that sticks to
their own plan, no matter how misguided the plan is, so thinking out of the box
seemed extremely unlikely for Angelo and his organization.
The talk of the impending Cutler trade captivated the NFL the
final week of March, with teams as varied as Tampa, Washington, Minnesota and
Detroit rumored as potential destinations for the quarterback. Late in the day
on April 2nd, to the shock and amazement of Chicago fans and the media, it was
announced that indeed the Bears had landed Cutler. The Bears would send Denver
Orton, first round picks in 2009 and 2010, and their 2009 third rounder in
exchange for Cutler and Denver's 2009 fifth round pick.
Amazement, excitement, disbelief and intoxicating joy would be
accurate terms to describe the Bears' fan base after the move, as observers
were not used to the Chicago Bears organization making bold moves. The
acquisition of Cutler was thought by many to be the final piece needed to
compete for the playoffs immediately, while known holes in the defense were
addressed by the draft and the additon of Marinelli. Cutler, it was thought,
would make everyone on the offense better immediately.
While it was obvious that Cutler had all the physical tools
and intangibles to be the quarterback the Bears had lacked for most of 60
years, the mercurial signal caller did have his detractors. The very way he
campaigned for his departure from Denver made some question his disposition,
and he did have times during which he showed petulance with fans, opponents and
even his own teammates and coaches. KC Joyner of ESPN.com even cited statistics
casting a very negative light on Cutler's performance, particularly his high
interception rate both outside, but particularly troubling, inside the red
zone. Not that anyone in Chicago wanted to hear them, because at the time, all
was good in Bears nation.
In the 2009 draft the Bears participation was limited, not
possessing a first-round pick. Angelo's first move in the selection process was
to trade out of the second round as well, sending the 49th overall pick to
Seattle in exchange for the Seahawks' third and fourth-round selections, and
the Bears would end up with nine picks overall. Their first third-round
selection was San Jose State DT Jarron Gilbert, best known for the YouTube
video of him jumping out of a pool with pure strength. The Bears then took
Oklahoma wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias, DE Henry Melton, undersized cornerback
D.J. Moore, speedy receiver Johnny Knox, and linebacker Marcus Freeman through
the fifth round. The sixth-round pick was safety Al Afalava, and the draft
rounded out with the selections of guard Lance Louis and receiver Derek Kinder.
Training camp for the Bears opened in Bourbonnais in late
July, and shortly thereafter former Bears wide receiver Bobby Wade announced
that Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher had referred to Cutler as a [term for a
weak-willed male], obviously hinting at some divisiveness within the chemistry
of Bears players. Both Cutler and Urlacher quickly dismissed the spat, but the
short-lived controversy was the first crack in the dyke that would become the
In preseason games on both sides of the ball the Bears
appeared to look out of synch and downright scary in a bad way for Bears fans
on defense, but this was chalked up to the fact that it was the preseason,
after all. The exception to this was a strong home game against the New York
Giants, during which the Bears first team offense scored at will and the
defense dominated in a 17-3 win. It was this type of game Bears fans expected
to see regularly in the games that counted. The preseason wound down, and fans
looked forward to a huge opening night game at Green Bay against a Packers team
that had finished 6-10 in 2008.
In the much-anticipated opener, the Bears defense held the
strong Green Bay offense in check for most of the game, while Cutler
threw four interceptions for the first time in his NFL career. Several of the
interceptions were intended for young receivers that didn't seem to be in the
right place for the throws, so it was thought that these were issues that could
and would be worked out as the season went on. Despite Cutler's surprisingly
shaky performance, the Bears were holding a 15-14 lead late in the fourth
quarter, until safety Kevin Payne and Vasher were out of position on a late
Packer touchdown bomb, and the Bears lost the opener 21-15.
Lost for the season at Green Bay was linebacker Brian
Urlacher, felled by a broken wrist early in the game. Also effectively lost for
the year was free agent signee Pisa Tinoisamoa. The losses of the linebackers
would not be easily absorbed.
Following the disappointing loss in Green Bay, the Bears
posted three straight wins, exactly how most thought the Bears season would go
entering their week 5 bye. The streak began with come-from-behind victories
against the World Champion Pittsburgh Steelers and then at Seattle. In week
four the Bears dismantled Detroit at home by the score of 48-24, and it looked
as though the season would turn out fine after all. During this stretch, young
receiver Johnny Knox was emerging, and Cutler was on a pace to throw for over
4,000 yards, which would be a first for a Bears quarterback.
While the record was strong at the bye, there were troubling
signs. Sophomore running back Matt Forte, who had set several Bears rookie
records in 2008, was regularly held in check by opponents, forcing the offense
to throw the ball more, which in turn led to some riskier decisions by Cutler.
It was thought that the offensive line was not run blocking to expectations,
and it also was not protecting Cutler well enough to take advantage of his
skills. Free agent signee Omiyale, the starter at left guard, was regularly
beaten and not able to generate a push in the run game, which would lead to a
temporary benching later in the year. And both tackles, Pace and Williams, were
committing penalties and being beaten on a regular basis. At the same time, the
defense was playing closer to its 2008 level than 2006, when it had been
thought before the season that the addition of Marinelli and Smith taking over
the plays would turn it around.
Following the bye week, the Bears traveled to Atlanta for a
Sunday night rematch of a game the Bears famously lost in 2008 on a last-second
pass and field goal by the Falcons. In the rematch, the Bears allowed the
Falcons to score the winning touchdown with just three minutes remaining in the
game, didn't score on three of four redzone possessions, and turned the ball
over on downs from the Atlanta 5 yard line in the game's waning seconds.
If the Atlanta loss was disappointing, the following week's
game at Cincinnati would end up being revolting. The contest was moved to a
3:15 start by the networks as it was an intriguing game. Former Bears bustout
running back Cedric Benson, now the Bengals starter, ran his mouth through the
week and it was thought the Chicago defense would rise to the occasion to
stifle their former turd. Instead, Benson ran for a career high 189 yards
against a Bears defense that looked disinterested and pathetic. The Bengals led
31-3 at halftime and ended up winning 45-10, the most one-sided defeat of a
Bears team in Smith's tenure as coach.
Smith's response to the debacle in Cincinnati was that his
team would learn from the loss, and in the following week the Bears did defeat
the hapless Cleveland Browns, but looked questionable in doing so. After the
weak win over the Browns the Bears would face another tough test against the
Arizona Cardinals. And again the Bears flopped in a difficult game, losing at
home to the Cardinals by a score of 41-21, the second trouncing of the Bears in
three weeks. The Bears were not only getting trounced on a regular basis, but
seemed to be giving up career performances to their opponents on a weekly
The losses continued to pile up for the team Smith coached and
Angelo assembled in the following weeks, to San Francisco (10-6), Philadelphia
(24-20), and at Minnesota (another pounding, this one 36-10). Following the
Vikings loss, Smith was unusually candid when he proclaimed his team "felt like
crap." Then he followed up with a prediction that "the sun usually comes up,
and I assume it will come up tomorrow." How the sun rising related to his
team's abysmal season is unknown.
On December 6th, the Bears did win their fifth game of the
season against a poor opponent, beating the 1-10 St. Louis Rams 17-9, but were
officially eliminated from playoff contention the following week after being
swept by rival Green Bay in a 21-14 loss. Perhaps the low point of a season
filled with low points was reached the following week at Baltimore in a 31-7
drubbing. Cutler posted a career-low 7.9 quarterback rating there, while the
Bear defense allowed Raven quarterback Joe Flacco a career game with a 135.6
rating and four touchdowns. By this point in the year the defense was looking
comically bad, week in and week out, seemingly unable to stop any opponent on
It was before the Baltimore debacle that Angelo declared that
Smith would be evaluated along with everyone else after the season. Interesting
words coming from the GM whose supposed talent was failing, being embarrassed,
on the field on a weekly basis.
Surprisingly, after the miserable loss in Baltimore the Bears
finished the 2009 season with two wins. The first was against Brett Favre and
division champion Minnesota on Monday Night at Soldier Field. The Bears held a
16-0 halftime lead, but Smith's defense nearly lost the game after allowing 30
second half points and well over 300 yards. But the Bears would end up winning
36-30 in overtime.
In the season's final week, the Bears won 37-23 over a weak
Lions team in Detroit.
In the final two weeks of the 2009 season, the Bears scored 73
points on eight Cutler touchdowns and only one interception. But after 14 weeks
of initial disappointment, it was hard to take any positivity into the