Suspense surrounded Halas Hall last year over who would take the fall for the Bears squandering a 7-3 start and missing the playoffs. Who besides Mike Martz, that is, because in retrospect we practically blamed Martz for everything from causing too many sacks to pushing America toward the fiscal cliff.
Martz offered a convenient scapegoat and, ultimately, so did former general manager Jerry Angelo. Angelo paid with his job for paying Caleb Hanie to be his backup quarterback, a decision exposed when Jay Cutler missed the final six games with a broken thumb. Other reasons for the late collapse contributed — where have you gone, Marion Barber? — but Hanie sat atop the list of errors Bears President Ted Phillips cited the day he fired Angelo and kept coach Lovie Smith.
In doing so last Jan. 3 to the surprise of many, including Angelo himself, Phillips indelibly marked 2011 as a failure of personnel, not coaching.
The same won't be true if the Bears manage to miss the playoffs again in 2012.
If the Bears miss the playoffs after starting 7-1, it will be Smith's fault. It will be Smith's fault partly because the McCaskeys cannot afford it to be the fault of the man who replaced Angelo, general manager Phil Emery. But it will be Smith's fault because fading after a fast start two years in row would suggest a pattern with the Bears more than an anomaly.
Recent Decembers in Chicago have lacked two significant things impossible to ignore: Snow falling and the Bears looking like a playoff team. You can't blame the Bears losing five straight December games dating to Dec. 26, 2010, on global warming.
You can debate whether the streak suggests Lovie Fatigue has crept into his locker room the way it has spread throughout the city like gossip after nearly nine seasons. You can wonder what it says that an NFL coach with a respectable .565 overall winning percentage (82-64) has gone just 18-17 (.514) in the most critical month of the season. You can recycle old LeBron James jokes with Smith as the punch line if his team disappears for another fourth quarter of a season.
The Bears can get serious about the playoffs again Sunday at the Metrodome against the Vikings.
"Championship teams start to separate themselves in the month of December,'' wide receiver Brandon Marshall said correctly. "Right now it's about character, want-to and passion and who wants to get it done.''
Even if the Bears get it done and make the playoffs, the way they started the year potentially changes the dynamic of Smith's postseason evaluation. The season began, in my mind, as a playoffs-or-bust proposition for Smith. That bar still might be low enough for Emery and a McCaskey family that adores Smith. But if the Bears qualify for the playoffs as an NFC wild-card team and lose in the first round, would the arrow really be pointing up? Not necessarily for a team with all the talent the Bears have at key positions.
To imply growth, to remove doubt about Smith's future, the Bears not only need to make the playoffs but to win at least one game. Only after a playoff victory should Emery even consider broaching the idea of a contract extension Smith will seek this offseason. Only then could management claim a season that began amid such promise ended with some semblance of progress.
What changed from the preseason mandate for Smith?
The hard thing about raising expectations comes in meeting them consistently. In the first half, the Bears resembled a team capable of going deep in the playoffs thanks to an elite, opportunistic defense. In the last four games against stiffer competition, the Bears are 1-3 with proverbial flecks of gray beginning to show around the defense's temples.
That defense will play the Vikings without Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings, but save the pity. The Packers have been without Clay Matthews and Charles Woodson for extended periods and nobody in Wisconsin is crying in his Leinenkugel's. The Vikings lost Percy Harvin. Injuries and attrition represent regular parts of an NFL season every head coach must overcome.
Can Smith do so in what suddenly has become a pivotal month in his career?
Nobody knows what to expect from Emery, perhaps not even Smith. Nobody can predict what a first-time GM thinks the next month will reveal about his coach. Nobody in the Bears organization feels terribly comfortable about anything anymore after a seismic loss to the Seahawks — uncertainty that feels all too familiar.
The Bears surprised us once with a bold move after a bad finish. If they suffer another one under Smith, the only surprising thing would be any suspense over who ultimately pays for it.