In January 2007, the Chicago Bears organization and their fans
found themselves in a peculiar situation. Instead of sitting at home watching
other teams compete in the playoffs, the Bears owned the number one seed in the
NFC playoffs. Despite losing two key defensive starters (DT Tommie Harris and S
Mike Brown) during the season and that unit suffering as a result, Chicago
squeaked out its first home playoff win since 1990 in the divisional round,
then stunned a Saint-loving nation with a 39-14 NFC Championship Game victory.
On that snowy January 21, key Bears stood on the NFC Championship podium as
Virginia Halas McCaskey accepted the NFC Championship trophy named after her
father. Players, coaches, staffers and fans joyously looked forward to Super
Bowl 41 in Miami and what certainly would be years of celebration to come.
Little did they all know that after January 21, 2007, it would
all be down hill. Despite some prognosticators' predictions that the Chicago
Bears may be this generation's Buffalo Bills, who reached the Super Bowl four
times in the late 80's/early 90's, the Super Bowl Bears flamed out in one year.
What actually caused the downfall will always be up for debate, but surely the
organizations' purposeful subtractions, and even subtractions they thought
would actually be additions by subtractions, would play a major part.
Predicted by many to easily reach at least one more Super
Bowl, mostly due to weak competition in the NFC, the 2007 Bears finished in
LAST PLACE in the NFC North division, after easily dominating it the previous
Late in the evening of February 4, 2007, blue confetti
exploded all over the field at Miami Dolphins stadium with the conclusion of
Super Bowl 41. But the confetti was not navy blue, but the lighter blue of the
Indianapolis Colts, who had just defeated the Bears 29-17 in the game that had
taken Chicago 21 years to reach again. As the Colts' celebration raged on the
field, several Bears congregated near the entrance to their locker room to
watch. "I want to see it so I know how to do it next time," said cornerback
Charles "Peanut" Tillman. At training camp in Bourbonnais, IL, that July,
several media members would note how the feeling of destiny to reach Super Bowl
42 in Glendale, AZ would permeate camp and the preseason.
But much news would be made by the Bears long before training
camp opened. In a shocking move, on February 20th Head Coach Lovie Smith
announced that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was being replaced with Smith's
longtime associate Bob Babich. Rivera had interviewed for several head coaching
positions prior to the Super Bowl, and was considered a valued commodity around
the league. Speculation flew that Rivera was an Angelo hire in 2004, of which
Smith didn't completely endorse, and now after a Super Bowl appearance the head
coach felt he had the clout to make the move he wanted to make.
Also let go was defensive line coach Don Johnson, who was
replaced with Brick Haley. Former NFL linebacker Hardy Nickerson joined the
staff to fill Babich's old role as linebackers coach.
Foremost on the organization's agenda that February was
addressing the situation of Smith's contract. When Smith was hired in January
2004, he signed a four-year deal taking him through the conclusion of the 2007
season, and as of that time remained the NFL's lowest paid coach. This could be
contrasted with recently hired Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino, who
signed a five-year deal paying him $25 million, easily $15 million more than
the total value of Smith's deal. Bears President Ted Phillips had mentioned
throughout the 2006 season that he didn't want to make any rash decisions based
on the Bears' 2005 success, the organization having been burned by Dave
Wannstedt and Dick Jauron just after they had signed extensions.
But the outcry to re-sign Smith was loud, and rumors flew that
Smith could play out the final season of his contract and move elsewhere in
2008, perhaps to the Dallas Cowboys in his home state of Texas. Those rumors
were squelched on February 28th when the organization announced that Smith had
agreed to a new four-year deal commencing following the 2007 season, paying him
top NFL head coach dollars to lead the team through the 2011 season. Quietly
announced at the same time were new deals for Phillips and General Manager
Jerry Angelo, taking their contracts through the same timeline as Smith's. The
Bears organization that stumbled from the mid-90's to mid-2000's with
incongruous leadership timelines, would now be on the same page for five more
years. Just one more reason to be confident in the future, fans thought.
Several weeks after the aforementioned re-signings, the
organization also signed seven assistants to new three-year contracts,
including offensive coordinator Ron Turner. The confidence continued to grow.
On March 6th, in a shocking move to some but easily explained
by Angelo, the Bears traded incumbent running back Thomas Jones to the New York
Jets in return for swapping picks in the second round. The transaction allowed
the Bears to move from the 63rd to the 37th position in round two. Many fans
and analysts were incensed or puzzled. But Angelo calmly explained that he had
come to a secret agreement with Jones prior to the 2006 season. The running
back desired a new contract based on a strong 2005 performance, but with '05
fourth overall selection Cedric Benson waiting in the wings with $18 million
guaranteed in his deal, no extension could possibly be worked out. Angelo
agreed that if Jones would turn in a workmanlike 2006, he would do whatever he
could to find Jones a place and the money he desired. Fans should remain calm,
Angelo argued, as Benson would be the man. The GM should know, after all, since
he had called Anthony Thomas "not an elite running back" and thus made no
effort to resign him prior to drafting Benson. So clearly, Benson must be an
elite running back. Yet more confidence in the future for all.
March 2007 wouldn't end without another bold and fantastic
personnel move. Seemingly tired of consistent injuries to Mike Brown, the Bears
traded a sixth-round draft pick to the Washington Redskins for safety Adam
Archuleta. The Redskins had outbid the Bears prior to the 2006 season for the
player's services by paying him a record $25 million contract for the position.
But midway into that season, Archuleta was on the bench, blaming his demotion
on internal problems at Washington. The safety was a personal favorite of
Smith, who even stated that he taught other players how to play the strong
safety position by showing them video of his friend Archuleta. The Bears paid a
guaranteed $5 million to Archuleta, who agreed to a re-worked three year, $8.1
million contract. It was initially reported that Archuleta would team with
Danieal Manning in the defensive backfield, but eventually it was decided that
Brown would be back at free safety to team with the new sign.
Clearly, Smith knew Archuleta was a great player all along and
it was the dysfunctional Redskins organization that resulted in his 2006
problems. As Smith told David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune, "as the Head
Coach of the Chicago Bears, you should trust that my decisions are the right
ones for this football team." In essence Smith was saying "don't question me."
The lone Bears free agent signee was defensive tackle Anthony
Adams from the San Francisco 49ers. It was thought that the Adams signing was
directly related to the Tank Johnson situation. Defensive tackle Johnson had
several well-publicized brushes with the law in late 2006/early 2007, and would
spend several months in Cook County Jail on a weapons violation. It was well
known that should Johnson screw up one more time, he would be gone, and Adams'
signing was insurance should that situation happen.
In the April draft, it was thought that the Bears could go any
of several directions with their first round pick. Offensive or defensive
linemen, linebacker, safety, wide receiver were thought to be top priorities.
Or if a satisfactory pick weren't there, they could trade out of the round for
the second year in a row. After the 49ers gave up their 2007 first rounder to
trade back into the first to select OT Joe Staley from Central Michigan, the
Bears zeroed in on Miami tight end Greg Olsen. The potential top-ten pick was
amazingly still there at 31, and the Bears pounced on their first tight end in
the opening round since they had selected Mike Ditka in 1961. And many believed
Olsen would turn out to be every bit as good.
Many of the rest of the Bears' picks were curious. When San
Diego offered their second pick, fifth pick and 2007 and 2008 third-round
selections for the Bears' 37th, Chicago jumped at that chance to trade down.
Where they landed with the 62nd pick, they took DE Dan Bazuin from Central
Michigan of the MAC conference. A curious pick with the Bears loaded at
defensive end, more curious spending that high of a pick on a small-conference
player. Perhaps more curious was their first third-round pick, running back
Garrett Wolfe from Northern Illinois (another MAC school). Wolfe did set
numerous Northern Illinois and NCAA records as a collegian, but his 5'7",
180-pound stature made many analysts believe he would last well into the sixth
round. Other selections for the Bears were Michael Okwo, a small but fast
linebacker, a short (6'1") guard in Josh Beekman, and defensive backs Kevin
Payne, Corey Graham and Trumaine McBride. Tackle Aaron Brandt, their final
selection, would quit football at training camp.
As the arduous months of May and June wore on, two Bears
stories dominated the news. Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs was
threatening to sit out the season in lieu of a new contract. Briggs had been
designated as the Bears' franchise player, the first time the Bears had used
that tag in their history. The designation guaranteed Briggs a 2007 salary of
$7.2 million, but the linebacker refused to sign.
In June, the Tank Johnson saga came to an end when the news
broke into the White Sox-Cubs game to announce he had been pulled over in
Arizona for suspicion of DUI. Several days later, on June 25th, the Bears
released the oft-troubled defender.
On the eve of the opening of training camp, Lance Briggs
announced he would sign his one-year tender, and it seemed that all the pieces
would again be in place for one more run at the Super Bowl. On defense, all the
key pieces were back, including a healthy Mike Brown and Tommie Harris. A solid
safety was added in Archuleta, and corners Tillman and Nathan Vasher had been
signed to long-term extensions. Despite the loss of Johnson on the line, Adams
had been added and promising second-year tackle Dusty Dvoracek was returning
from his rookie season on injured reserve.
On offense, the Bears returned what was thought to be one of
the NFL's most solid lines, although it was old and would desperately need
rebuilding soon. The unit added playmakers in rookie tight end Olsen, and had
switched the electrifying Devin Hester from corner to wide receiver. Angelo had
urged that Benson was the elite running back the team needed, and would be
fine. And at quarterback, Rex Grossman pledged to rebound from a roller-coaster
2006 with a 30 touchdown, single-digit interception season.
In the early days of training camp, punctuated by what have
been overconfident players, the Bears pulled another surprising move when they
traded a 2008 fifth-round draft pick to Buffalo for defensive tackle Darwin
Walker. Walker wanted a new contract or out of Buffalo, and the Bears gladly
gave him a five-year deal that would easily void to one if his performance were
not satisfactory. Several weeks later, having what they thought was a logjam of
talent and health at the safety position, Chicago traded veteran Chris Harris
to Carolina, also for a fifth-round selection. A seemingly innocuous move at
the time, but a move that would depend on the health and performance of
Archuleta, Brown and the rookie DB picks.
In the team's first preseason game at Houston, Cedric Benson
bowled over defenders and the offense looked extremely sharp in a 20-19 win.
Debuted was a two tight end look featuring Olsen and incumbent Dez Clark,
fascinating fans with its potential. The Bears finished the preseason 3-1,
poised to pounce as the real tournament began.
First up in the regular season was a trip to visit the
Chargers, who finished 14-2 in 2006 but were quickly bounced from the playoffs.
The Bears led San Diego 3-0 at halftime and their defense looked stronger than
it had at any point since the beginning of the 2006 season. But Grossman missed
on several opportunities to score touchdowns in the first half, and behind the
offense that could only muster 202 yards of total offense, the Bears lost 14-3.
Losing the game was easy to get over. Losing two key defensive starters in the
opener was not. Both Mike Brown and Dvoracek, who had looked dominant in the
preseason, tore ACL's and were finished for the season before it really even
The following week the Bears got on the winning track,
defeating the weak Kansas City Chiefs 20-10. The game did feature a 73 yard
punt return touchdown by Hester, and Cedric Benson's first 100 yard rushing
performance. But Grossman had another shaky performance, passing for just 160
yards with two interceptions.
On September 23, a national audience tuned into Soldier Field
to see the undefeated Cowboys take on the defending NFC Champions at night. It
wasn't just a duel of two teams, but a duel of two quarterbacks acquired in
2003. That year the Bears selected Grossman with the 22nd overall pick, while
the Cowboys watched 262 picks go by before signing free agent Tony Romo from
tiny Eastern Illinois. Grossman's 2007 seemed to mark the decent of his career,
while Romo was lighting up the NFL. The two teams entered halftime with an even
3-3 score, but the Bears had again blown several chances to score
touchdowns-including one on a drop by a wide-open Bernard Berrian. On the first
possession of the second half, Dallas scored a touchdown, punctuated by several
miraculous scrambles by Romo. Early on in the second half, the Bears also lost
Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs and Nathan Vasher to injuries, and Dallas walked
through Chicago the rest of the way. The final score was 34-10, and the Bears
fell to 1-2.
At that point, Rex Grossman had become the first Chicago Bears
quarterback to start 19 consecutive regular season games since Jim Harbaugh in
1991-1992, but following his three game start of 1 touchdown and 5
interceptions, Smith benched Grossman for journeyman Brian Griese. Griese would
have to start and try to win consecutive games at Detroit and Green Bay,
suddenly resurgent teams that held 2-1 and 3-0 records, respectively.
At Detroit, down five defensive starters and facing Mike
Martz' high-flying offense, Griese passed the Bears to a 13-3 fourth quarter
lead. But the Bear defense and special teams would give up an NFL record 34
points in the fourth quarter, and the Bears lost 37-27. In the following week,
players including defensive end Adawale Ogunelye and tackle Tommie Harris
hinted that players may have thought they'd have an easy walk to Super Bowl 42,
only to be faced with a much harsher reality. On the positive side, Hester
turned in his second kick return for a touchdown on the season with a 97-yard
Chicago traveled to face 4-0 Green Bay in Lambeau on Sunday
October 7th, in another nationally-televised Sunday night game. Analysts
predicted an easy Packer win over the wounded Bears, but Chicago turned in a
surprising and thrilling 27-20 victory. The defense turned in a solid second
half and Griese piloted Chicago to their first victory under his direction.
Benson, shut down in three of the season's five games, turned in a solid effort
with 64 yards rushing and an 11-yard touchdown, but averaged only 2.3 yards per
carry. This statistic would remain a troubling trend throughout the season.
After an emotional upswing with the Packer victory, the team
endured a disastrous follow-up when they lost 34-31 at home to the Vikings on a
last-second Ryan Longwell 55-yard field goal. For the Bears, Griese and Hester
shined. The quarterback threw for 381 yards, and Hester caught his first
touchdown pass, an 81-yarder to tie the game. But the defense for the first
time was abysmal, missing countless tackles and allowing rookie Viking running
back Adrian Peterson 224 rushing yards, the most ever allowed by the Bears to
one player in a game. Adding insult was that Minnesota's second running back,
Chester Taylor, rushed for 83 yards himself, on a day when the Bears allowed
311 total yards rushing.
It was revealed after the game that perennial All Pro
linebacker Brian Urlacher was battling an arthritic back that caused major
pain, and may never be the same player he was for the first seven years of his
The next week, backs against the wall, the Bears pulled out
another improbable victory when Griese led a 97-yard drive in the game's final
minute to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia. But that jewel of a win was followed
up by another frustrating, humiliating defeat, this one at home at the hands of
Detroit, 16-7. The Bears were swept by Detroit for just the second time since
1997, and were 3-5 at the halfway point of the season.
Smith and the players argued that the team was still very much
alive for the playoffs, despite Green Bay and Detroit commanding the NFC North
with 7-1 and 6-2 records. The Bears did win their first game of the season's
second half, 17-6 at lowly Oakland, and Grossman returned following a Griese
shoulder injury. The second half of the 2007 season would reveal only two other
bright spots following their week nine bye.
At home against the Denver Broncos on November 25th, the Bears
trailed by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But after a Tillman blocked
punt and an amazing touchdown pass and catch from Grossman to Berrian, the
Bears won 37-34 after a brief overtime drive. The game featured two more punt
return touchdowns for Devin Hester, solidifying his reign in just two years as
perhaps the greatest kick returner of all time. That win kept the Bears'
improbable playoff hopes alive, until consecutive losses in the next three
games sealed their fate.
Not many NFL teams are forced to start three quarterbacks in a
season, but the 2007 Bears did so for the fifth time in seven years, an amazing
statistic, when third-stringer Kyle Orton was named the starter for the
season's final three games.
One more happy Sunday in a season of so few occurred two days
before Christmas at Soldier Field. The official game time temperature for the
175th meeting of the Bears and Packers was 16 degrees. But winds gusting to 50
miles per hour dropped the wind chill to a reported minus-10 degrees. On this
day the Bears did everything right in a season of wrongs, while the Packers
were stifled in a 35-7 Bears win. As of that time, coach Smith owned a 6-2
career record against the arch-rivals including two season sweeps, in a rivalry
dominated by the Packers for almost two decades.
Following a 33-25 win over the Saints in a disappointing
rematch of the 2006 NFC Championship, the Bears finished the season 7-9, with
many more questions remaining than answers. These included how to repair a
suddenly poor offensive line, one that was still regarded as elite prior to the
season. At quarterback, none of the quarterbacks on the roster appear able to
lead the team to another Super Bowl unless they're playing with one of the best
defenses in the league, a luxury the Bears no longer possess. Cedric Benson's
674 yard season, cut short by an injury, was massively disappointing for the
fourth overall pick in a draft. Not to mention the sluggish attitude he
portrays. The team's only playmaking wide receiver, free agent Bernard Berrian,
is expected to be priced out of Chicago.
On defense similar questions remain for a unit just one year
removed from being best in the league. Darwin Walker will probably not be
retained following disappointing and injury-prone season. Dusty Dvoracek will
return with promise, but with two injuries in two years, can he stay healthy?
End Mark Anderson followed up an amazing 12-sack rookie season with a sad
five-sack sophomore campaign, during which he was also gashed on run plays.
Will Brian Urlacher's back ever recover, and will Jamar Williams be an adequate
replacement for Lance Briggs, who will most certainly not get top free agent
dollars in Chicago, given all the other holes to fill. Adam Archuleta, a lock
to be a solid cover two safety in Chicago, was benched here as he was in
Washington, and if he is back in 2008 it will be a maddening decision. Will
Mike Brown recover from his fourth straight season-ending injury or will the
Bears need to find three new safeties?
2007 was as disappointing a season for Chicago Bears fans as
any in memory. And with so many disappointing seasons to choose from, that's
saying a heck of a lot.