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Count me among the millions of Bear watchers still mystified by this team's success. Nothing this team does will convince some of us that they are actually, um, good. I'm sure I'll hear all week long - as I did last week on virtually every show ESPN has to offer, including two-handed bowling - that we've been living in a dream-world that will dissolve in a national embarrassment at Soldier Field in the first playoff game. In fact, that would be sort of satisfying.
But I think I've figured out the secret sauce. Maybe it hasn't been so secret to legions of Bears fans out there, but I've finally satisfied myself that I can explain how this team is 11-4.
First, they win ugly. And when you win ugly, by definition, you don't look good. The Bears rarely look good. That's part of their game.
Usually it's the offense that looks ugly. But on Sunday, for example, Jay Cutler sliced up the Jets for four touchdowns and Matt Forte added 113 yards on 19 carries to put up 38 points for the home team. And the vaunted Bears defense gave up 34.
That's not a pretty win.
Did the Bears - again - get lucky?
But as much as the Jets screwed up, the Bears capitalized. When it comes to special teams, nobody seems more prepared than the Bears.
"I was able to pay attention to what we had done in practice," Rashied Davis, who broke up the fake punt pass attempt, told reporters. "[Special teams coach Dave] Toub had us ready for a fake. We knew they were going to try to do something. They did something earlier which was another key that they were going to try to pull something, so we were prepared."
It wasn't the first time the Jets screwed up a fake punt this season; against the Packers punter Steve Weatherford tried one without his coaches' knowledge. Perhaps the Jets special teams are just a bit undisciplined.
Rex Ryan's decision to try the fake also had something to do with trying to avoid Devin Hester, leading to a question I don't hear asked enough about either him or Julius Peppers: He isn't the best player in the league but is he the most valuable?
To me, though, the play that really symbolized the Bears' season was the Bears punt with a minute remaining that bounced off Jet Marquice Cole as he ran back to provide protection for a return. The Jets recovered, but not until the ball ricocheted to their own 28. The punt had first hit the ground at the 50, which would have put the Jets in decent position for a game-winning drive.
Perhaps. It was an awful punt by Brad Maynard, the usually super-reliable Bear who is having a terrible season.
The usually automatic Robbie Gould also missed a 35-yard field goal in the fourth quarter after making 64 straight inside the 40.
So you can see how the Bears didn't exactly dominate. They never seem to.
But in a battle of special teams, the Bears are going to ultimately win. And like defense in baseball, special teams in football are an underrated phase of the game. One-third, they say; just as important as offense or defense.
In fact, the Bears have long been like an opportunistic baseball team that relies on pitching and defense to keep them in games long enough to squeeze out a winning run. Trading for Jay Cutler was supposed to change that, but despite Sunday's performance no one can say this is a great offense. Lovie doesn't seem to care. That's not how he wins games. In fact, he has long depended on not only his special teams but his defense to contribute to the scoring.
The Bears tend to look ugly playing a bend-but-don't-break defense, too. One gets the impression that the opposing team is having all kinds of success against the Bears, only to come away with field goals instead of touchdowns or not scoring at all due to their own failures in the red zone. But that's just the Bears defense at work. Lovie designs ugly teams with ugly game plans.
(The return of safety Chris Harris this year is also paying huge dividends on defense.)
Lovie's emphasis on turnovers is also a well-known staple of the Bears defense; unlike some coaches, Lovie reportedly tells his players to try to pick up fumbles and run with them, for example, instead of just falling on the ball to secure the recovery. It's a sign of aggressiveness and even risk for the cautious coach - though the Cover 2 defensive strategy is risky in its own way.
This kind of team is predicated - like Iceman in Top Gun - on waiting for the other team to make mistakes and then pouncing. Again, it's not pretty.
On the other hand, offense has never been Lovie's forte. In fact, it would seem as if Lovie would prefer a quarterback who merely "manages" the game than an immature riverboat gambler like Cutler (who happens to look pretty ugly even when he's making perfect passes). He would probably trade the passing yardage for fewer interceptions. But in the NFL you still ultimately need an elite quarterback - especially without a dominant, bruising running game - if you want to win consistently. Otherwise your team comes up short too many times. And that's what put Lovie's job in peril going into this season.
Lovie's formula depends highly on a level of execution - and lucky breaks - that is vulnerable to injuries, a tough schedule, bad calls and other outside forces. In a way it is not only like the Twins but the Cubs, who under Jim Hendry seem to try to catch lightning in a bottle every few years instead of actually building a forward-moving organization. Lovie caught lightning in 2006 and he appears to have caught lightning this year; so did Dick Jauron with much the same philosophy when he saved his job in 2001.
And even the most stalwart Bears fan cannot deny the fact that going into the last third of the season the team factually had the easiest schedule in all the league according to opponents' winning percentage. Remember: the Bears beat the Lions on a weird call in the end zone; they beat a Cowboys team that turned out not to be very good; they lost in New York to the Giants and then lost at home to the mediocre Seahawks and mediocre Redskins; they were eviscerated by the Patriots. They played against third-string quarterbacks in three straight road games. They got the Eagles and Jets at home and squeaked by both.
They won at Carolina, Miami, Minnesota (not only with a third-string quarterback but without Adrian Peterson) and Toronto (against the Bills).
Is it any wonder there are still doubts about this team?
You'll probably hear a lot of experts - even some here in Chicago - predicting the Bears will be one-and-done in the playoffs. Is it any wonder? They still don't look like a great football team. Thing is, though, that's by design.
Jim Coffman will return to this space in two weeks. Comments welcome.
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