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SportsMonday: The Bears' Return Game

Anybody have a clue what is going on in the National Football Conference?

The leading contenders have emerged in the AFC, what with the Steelers, Colts and Jets winning again on Sunday and the Patriots eking out an overtime win over the otherwise-impressive-so-far Ravens. It isn't hard to project those five teams into the playoffs already, along with whatever lame team wins the AFC West (I suppose the Chiefs are still the favorite despite having lost two in a row).

As for the other conference, the one the Bears are fortunate to call home, well, it was screenwriter William Goldman who memorably said: "Nobody knows nothing" about which movies will be successful and which will tank. And that assessment certainly applies to a group of divisions in which everybody has at least two losses and no one has mustered any sort of sustained excellence.

In other words, the rest of the conference appears to be just as shaky as the Bears. There's some hope in that . . . isn't there?

As for yesterday's game . . .

A fan could forgive the Seahawks' first touchdown on Sunday, what with the visitors coming off a bye while the Bears had been busy knocking off Carolina the Sunday before. Seattle had clearly used its extra prep time well, putting together a game plan that exposed numerous Bears weaknesses on offense and defense.

In fact, a fan could forgive the first half, especially when the Bears finished it trailing by only a point. All that was needed was a little tweaking and . . . oh, wait a minute, you can't tweak fundamental shortcomings on the offensive line. But we've covered that topic ad nauseum in previous posts. Okay, one quick thing: How could they not adjust after, what, the third time a safety came in free and clear off the edge and slammed into Jay Cutler? At times Mike Martz is so negligent about protecting the passer with his play calls that you wonder if he might be arrested.

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One thing I never want to see again: Rashied Davis scurrying back to tell Danieal Manning not to return a kickoff that has sailed a couple yards into the end zone. Plenty of up-backs have done this over the years, appointing themselves the arbiter off which kicks should be returned by the deep man and which ones should result in the taking of a knee for a touchback. Why this has been acceptable to various teams is a mystery but with the Bears it absolutely cannot happen.

Hey Rashied, Danieal can handle it back there. If he wants to return a kick, he'll do so, especially considering that kick returns are again the Bears' primary offensive weapon. From now on, on every kick, you just go and block someone until you hear the whistle. Thank you.

Why don't the Bears ever go all out for a punt block? They never bring 10 guys in tight and do absolutely everything they can to stuff one. We understand that, given what was pointed out in the previous paragraphs, their focus is on the return more than 90 percent of the time.

But when a punter as good as Seattle's John Ryan is taking aim at the space between the sideline and the numbers from near midfield, his kicks will almost always be just about impossible to return. Ryan employs a different sort of ball drop on his kicks that seems to be gaining popularity. Instead of the classic flat drop that Brad Maynard and just about all other punters have used as long as I can remember, Ryan drops the ball point down. Perhaps it is just that Ryan is exceptionally good at it but the method certainly seems to result in kicks that are even less likely to bounce into the end zone than even very well-executed punts done the old way.

No matter how well he does on the football field, though, Ryan needs to never forget he's just a kicker. He seemed to mistake himself for a football player after that last punt, rushing in to try to make a tackle. And man did he pay the price when Earl Bennett lined him up and laid him out with an almost too easy blind-side block.

On that play, the Bears finally managed to force Ryan to punt from a little further back. At that point devoting everything to the return was the obvious call and the Ridiculous One worked his magic again. It was a crying shame that the team's myriad other deficiencies doomed Devin Hester's return to "too little, too late" status.

Brian Billick, who expertly pointed out that Ryan's last punt didn't quite get over to that aforementioned magical zone near the sideline, was sharp on the call all day. If the analyst wasn't taking the Bears to task for mistakes like trying to a throw a quick out out of the shotgun formation, when the quarterback has to wait for the snap and therefore loses precious time, he was describing the typical chaotic scene on the sidelines when a controversial play occurs.

"I'm sure there's some (assistant) coach over there saying 'coach, he was out of bounds! Coach he was out of bounds," i.e. the assistant was advocating throwing the challenge flag and putting a timeout and future challenges at risk. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll blew the challenge on Johnny Knox's huge gain in the first half but when Billick was talking about it after a near-interception in the second half, Carroll kept the flag in his pocket.

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Whoops, I think another Seattle rusher just zipped into the Bear backfield untouched.

Fortunately no one else in the NFC has yet figured out how to perfectly protect their passer, or their overall chances, this season.

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Jim Coffman brings you SportsMonday every week in this space. He welcomes your comments.

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