DETROIT — Wearing a knotted tie and a focused gaze, Patrick Mannelly looked like a nervous stockbroker staring at the morning ticker as he sat on a folding chair Sunday inside the visiting Bears locker room.
A few feet away, fellow Bears veteran Roberto Garza glanced helplessly at the same TV set. Around the corner, a teammate swore as Vikings running back Adrian Peterson broke another big run. Perhaps not since the day they were drafted have Bears players watched a television screen this intently.
"Aggravating," Matt Forte called the suspense.
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Indeed after the Bears beat the lowly Lions 26-24 at Ford Field, their hard work began. This was the heaviest of waits for the Bears. The strain showed postgame — and it only got worse when the Vikings beat the Packers in Minneapolis on a last-second field goal that should reverberate with changes at Halas Hall.
"We put ourselves in this position," defensive tackle Henry Melton said. "We shouldn't have to be watching TV to see if we made the playoffs."
That was the smartest thing the outspoken Melton said all week. The Bears earned their agony and now a football city deserves bold moves that illustrate a Super Bowl commitment.
The Bears had nobody to blame but themselves for the football limbo they endured. Vikings kicker Blair Walsh wasn't responsible for ending their season when he kicked a 29-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Packers 37-34 at the Metrodome. That onus fell on everybody who was part of a disappointing 2012 team that will go down as only the NFL's second since 1990 to miss the playoffs after starting 7-1. That burden becomes Lovie Smith's after the Bears head coach failed to lead his team into the playoffs for the fifth time in six years.
How can the Bears be taken seriously as an organization committed to winning a championship if they give Smith a chance in 2013 to make it six playoff misses in seven years?
Warning to football progressives: Before Sunday's victory, Bears general manager Phil Emery hardly sounded like a guy preparing to fire his head coach. What I think should happen with Smith and what likely will happen are two different things. In an interview on WBBM radio, Emery politely praised Smith as "a great team-first person." OK, but can he fix the offense?
"He's done an outstanding job coaching the Bears," Emery said.
A man who did an outstanding job coaching this Bears team wouldn't be done coaching it. A man who did an outstanding job wouldn't have needed the Packers' help. A man who did an outstanding job would have had the Bears more prepared Dec. 9 to play the Vikings, the team that ultimately ousted them.
Teams typically don't fire coaches after 10-6 seasons. But this is no typical season. It is Smith's ninth in Chicago. If a team with five Pro Bowl starters misses the playoffs in the bottom-line NFL, does it matter if the Bears were 10-6 or 6-10? Are the Bears closer to winning a Super Bowl than they were in August? That's all that matters.
In Smith's tenure, the Bears have the NFL's second-worst offense. If Emery allows Smith to return with a new offensive coordinator, it would be the fifth. If Emery brings Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Tice back, how does that represent progress? At some point, Bears management must hold Smith accountable for years of consistently failing to field a legitimate playoff offense. Clearly this wasn't one despite talent at the skill positions.
A legitimate playoff offense doesn't start four drives inside the Lions' 24-yard line thanks to takeaways — more like giveaways — and come away with just 16 points against a 4-12 team. A legitimate playoff offense doesn't routinely burn timeouts in the first half of games. A legitimate playoff offense doesn't call a deep sideline pattern to Brandon Marshall that required a perfect throw on a key third-and-4 in the fourth quarter.
A legitimate playoff offense looks nothing like the Bears have looked all season.
The Bears finally got a 100-yard receiving game from Earl Bennett and Matt Forte fought through an injury to gain 103 rushing yards. But Sunday's game plan included its weekly share of head-shaking calls in a season full of too many.
Even the Bears' biggest play of the game on third-and-3 with 3 minutes, 28 seconds left happened on the fly. Cutler dropped back after a play-action fake, looked for fullback Evan Rodriguez, and scrambled after a protection breakdown for a 19-yard gain. It was a happy accident for the Bears.
It was not a happy ending.
Now the season's over. But if the Bears are serious about returning to the Super Bowl, Emery's work has just begun.