The Chicago Bears traveled to London, UK to face the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their first non-North American game in their
The 2011 Chicago Bears looked to be a sure bet to secure the
top wildcard spot in the playoffs. The day was November 20th, the time early
evening. The Bears had just won their fifth straight game as they handily beat
the reeling San Diego Chargers. The previous week, the Bears had avenged an
earlier loss to the Detroit Lions, delivering a 37-13 mauling and seemingly
knocking the Lions out of any possibility of the playoffs.
The Bears were an improbable 7-3 team at the time. They had
started the season 1-2, then 2-3, in the same fashion as they had in 2010.
Offensive coordinator Mike Martz was virtually ignoring the run game at the
beginning of the season, and the results were indicative of such. But following
another return to the run behind Matt Forte, then leading the NFL in yards from
scrimmage, the Bears were on fire.
Forte wasn't the only reason. Quarterback Jay Cutler looked to
finally be hitting his groove as leader of the Bears offense. After the
Chargers game, Cutler was on pace to finish the season with 3,700 passing yards
and 20 touchdowns. In Bears annals, that would be a remarkable season.
As postgame interviews were being completed that November
20th, news began to spread that this Bears season would in all likelihood take
a fortuitous turn for the worse. On a seemingly innocuous play in the second
half, receiver Johnny Knox slipped on a simple slant route, and Cutler's pass
was intercepted. The quarterback instinctively chased after the defender,
helping to save a touchdown. On the tackle, replays showed that the quarterback
threw his right arm high and towards the defender in the tackle effort, and
Cutler's right hand ended up striking the field with force.
The end result of this seemingly routine play was a break at
the base of the thumb on Cutler's throwing hand. The initial news was that the
quarterback would miss a few weeks but would potentially return for the
The end news was that the 2011 Chicago Bears would lose five
of their final six games, finish with an 8-8 record on the season, and endure
one of the most surprising reversals of a season's fortunes in their history.
The offseason preceding the 2011 campaign was one of the more
unique in NFL history. The Chicago Bears completed the 2010 season with a home
loss to the hated Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, then settled
down to observe a war of words between the league's owners and players
association. In March of 2011, labor negotiations broke down and led to the NFL
owners locking out the players, a situation that would remain in place until
late July. The 2011 schedule was released during the lockout, and a game
involving the Bears would be the only one to ultimately be cancelled-Chicago
would miss the opportunity to play the Rams in the Hall of Fame game on the
weekend former Bear Richard Dent was enshrined as one of the greatest.
The NFL draft was also held in the midst of the labor strife.
The Bears held the 29th pick overall, and were in need of improvement at many
positions, most notably offensive line, defensive line, defensive secondary and
wide receiver. This draft was considered to have a deep crop of first-round
offensive tackles, and this was a need position for Chicago. In 2010 the Bears
had moved their 2008 first-rounder Chris Williams (thought to be a left tackle
prospect for a decade) to guard. Four tackles had been selected when the Bears'
pick became close.
As Baltimore was on the clock for their 26th selection,
Chicago GM Jerry Angelo engineered a trade for the Bears to move up three
slots, giving up their fourth-rounder. But time expired on the Ravens' pick
before the deal could be consummated and Kansas City jumped in front to select
Pittsburgh wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin. Once the Bears knew the player they
coveted was still available, they refused to still give their fourth-rounder to
Baltimore, a situation that raised the ire of Ravens officials as well as the
rest of the league. The gaffe reportedly fell on Angelo and his staff, the last
in a line of several inexplicable blunders by the Bears GM over the years.
With their own 29th pick the Bears chose massive offensive
tackle Gabe Carimi from Wisconsin. They traded up in the second round (using
their fourth-round pick per the previous plan) to land the player they would
have taken if the first choice was gone: Oregon State defensive tackle Stephen
Paea. Their third-round pick was used on California safety Chris Conte, and in
the fifth they took quarterback Nathan Enderle from Idaho, a player with whom
Martz was enamored.
Following the draft the league settled down for almost three
months of labor battles. The battle was ended just after training camps were to
open, as owners and players realized how close they were to losing revenue. The
free agency period was late, brief and chaotic. After the 2010 Bears had made
the biggest splash by signing defensive end Julius Peppers, in 2011 they were
bargain hunters. Additions to the rosters included Dallas reclamation projects
Roy Williams (WR) and Marion Barber III (RB), flamout DT Amobi Okoye from
Houston, and bust defensive end Vernon Gholston from the Jets. Also signed was
Sam Hurd, another Dallas wide receiver.
Losses to the roster included the dean of the Bears, center
Olin Kreutz. The Bears had hoped to re-sign Kreutz to a one-year deal, which
would have put him in a Bears uniform for his 14th season. But on the eve of
training camp, Angelo gave Kreutz a four-hour ultimatum to sign the Bears' only
contract offer. Kreutz was frustrated and ended up departing just prior to
records he would have set for service with this historic team.
As the 2011 regular season approached, legendary linebacker
Brian Urlacher made a telling comment on a training camp radio show. When asked
to assess the Bears chances to return so strong, so close to the Super Bowl as
they were in 2010, the twelve-year veteran said "You always feel like you're
going to be right back there, as good as the previous year. But it usually
doesn't turn out that way."
Taking a break from the third-person narrative here, I have to
say that I felt the Bears were probably a team that would finish 7-9 to 8-8 on
the season. I felt the Bears were just too lucky, too healthy in 2010 to have a
repeat of that fortune. Thus at the beginning of the season, I was skeptical as
the Bears hosted the Atlanta Falcons on opening day. The Falcons finished the
2010 season as the NFC's top seed until they were stunningly upset by the
Packers at home in the playoffs.
On opening day, the Bears were dominant. They sacked Falcons
quarterback Matt Ryan five times. Cutler threw for 312 yards and two
touchdowns. Forte had 158 combined yards and a touchdown, and the Bears shocked
the Falcons 30-12 on a beautiful late-summer day in Chicago.
Maybe I was all wrong. Maybe this Bears team was motivated to
prove the critics like me wrong. Maybe their players, many of them aging
veterans, were going to keep the Super Bowl window propped open by sheer will
for one more year. One of my favorite websites www.profootballtalk.com, who had
been bashing the Bears' chances all summer, that week reversed feelings and
wrote that they felt the Bears were for real and were going to surprise the
NFL. As I traveled to New Orleans for a week two matchup to celebrate a
milestone birthday, I was a believer.
Then in New Orleans no thanks to Martz, the Bears laid an egg.
They started strong, scoring an early touchdown. They trailed at the half, but
then pulled as close as 16-13. But then after a flurry of sacks and fumbles,
the Bears ultimately were embarrassed by the Saints in the Superdome by a score
of 30-13. A complete reversal of fortune from opening day. In the game the
Bears only attempted 12 rushes, against 45 passes.
The old pass-happy Martz was back, and in the ensuing loss at
home to the Packers Martz again dialed up 37 passes and only 11 runs in a 27-17
loss. The Bears recovered to beat a rebuilding Carolina team at home, but the
next week committed an NFL-record nine false start penalties in the first half
of a 24-13 loss at Detroit. The Bears were reeling at 2-3.
But then, just as had happened in 2010, something happened to
make Martz change his ways. Chicago first won a game against the weak Minnesota
Vikings at home, but then faced a challenge against the resurgent Eagles on the
road in Philadelphia. In perhaps the biggest Monday Night Football upset of the
season, Chicago dominated Michael Vick's team in a 30-24 win that wasn't as
close as it seemed. Two more dominant wins brought them to the watershed moment
of the season, just after the resounding victory over San Diego.
I was watching the Sunday Night Football pregame show, basking
in the victory that brought the Bears to 7-3. Everything was clicking. Sure,
the Packers were undefeated, but I was beginning to feel that the Bears might
actually give Green Bay a run for their money in the playoffs, even at Lambeau
Then on that pregame show, it was first announced nationally
that Cutler had broken his thumb and would in all likelihood miss the remainder
of the 2011 season. Throughout the following week, the Bears organization
circled their wagons and rallied around backup quarterback Caleb Hanie. Hanie
had rallied the Bears as the third-stringer almost pulled off a win over the
Packers in the 2010 championship game, so the thought was the Bears might win
three of their last six, make the playoffs, and Cutler would return.
It was not to be. Hanie looked respectable in a 25-20 loss at
Oakland, but regressed significantly in the next three losses. Forte was also
lost for the season in Hanie's second start, which didn't help matters. Hanie
finished his stint as the Bears' starting quarterback with worse statistics
than all-time horrible Bears quarterbacks such as Jonathan Quinn. By the time
the Bears faced Green Bay with their playoff hopes on fumes, Hanie had been
replaced by journeyman Josh McCown, who clearly outplayed Hanie. With their
fifth straight loss dropping them to 7-8 at Green Bay, the Bears were
officially eliminated from playoff contention.
With a meaningless win in the finale at Minnesota, the Bears
finished the 2011 season with an 8-8 record. (The win also dropped their draft
selection from 13th to 19th; it will be interesting to see what future Pro Bowl
player might be selected with one of those five picks prior to the Bears). Many
smart people argued that the last meaningless game would have been a good time
to develop the rookie quarterback Enderle, but Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith
argued that it was important for the Bears to win the first game of 2012.
The Bears looked like an absolute lock to make the playoffs
when Cutler broke his thumb. The broken thumb certainly directly led to major
changes in the Bears' organization. On the second day following the end of the
2011 season, the Bears shockingly announced that they were firing GM Angelo,
who had two years left on his contract. Heady stuff for a stodgy Bears
organization. The divisive Martz also announced that it was time for him to
Only history will prove whether Cutler's broken thumb will
lead to positive change in 2012 and beyond.