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Chris Conte takes responsibility, seeks resurrection

Besieged Bears safety shoulders blame for playoff-busting play but vows to come back strong to redeem career

David Haugh

In the Wake of the News

3:46 PM CST, January 5, 2014

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The Chris Conte who covers NFL receivers rather than local news chuckled uncomfortably recalling how surreal it was to see stories about the Nashville TV reporter with the same name receiving death threats on Twitter intended for the Bears safety.

"Somebody said, 'Oh, he had such a terrible night getting those threats intended for someone else,' and I was like, how the (heck) do you think the guy feels who those were meant for?'' said Conte, who disabled his Twitter account months ago. "How'd you like to be the guy sitting at home with his family having his parents read all those terrible things?''

Nobody knows what it was like to be the guy universally blamed for blowing a fourth-down coverage against the Packers last Sunday that resulted in an NFC North-clinching 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in a 33-28 loss.

Conte spent the longest week of his three-year career at his north suburban residence making plans but not excuses surrounded by family members he dropped off Friday night at O'Hare for their trip back home to California. Around town, Conte heard the insults, shared the regrets and accepted responsibility Bears fans quickly assigned him even if coaches and players insist others were involved.

"If you want to blame one person, fine, I'll be the person, so put it on me if it makes all of Chicago feel better,'' Conte told the Tribune. "I'm not going to go crawl in a hole because all of Chicago hates me. It's unfortunate. But it still comes down to me and I'm completely responsible for what happened.''

What happened was Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker called for "zone pressure,'' in Conte's words, on fourth-and-8 from the Bears 48. The Packers came out in a shotgun formation with four wide receivers and fullback John Kuhn next to quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Seconds before the snap, Bears linebacker James Anderson turned toward Conte and raised his right arm.

"At the last second, we checked into a call 'Pepsi,' an all-out blitz,'' Conte said. "It's up to the discretion of the linebacker. Against a spread formation like that, it's called because we have more people than they can block. It's a numbers thing. Everybody comes after the quarterback and if the ball doesn't come out immediately, you're pretty much screwed.''

The Bears have run the blitz in recent years but one former staff member said it was so high-risk, high-reward that they avoided calling it against top quarterbacks with superior pocket presence. Quarterbacks like Rodgers, who sidestepped Julius Peppers to buy enough time to spot Cobb wide open down the middle.

Why wasn't Conte in man coverage against Cobb in the slot the way Anderson's pre-snap check required?

"I didn't get the check and thought we were still in zone pressure, three-deep,'' said Conte, who settled near the first-down marker. "I was locked in. I'm thinking fourth down and my responsibilities. I'm going to say it's my fault because I was too focused on my job, thinking about the routes they've been running all game. I thought we had a good call to begin with and it's unfortunate I didn't get the check.''

Conte sounded just as upset reliving the ball that went through his hands for a 22-yard completion to Packers receiver Andrew Quarless earlier in the quarter. One play later, Packers running back Eddie Lacy scored.

"I don't know how the heck I missed the ball,'' Conte said. "It would have been game over.''

Now it is open season in Chicago on Conte, whose struggles making open-field tackles made him the emblem of the Bears defense's ineptitude. In 16 games, Conte went from resembling a 21st century Gary Fencik to reminding us of Adam Archuleta. As Conte enters the final year of his rookie contract, the once-promising safety assumes nothing.

"I know the Bears are going to bring in someone to compete with me, if not start, but I'm a competitor even if (NBC analyst) Rodney Harrison thinks I'm garbage,'' Conte said. "I didn't get to the NFL because I'm not a competitor.''

He's also a 24-year-old player with 40 NFL starts, a guy who needs to rediscover his confidence that vanished. Cornerback Tim Jennings knows from his own career reclamation that Conte can be salvaged.

"I was in the same position (in 2011),'' Jennings said. "I try to keep him uplifted, let him know he still has a lot of football to play. This is not the end of the road.''

This is adversity Conte can turn into opportunity, painful history that need not define his future.

"Look, I know I didn't have a great year,'' Conte said. "I'm going to work as hard as I've ever worked and have a chip on my shoulder. I'm going to be angry. This sucks. I'm going to be better next year because of this whole situation — because I don't want this to happen to me again."

Everybody in the city supports Conte on that.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh