After his team's final fatal failure of the season, Lovie Smith repeatedly claimed his Chicago Bears were "close." OK, coach, close to what? Close to being legitimate Super Bowl contenders? Hardly.
After his team's final fatal failure of the season, Lovie Smith repeatedly claimed his Chicago Bears were "close." OK, coach, close to what?
Close to being legitimate Super Bowl contenders? Hardly. Close to being choking losers? More likely.
Facing a must-win scenario with a playoff spot on the line, the Bears lost 31-24 Sunday to a mediocre Houston team that was playing only for pride. Booed early by their own fans as they fell behind by 10 points, the Texans ended up dominating the final three quarters as if they had been playing the winless Detroit Lions.
Close? To what? The Bears are close to something meaningful just because they managed to go 9-7 and hang around near the top of a bad division? Just because they won two more games than they had the previous season, when they were hopeless?
Please. Most of us aren't gullible enough to fall for Lovie's silliness. Many of his own players aren't gullible enough, either.
"How did we improve? I don't believe we improved," defensive end Alex Brown said. "We missed the playoffs last year. We missed the playoffs this year. I don't know if that's improvement. Don't sound like it to me. We kept seeing the same things happen week in and week out. We've got to fix it."
Because Minnesota won Sunday, the Bears wouldn't have taken the NFC North title even if they had beaten Houston.
However, losses by Tampa Bay (to Oakland) and Dallas (to Philadelphia) would have given a 10-6 Chicago team the final wild-card spot.
If that's what Smith meant by "close" ... it still sounded foolish.
"When you're 9-7, you're close," he said, one of four times he used the word during his postgame media session. "You don't need an overhaul. You just need to add a few pieces to the puzzle, and that's what we'll do."
Maybe, if a few pieces include: a stud receiver, such as Houston's Andre Johnson; another reliable receiver to go with the stud; a defensive end to replace the vastly overpaid Adewale Ogunleye; a couple of new defensive backs; and better offensive linemen.
Also, a trip in the Way-Back Machine for Brian Urlacher and Tommie Harris. And possibly a different quarterback, though Kyle Orton certainly wasn't the main problem. And some might say an imaginative offensive coordinator, but don't count on Ron Turner going anywhere.
Here's a nice place for Smith to start: He should demote or dismiss his buddy, Bob Babich, who for two years has demonstrated he shouldn't be an NFL defensive coordinator.
"Something has to change," cornerback Peanut Tillman said. "I don't know what that is, but I think something will change. Something has to."
Yep, sounds like a team that's REAL close. The rest of the league must be quaking in fear that the Bears suddenly will return to the form that carried them to the Super Bowl two years ago.
"I'm very, very tired of people talking about two years ago," Brown said. "We don't have the same team as two years ago. We don't have the same attitude. So please do me a favor, and let's not talk about '06 any more."
Attitude? What does that mean?
"I said what I feel -- we don't have the same attitude," Brown said. "People keep saying it's the same team. It's not the same team. That team would have won the Atlanta game, would have won the Carolina game. We didn't. Would have won this game. We didn't. That's it."
Maybe Babich's predecessor, the passionate Ron Rivera, could have instilled that winning attitude in this year's defense. Or maybe the Bears simply have too many veterans who are fat and happy after receiving huge contracts the last couple of offseasons.
"We just didn't get the job done," Tillman said. "We lost the game, we're not in the playoffs, our season's over, they wanted it a little bit more than us."
Wait ... what was that last part? The Texans wanted it more than the Bears did? A 7-8 team playing for nothing wanted it more than a supposedly desperate team?
Let's assume Peanut was burned so often by Johnson that his brain was fried, and let's assume he didn't really mean it. Still, if there's even a shred of truth to "they wanted it a little bit more than us," the Bears have a major problem to deal with as they look ahead to 2009.
Major, that is, if they weren't so darned close to winning the Super Bowl. Right, Lovie?
Mike Nadel (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Chicago sports columnist for GateHouse News Service. Read his blog at TheBaldestTruth.com.