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The 2003 Chicago Bears
by Roy Taylor,
"We're a good football team when we're healthy. How good, I don't know." These were Chicago Bears Head Coach Dick Jauron's comments just prior to the 2003 season.
Around the same time, general manager Jerry Angelo went on record, saying his expectation was to see his Bears team in the playoffs that December.
Most experts did not predict the 2003 Bears to finish with a significantly better record than they had posted in 2002, which was 4-12. Regardless, the team did perform better than most prognosticators expected, mounting a mid-season run to finish with a better record than in five of the previous six campaigns.
Angelo's expectations clearly had not been met at the end of the season, however, and both Jauron's supporters and detractors would end up awaiting his fate on a balmy December 29th in Lake Forest. The 2003 Bears campaign began with the most exciting home opener in years, and ended with a final game against Jauron's first opponent to determine his fate.
True to the GM's belief that the 2003 Bears were closer to the playoffs than the cellar, Chicago was surprisingly quiet during the free agent signing period. After losing standout LB Roosevelt Colvin, the Bears added only TE Desmond Clark and QB Kordell Stewart. The latter player had been released by Pittsburgh after a roller-coaster career featuring both pro bowl berths and periods of abysmal play. He was signed to a two-year deal averaging just over $2 million per season after Jake Plummer rejected a deal worth close to $30 million.
Shortly thereafter, Chicago released veterans Jim Miller and James Williams. Miller's release was less surprising, given his injury-plagued 2002 season, but Williams' departure would prove to be a bad omen, given the team's recent problems on the offensive line.
In April's draft, Angelo shrewdly parlayed eight picks into eleven, landing what he hoped to be a franchise DE, QB and CB in the first two rounds. He would later pick up multiple linebackers, defensive tackles, and wide receivers, but surprisingly neglected the offensive line until the seventh round. This 2003 draft would prove to be possibly Angelo's only saving grace during this campaign.
Training camp opened in Bourbonnais in July, and with it began the annual bashing of offensive coordinator John Shoop. Also being criticized was Jauron himself, for conducting what many observers considered to be easy, light contact practices. The coach's player-friendly mentality would be heavily questioned as the team opened the regular season looking confused and unprepared.
Chicago finished their four-game preseason schedule with only one win, coming on opening night in Champaign on August 9th. The story of that evening was the debut of rookie QB Rex Grossman. Thousands of flash bulbs popped as he completed his first pro attempt to Clark in the third quarter, and when he converted a fourth-and-long to fellow rookie Bobby Wade.
The rest of the preseason did not fare well, however. On hand to witness the impending doom was former Bear safety Doug Plank, now a preseason radio host for the Arizona Cardinals. Plank commented after the August 22nd Bears-Cardinals game that he could see the fundamental flaws in Chicago's attack. Arizona's defensive ends simply flew by the Bears tackles, he said, and the Cardinals offensive line pushed Chicago's first-team defenders up and down the field. It is the responsibility of the coach to make the best of whatever talent he's given, Plank said, but on the Bears he didn't see much hope for 2003.
To make matters worse, Angelo traded stalwart DT Ted Washington to New England for a 2004 fourth-round pick, then G Rex Tucker was lost for the season with a leg injury in the preseason's final game. Tucker's loss, and the inability of RT Mark Colombo to recover from a 2002 knee injury left Chicago in dire straits on the trenches for the upcoming "championship season," as Jauron likes to say.
Thus, the 2003 Monsters of the Midway opened their regular season in San Francisco, with a guard at left tackle (Mike Gandy) a left tackle that had never played an NFL snap at left guard (Steve Edwards), and a nearly-400-pound retread at right tackle (Aaron Gibson). The Bears competed in San Fransisco, where they had not won a game since 1985, until close to halftime, when they trailed 24-7. With :44 left until the half, however, a poorly-timed out route was intercepted by Ahmed Plummer and returned 68 yards for a touchdown. At that point, the game ended, and would finish with an embarassing 49-7 score.
Not many expected the team to fare much better on Sunday Night Football the following week in Minnesota, and true to form the Bears lost 24-13. Silly quarterback runs, called for Stewart, were the story of that evening, as were two missed opportunities to stop long Viking drives in the fourth quarter. Chicago's bye week was up next, then the hearlded opening of New Soldier Field in front of a national audience on September 29th.
While Chicago reveled prior to the opening of the new stadium, American football fans probably wondered why Monday Night Football would feature a 1-2 versus an 0-2 team. Due to the records, the Bears looked at an opportunity to pull ahead of Green Bay, and had they had never lost their first game in a new stadium. Trends and motivation were for naught, however, as Chicago looked as bad as they have in years when they lost by 15 points to the Cheesheads, their seventeenth loss in nineteen games against Brett Favre.
After the 0-3 start, many began questioning Jauron's ability to last through the season, let alone into the final year of his contract in 2004. Luckily for him, Chicago faced a team worse off than them in week five-the aging and infighting Oakland Raiders. Thanks to questionable playcalling (the Raiders ran all over Chicago in the first half, then passed heavily in the second), the Bears won their first game on a last-second field goal, 24-21.
Following the first victory, the usual talk of a turnaround commenced, but the Bears lost close games the following two weeks at New Orleans and Seattle. Between those two losses, Jauron seemed to bend on his stubborn ways of sticking with players that didn't perform, as Stewart was replaced at QB by aging veteran Chris Chandler. The team's official position was that Stewart was injured, but most knew better.
The next two weeks, with Chandler at the helm, the Bears beat Detroit and San Diego at home. Chandler was helped by a resurgence of the running game, with rookie Forsey and veteran Anthony Thomas turning in strong performances. At this point in the season, the team had turned an 0-3 start into a 3-5 record at the halfway point of the campaign.
Chicago would fail to take advantage of the resurgence, as they lost 12-10 at 2-6 Detroit the next week, unable to move the ball and with K Paul Edinger entering a slump of his own. They then fell to 3-7 with a home loss to St. Louis on November 16th. The defeat was especially bitter, as they competed strongly with the playoff-bound Rams until the very end.
Despite the playoffs now seeming like a remote dream, the Bears turned in strong performances in games 11 and 12, shocking Denver on the road and thrashing Arizona at home. At this point, Jauron supporters and detractors drew into their separate quarters and squared off. Some felt that his coaching abilities were the only reason the team was 5-7 and clinging to playoff hopes, while others believed he had not won enough in his five years at the helm. The rematch with Green Bay on December 7th was widely believed to be Jauron's watershed moment.
Playing in Green Bay, with Stewart again at quarterback, Chicago faced long odds. But in the second quarter, the Bears were shocking the crowd with a 14-0 lead. The Packers drew to within 14-13 at halftime, then kicked two field goals to lead 20-13 in the fourth. On that period's opening drive, Stewart seemed to be moving the team downfield into position. On third down, the QB audibled, calling a hot route to Dez White. The pass hung a bit, and CB Mike McKenzie intercepted, returning it 90 yards for a score. Ironically, the situation that ended the Bears' opening day hopes also ended their season in Green Bay.
The embattled coach's friends and enemies remained resolute, and Jauron heeded fans' calls to start Grossman. The rookie looked impressive in his first two starts, which were victories over Washington and Minnesota. The Bears were 7-8 heading into hot Kansas City for the season finale, and many thought that Jauron's future rested on this final performance. Grossman was knocked out of the game; Chicago lost 31-3. Ironically, Jauron's first head coaching win had come against Kansas City, a 20-17 vicory on September 12, 1999, seemingly so many years ago. Angelo announced a 2 p.m. press conference to take place the following day.
Question was, would Angelo announce that assistants were leaving and Jauron was staying? Everyone knew Jauron had major support from the McCaskey family. Or was it possible that Angelo would prove he was finally in charge and fire the coach? The news broke around 10 a.m., Jauron had just addressed the team a final time and would indeed be fired. Angelo stated at his press conference, "Simply put, expectations were not met." Jauron left with his typical class, thanking the media but expressing rare humor in saying he didn't have to answer any more questions on this day.
The head coach left a legacy of more losing than winning in Chicago, but many friends. What he also left is the age-old question in Chicago, has all this losing stemmed from talent, poor coaching and strategy, or an overall unhealthy organization. Bear fans would like an answer to this question sooner rather than later. © 2000-2014 Roy Taylor