In the Wake of the News
12:38 AM CST, December 30, 2013
Looking as devastated as every Bears fan felt early Sunday evening, safety Chris Conte slowly walked away from his locker declining comment on the biggest play of the season.
Conte's eyes were red and his head was down as he stared at the carpet.
"There was a little miscommunication on that final play," cornerback Tim Jennings said a few stalls away.
Chicagoans, we have a nomination for Biggest Understatement of 2013.
A Bears season once packed with playoff promise ended suddenly amid empty despair. A 33-28 loss to the Packers made the Bears 8-8; good enough at times to tease us into thinking anything was possible but still bad enough to deserve your skepticism.
"I don't know what to say," linebacker James Anderson said in a somber locker room.
In living rooms and barrooms around Chicagoland, they could relate.
On a windy, wintry December day, Chicago suffered through one of the coldest endings to a Bears game in several seasons no matter what the thermometer said. The worst defense in Bears history cemented its legacy by blowing a late fourth-quarter lead with the NFC North title on the line.
The Packers beat the Bears and coach Marc Trestman lost the benefit of the doubt heading into an offseason of uncertainty that really began with 46 seconds left. The Packers faced fourth-and-8 at the Bears' 48 — fourth-and-the-season, if you will. Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker dialed up a blitz to pressure Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"They brought the house," Rodgers said.
Imagine how big Rodgers' eyes got when he saw nobody home to defend Randall Cobb.
"The thinking was we could sit back in zone and give them the opportunity to make a play or force them to rush a throw," Trestman explained later.
Problem is, not everybody in the Bears secondary was thinking the same thing. Cornerbacks Zack Bowman and Jennings both referred to running a "zone blitz." But nickel back Isaiah Frey, who rushed Rodgers, mentioned the Bears were in man coverage behind him. Trestman insisted the same, confirming the muddled message.
"It was man coverage," Trestman said. "If a quarterback breaks contain in a zero blitz (against man coverage) like that, it leaves a lot of field. You're leaving the back end one-on-one."
In this case, it produced one-on-none. Cobb, seeing Conte's feet plant as if to defend the flat area instead of the Packers receiver in front of him, decided to convert a hook route into something deeper. Rodgers bought himself an extra second to throw by scrambling left as fullback John Kuhn disrupted Julius Peppers' rushing lane. The ball landed perfectly in Cobb's hands for a touchdown that "will be running on the highlight reel for the rest of my time on this earth," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
It seems like an eternity since the Bears have beaten McCarthy's Packers in a significant game. Minutes after Cobb scored, unfortunately timed, the song "Bad Day" blared from the Soldier Field scoreboard. The crowd of 62,708 probably thought to themselves: You have no idea. When do the NHL playoffs start? The year 2013 cannot end soon enough for our city's sports fans.
Instead of planning next weekend's tailgate party, they were left to ponder where this Bears loss ranked among Derrick Rose's injury and Chicago baseball's irrelevance among the year's disappointments. Instead of reflecting on what the playoffs meant for Trestman's first season, they were left regretting his decision to kick a field goal on second down in overtime against the Vikings and sticking with Cutler too long against the Lions.
More fodder for questioning Trestman came on a bizarre 15-yard fumble recovery returned for a touchdown by Packers wide receiver Jarrett Boykin. Peppers knocked the ball out of Rodgers' hand as he was throwing and, as everybody assumed it was an incompletion, the ball rolled downfield. Linebacker James Anderson was the most obvious defender not to pick it up, but Boykin showed the awareness every Bear lacked. Remember when the Bears defense used to run to the ball no matter what?
"There's never been a time this whole year when I've blown a whistle in practice and the ball is on the ground that we didn't pick it up and scoop and score," Trestman said. "To try and explain why that happened, I really can't at this time."
Words came easier describing Jay Cutler, who deserved better than his eighth loss to the Packers as the Bears quarterback. Cutler debunked the myth exaggerated all week that tied the Bears' winning primarily to his performance. He posted better numbers than Rodgers — 15 of 24 for 226 yards, two TDs and a passer rating of 103.8 — yet the Bears still lost because of a defensive breakdown out of his control.
Whether it's this week or next month, Cutler showed enough moxie when it mattered for the Bears to announce he will return in 2014.
"He was in total command," Trestman said.
When the emotionally draining game was over, and Sam Shields intercepted Cutler's last-ditch heave on the final play, wide receiver Brandon Marshall found keeping total command of his own feelings a challenge. As Marshall lay flat on the frozen turf, his thoughts drifted to how pro athletes such as Ray Lewis and LeBron James made memorable exits after tough losses.
"I knew that wasn't a good look," Marshall said. "So I just tried to figure out the best way to move forward."
After the Bears missed the playoffs for the sixth time in seven seasons, a football city wondered the same thing.
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