On fourth-and-1 against the Seahawks from the 15-yard line in the second quarter, leading 7-0, the Bears decided to bypass a field-goal attempt and hand the ball to Michael Bush. Bush was stopped before he started. The emasculated Bears came away from that drive without any points and lost in overtime.
Then, on third-and-1 against the Vikings late in the third quarter of a game they trailed 14-7, the Bears made another telling, sign-of-the-times decision. Instead of handing off to either Bush or Matt Forte to power their way for a first down, the Bears called a pass play out of the shot-gun formation. Neither Bush nor Forte was even on the field as third-stringer Armando Allen lined up in the backfield. Jay Cutler overthrew wide receiver Brandon Marshall, Vikings safety Harrison Smith intercepted the pass and returned it 56 yards for a dagger of a touchdown.
Two yards. Six feet. Seventy-two inches. That’s the distance between prosperity and doom in this suddenly unsettled 2012 season. That’s how close the Bears were two straight weeks to success that now seems very far away.
Convert those two first downs the old-fashioned way, by winning the battle at the line of scrimmage to squeeze out a short-yardage gain, and nobody in town would be talking about anything this week but a 10-3 record.
But the Bears no longer blow defensive lines off the ball. They lean. They lunge. They look softer than Soldier Field grass after a rainy night. Holes close as soon as they open. The offensive line is more like a squiggle. This is not a new phenomenon.
Recently the contracts and job security of Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Tice have come under scrutiny. But the other guy on the staff with reason to worry might be longtime strength and conditioning coach Rusty Jones. The Bears don’t seem very strong or well-conditioned. Their offensive linemen hardly impose their will on anybody. Their roster has sustained so many injuries through 13 games that Lovie Smith was forced to cancel practice Wednesday because he didn’t have enough healthy bodies.
That doesn’t mean Jones should be held responsible for every short-yardage failure or injury. It means that when GM Phil Emery takes a long, hard look at every aspect of the organization during his postseason evaluation, it would serve Emery well to thoroughly examine Jones’ entire operation. Players will be more candid with Emery than they ever would with the media. Seeking their input needs to be Emery’s priority if, for no other reason, to see if they confirm or deny a growing belief around the league that the Bears need to toughen up — a process that starts in the weight room.
The two most lasting images of first-round draft pick Gabe Carimi shouldn’t be of 1) Carimi being treated like a speed bump by 49ers pass-rusher Aldon Smith and 2) Carimi being blown up in the hole on the failed fourth-and-one against the Seahawks. The most familiar position for left tackle J’Marcus Webb shouldn’t be in retreat as he absorbs more blows than he delivers.
Roberto Garza. Jonathan Scott. James Brown. Webb. Carimi. Who among that starting five possesses enough brute force for the Bears to trust running behind on fourth-and-short? The Bears offensive line really should scare more than just its own quarterback.
Physical football on the line of scrimmage is like good art. You know it when you see it. This Bears offense seems to have seen the last of it. Only if they can revive that style of play starting Sunday against the Packers will legitimate hopes to salvage their season gain life.