With the NFL playoffs in full swing, I can’t help but look back upon the Chicago Bears’ 2011 season without wondering what the outcome could have been if not for the numerous injuries that landed several key players on the sideline. As if the injuries weren’t enough, I feel that the coaching staff made several critical mistakes down the stretch to eliminate any chances of making it to the postseason.
Since the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler during the NFC North playoff game only a year ago was still fresh in the minds of Bears fans, I think it’s safe to say we were all initially a bit skeptical in regards to the state of our fragile offense to begin with. Rumors of Cutler’s lacking dedication to the team rapidly circulated throughout the media and made matters even worse, leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of many Chicagoans coming into this year.
All expectations aside, I’ll be the first to admit that I was slightly surprised by the team’s 7-3 start after the first ten weeks of the season. The offensive line seemed to be pulling their weight, and our franchise quarterback finally appeared to have reached his full potential. Then, after a satisfying win over San Diego, bad news struck again with word of Cutler being injured, this time with a fractured thumb. It was all downhill from there as Matt Forte, who was having a career season, was also placed on injured reserve with a concerning knee sprain.
“It’s devastating,” linebacker Brian Urlacher said to ESPN in regards to Cutler’s fractured thumb. “It’s horrible, and I felt worse for him than I did for us. It stinks for us because he was having such a great year.”
The news of these injuries was just as devastating to fans as they were to teammates. I believe that if these two central players had stayed healthy, the Bears may have had one of the strongest offensive threats in the league between Forte’s aggressive running game and Cutler’s strong arm. Marion Barber actually wound up doing a decent job filling the gap left by Forte’s absence, recording 108 rushing yards and a touchdown against Denver only a week after the all-star back was hurt.
The increased workload eventually proved to be too much however, as Barber fumbled the ball in overtime to hand Denver their sixth straight win and made it clear that the team was in serious trouble without a decent quarterback. Already on a two game slide at this point, things quickly turned from bad to worse as the Bears went on to lose two of their final three regular season games.
If you ask me, Chicago’s main mistake was continuing to play second stringer Caleb Hanie after his several disastrous games. It was clear from the start that Hanie simply wasn’t ready to take the reigns as starting quarterback. He was very uncomfortable in the pocket and made poor decisions under pressure. To be fair however, the coaching staff was expecting too much from him considering he had very little experience playing the position at the NFL level.
It wasn’t until the week 14 matchup against Seattle that they offered Hanie some relief in the form of a rusty Josh McCown. McCown entered the game and quickly threw one solid completion followed up by a heartbreaking pick to end the game. Despite that pick, I saw something in McCown that I didn’t see in Hanie. He seemed to understand the offense a lot better and was much more collective in the pocket. McCown would then proceed to start in the final two games and capped off a blown season with at least some sort of silver lining by pulling off a win over the Minnesota Vikings.
In the beginning, it seemed as if this year was going to set up perfectly for the Chicago Bears. Their offense was finally clicking and they had an extremely valuable rushing presence in Matt Forte. There is no doubt in my mind that if not for the devastating loss of Cutler and Forte, the Bears would have been in serious contention for a trip to the Super Bowl.
Even with these injuries, I feel that they at least had a very realistic shot at making it to the post season. While Green Bay had a clear lock on the NFC North, Chicago would have only had to compete with the Detroit Lions for a wildcard spot. This goal should have been well within reach if only the coaching staff had made some better decisions down the stretch in regards to the quarterback situation.
In my opinion, the result of this past season has made it clear that the Bears should seriously consider making some changes to some certain areas of their personnel… sorry Lovie Smith.