The Chicago Bears offense lines up to score on January
16, 2011 in their 35-24 divisional playoff win over the Seattle Seahawks at
In early September 2010, the Chicago Bears organization
invited season ticket holders for the first time to enter the Walter Payton
Center at Halas Hall for a "state of the team" address, hosted by President Ted
Phillips, General Manager Jerry Angelo, and Head Coach Lovie Smith. It was a
noble gesture by the organization even if the execution was off; the metal
Payton center was acoustically a horrible place to host the event. Fans seated
20 feet away from those speaking couldn't hear what they were saying due to the
During the talk many attendees shook their heads and rolled
their eyes, listening to the brain trust talk of the impact the major changes
made in the offseason would have on the team's success. Remember, this pep talk
came on the heels of only the second winless preseason in 30 years, a preseason
in which the team looked offensively and defensively overmatched and
Thus the 2010 Chicago Bears began the season surrounded by
skepticism felt by their fans, the media, and their peers. Despite having made
major changes throughout the organization, the team was roundly predicted to
finish with seven wins or less and far below the records of division rivals
Green Bay and Minnesota. At the end of the campaign, the club would
astonishingly host the NFC Championship game with the chance to beat their
arch-rival for a trip to Super Bowl 45. While the Bears' 2010 season turned out
breathtakingly exciting for its followers, in the end the team lost out in the
worst way it possibly could, at the hands of their arch rival of 89 years.
The 2009 season had ended on a sour note for Bears fans,
despite the team finishing by winning their final two games and spoiling the
rival Vikings' hopes for home field advantage in the playoffs. In December,
many fans were calling for the firing of Smith and Angelo, even pooling money
to purchase a billboard advertisement pushing for such a move. At the
conclusion of the season, the team acted quickly by firing not Smith or Angelo,
but virtually the entire offensive coaching staff that had been led by
coordinator Ron Turner since 2005. The move came just two days after the season
ended on January 3rd.
Just prior to the offensive purge, the team called a press
conference addressing the disappointed season, at which Phillips, Angelo and
Smith spoke. Their theme was feeling the fans' frustration and admitting that
they all "know they have to do a better job" at winning.
In addition to needing to fill an entirely new offensive
coaching staff, Smith needed to find a new defensive coordinator. After two
disastrous defensive seasons under Smith's good friend Bob Babich, in 2009
Smith had decided to control the defense himself as coordinator. The result was
his unit ranking 17th overall, 23rd against the run and 13th against the pass.
These rankings were actually better than the previous two seasons, but clearly
not good enough to compete. Smith stated that for 2010 he would hire a
Early candidates mentioned for the coordinator roles were the
most obvious. Prior to taking the head coaching job with the Bears, Smith had
spent three seasons as defensive coordinator for Mike Martz with the St. Louis
Rams. Martz had spent 2009 out of football, after being dismissed from both the
Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers in his previous two stints. Some
questioned the viability of Martz not only based on his previous two failures,
but because he had vocally criticized Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in his
analyst role with NFL Network. For the defense, it was assumed early on that
defensive line coach and great Smith friend Rod Marinelli would win up as
defensive coordinator. After all, it was Marinelli whom Smith favored initially
as his coordinator in 2004, before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers refused to allow
him to interview for a promotion.
Throughout January, the Bears cast a wide net in their
coordinator search, just as Jerry Angelo did to find a head coach in 2004.
Strangely Angelo was met with the same response as he did six years before,
seemingly the top candidates wanted nothing to do with the Bears' openings. Top
choices on offense were Jeremy Bates, Jay Cutler's former quarterbacks coach in
Denver, and Tom Clements, Packer quarterbacks coach. On defense, the Bears
actively pursued former Smith disciple Perry Fewell, who recently had served as
interim head coach of the Buffalo Bills but was not retained. One by one the
top candidates refused the Bears' offer, and some speculated it was due to the
fact that without a strong performance in 2010, Lovie Smith and his staff might
be fired after just one more season. Bates accepted the Seattle Seahawks' offer
to become their offensive coordinator, Clements was refused the opportunity to
interview by the Packers, and Fewell took the defensive coordinator job with
the New York Giants. In the meantime, in a curious move the Bears on January
15th hired Mike Tice to become their offensive line coach prior to having a
coordinator in place, a peculiar move. Tice was former head coach of the
Minnesota Vikings and currently employed as an offensive assistant with the
Then after a lull of several weeks, with most observers having
no clue as to what the Bears would do, the team announced on February 1st that
Martz would be hired to head up the offense. Four days later they quietly
announced that Marinelli was given the defensive head job. Thus a month after
announcing the moves needed to be made, the Bears had their offensive and
defensive coaching staffs in place. As usual it was long after most other
assistant coaching vacancies around the league had been filled. (This had also
been the case when Dick Jauron and Smith's staffs had been assembled in 1999
and 2004.) While it seemed that the appointments were made because the team had
no other choice, they also put the Bears in the position of having three former
NFL head coaches in assistant coaching positions, which was not the norm for
the Chicago Bears.
Martz was roundly regarded as one of the most innovative
offensive minds in the history of the game. In his first season as an offensive
coordinator, with the 1999 St. Louis Rams, he built a super bowl winner forever
to be known as the "Greatest Show on Turf." A disciple of legendary offensive
coach Don Coryell, Martz' system featured the long passing game at its heart,
requiring a tough, intelligent quarterback, talented wide receivers and running
backs, and most importantly a solid offensive line that could protect the
passer that frequently made long throws off seven-step drops.
Problem number one for the 2010 Bears was that their offensive
line was highly suspect. Left tackle Chris Williams had finished the 2009
season strong, but was still unproven. Guard Frank Omiyale, given an enormous
2009 free agent payday, did not have a good season at that position. Center
Olin Kreutz and right guard Roberto Garza were toward the end of their careers.
Massive changes needed to be made, and all had to hope that tremendous progress
in the group's play would take place. Observers guessed that Omiyale would be
moved to his natural position of tackle on the right side, opening up a guard
spot for a newcomer that would have to perform.
In the March free agency period, one player was coveted by
teams more than any other. That player was Carolina Panther defensive end
Julius Peppers. Peppers was the second overall pick in the 2002 draft, and
while he was capable of dominating offenses at times, he also had stretches
when he would seemingly disappear. He had been designated as Carolina's
franchise player, but the Panthers had been unable to work out a long-term deal
with the player to keep him in the fold. To the surprise of many, the Bears
were players for Peppers from the stroke of midnight, when Smith flew to
Carolina to convince the prize to sign. By the first morning of free agency,
the Bears had lured him with a six-year, $91.5 million contract. Also on the
first day Chicago signed running back Chester Taylor from the Vikings, and
tight end Brandon Manumaleuna from San Diego. Later in the offseason they would
acquire cornerback Tim Jennings and linebacker Brian Iwuh.
The Bears' 2010 draft haul was depleted for the second
consecutive season due to the Jay Cutler trade, but also even more after they
had traded their second-round pick to Tampa for defensive end Gaines Adams.
(Adams died in his sleep in January of 2010 due to an undiagnosed heart
condition). So the Bears were forced to wait out the draft's first night
without a pick. The morning of the second day, Florida safety Major Wright
became the Bears' first pick in the third round. Subsequent draft picks were
Northwestern defensive end Corey Wootton, Kansas State cornerback Joshua Moore,
QB Dan LeFevour, and finally massive offensive tackle J'Marcus Webb from tiny
West Texas A&M. The LeFevour pick became controversial late in the season
when it was disclosed that the Bears had advised Buffalo running back James
Starks that he would be selected, only to renege on the promise. Starks would
go on to success with the rival Packers, while LeFevour was cut following
training camp. The Bears would also use a sixth-round pick in the July 2010
supplemental draft to select running back Harvey Unga from BYU. Unga spent the
season on injured reserve.
In the preseason, the team looked out of synch, unfocused, and
poorly coached. They lost their first two meetings by 15 points to San Diego
and Oakland, and in the third and most important game, lost again to the
Arizona Cardinals. In the finale against Cleveland, new backup quarterback Todd
Collins, 38 years old and lured out of retirement, looked surprisingly good,
but the Bears still lost. Preseason games are meaningless, but both the offense
and defense looked no better than they had in a disappointing 2009 campaign.
But all of the controversy was put to rest on September 12th,
when the Bears hosted the Detroit Lions on opening day. The Lions jumped to a
14-3 lead over the Bears until running back Matt Forte took a screen pass 89
yards for a touchdown just before the half. Chicago still trailed into the
fourth quarter, until Forte caught another touchdown pass from Cutler, this one
on a 28-yard wheel route. Failing to convert a two-point attempt, the Bears led
the lions 19-14 when the game's final drive commenced. With less than two
minutes remaining in the game, the Lions needed to drive 83 yards for a
touchdown to take the game from the Bears. And drive they did. Four plays
later, on the arm of backup quarterback Shaun Hill, the Lions were at Chicago's
25 yard line with 31 seconds remaining. Hill appeared to complete a touchdown
pass to receiver Calvin Johnson, giving Detroit the victory. However, as
Johnson rose up to celebrate, the ball slipped from the one hand in which he
had it gripped, and the winning catch was ruled an incomplete pass. Despite
mass protests from the Lions and many in the league, the Bears squeaked by with
a 19-14 victory.
The following week the Bears traveled to Dallas to face a
Super Bowl favorite in the Cowboys. Few gave the Bears a chance. After the day
was over, the Bears had beaten the Cowboys 27-20 in a game that wasn't as close
as the score indicated. It was Chicago's first victory in Dallas since 1986,
and they returned home for a Monday Night matchup with their hated rivals, the
equally 2-0 Green Bay Packers.
The Bears were three point underdogs to the Packers, who for
the second year were heavily favored to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Thanks in part to a team-record 18 penalties committed by Green Bay, the Bears
prevailed by a score of 20-17. The game featured a 62-yard punt return
touchdown by Bear Devin Hester, his first scoring return since the 2007 season.
The 2010 Bears at that time were one of the surprises of the NFL, at 3-0 one of
only a handful of undefeated teams left after three games.
Despite the undefeated record, there were glitches in the
Bears' game. Martz was throwing the ball at an alarming percentage, and in turn
Cutler was being sacked at an almost unprecedented rate. Despite racking up
yardage, the team was having a terrible time scoring from inside the opponents'
10 yard line. These issues would come back to haunt the Bears when they
traveled the following week to face the Giants on Sunday night. New York was
1-2, and it looked as if the Bears might be able to deal the blow that knocked
the Giants out for the season. Instead it was the hosts that dealt all the
blows. The Giants sacked Bears quarterbacks 10 times in the game, and by
halftime Cutler was knocked out. Despite the punishment Chicago's offense took,
the Bear defense played valiantly, holding the Giants to 10 points until late
in the game. By that point, the Bears' offense under backup quarterbacks
Collins and Caleb Hanie couldn't keep the ball, and the defenders were worn
down. Chicago lost 17-3, managing only 163 total yards.
Jay Cutler would miss his first game as Bears quarterback with
a concussion the following week at Carolina, but Chicago easily won that game
23-6 over reeling Carolina, despite Collins amassing 32 yards passing and four
interceptions in Cutler's absence. But alarmingly, even with Cutler back the
Bears lost the next two games at home to Washington and Seattle to fall to 4-3.
During the first seven games of the season, Martz continued to virtually ignore
the running game while the team struggled to score even when they were inside
the opponents' five-yard line. Against Washington, Cutler threw four
interceptions to the Redskins' DeAngelo Hall. And after Cutler appeared to have
scored on a quarterback sneak, the officials ruled that he had fumbled, a
ruling Smith refused to challenge. Chicago's bye week came at this point, and
much had to have been discussed among the organization and coaching staff
during the break.
The Bears' first game after the bye was mercilessly against
the Buffalo Bills in Toronto, Canada, and the stadium seemed to be filled with
Chicago sports fans. In this game the offense did still lean toward the pass,
but with 26 rushes to 30 passes, the offense was somewhat more balanced. Thanks
to a late interception by Jennings, the Bears held on for a 22-19 victory.
Following the win over the Bills, the Bears won four straight
games to build their record to 9-3. With each game it seemed a heavier and
heavier emphasis was placed on the running game. Coinciding with the winning
streak were changes to the offensive line that moved Omiyale from right to left
tackle, Williams to left guard, and the insertion of rookie J'Marcus Webb at
right tackle. These changes along with the emphasis on the running game turned
the Bears' offensive fortunes for the better.
On December 12th, following victories over Minnesota, Miami,
Detroit and a huge upset over the red-hot Philadelphia Eagles, the Bears faced
another tough test against the NFL's best team, the New England Patriots. On a
snowy field following a week of hype, the Bears were steamrolled 36-7 by Tom
Brady and company. But despite that demoralizing loss, the following Monday
night saw the Bears with the opportunity to clinch their first NFC North
championship with a win in the great outdoors at the University of Minnesota's
stadium. The game was moved to that venue following the collapse of the roof of
the Metrodome in Minneapolis, and the Bears rocked to a 40-14 victory over the
reeling Vikings. Not only did they crush their opponents, but the Bears knocked
Viking quarterback Brett Favre from his final game with a concussion, and
Hester broke the existing NFL record with his 14th total touchdown return.
The following week the Bears would have to defeat the loud and
boisterous New York Jets to continue their quest for a playoff bye and did just
that with a 38-34 victory. The win gave the Bears a bye and second playoff
seeding on the virtue of an improbable Minnesota victory over Philadelphia. In
the final week of the season the question was would the Bears play their
starters at Green Bay, with the Packers needing a victory to make the playoffs
as a wildcard? Or would they rest, fearing injuries? Smith decided to play his
starters throughout the game, although the Bears looked like they played less
than their best, also admitting later that they kept their game plan basic and
didn't change the same receiver hot routes they used in the first meeting.
Despite a strong effort, the Bears lost to the Packers 10-3 in the season
finale, granting the dangerous Packers entry into the postseason.
In the first round of the NFC playoffs, the league was stunned
when the 7-9 Seahawks, with the worst record for a playoff team in NFL history,
shocked the defending NFL Champion Saints in a 41-36 victory. This win,
combined with a Packer defeat of the Eagles in Philadelphia, brought Seattle to
Chicago and allowed Green Bay to tackle the #1 seeded Falcons in Atlanta. While
the Bears cruised to 35-24 victory over the Seahawks, the Packers pulled
another shocker by manhandling Atlanta. These two victories brought the NFC
Championship to Chicago, the home of an NFL team no one gave a chance to have a
winning season in 2010. It would be the first playoff meeting between the
bitter rivals since 1941, and a week of unprecedented hype preceded the game.
The Packers wrapped up the week prior to the game as 3 1/2
point favorites over the host Bears. And despite so very many things falling
perfectly into place for the 2010 Chicago Bears, in the end, they lost the NFC
Championship game 21-14 to the Packers. True to form for a team that has
started 23 different quarterbacks since 1992, a stretch during which the
Packers have started three, the Bears wound up finishing the game with their
third-stringer nearly rallying them to victory. But with a fourth down deep in
Packer territory and less than two minutes remaining to play, Hanie was
intercepted to end the Bears' Super Bowl dreams.
Losing at home in the NFC Championship to your most hated
rival certainly has to be the worst way to go down. But what a ride it was.