By Brad Biggs, Chicago Tribune reporter
7:42 AM EST, December 31, 2012
DETROIT — The Bears could spend between now and wild-card weekend counting the reasons they will be sitting at home with 10 wins.
A defensive meltdown in Week 13 against the Seahawks and a brutal loss at Minnesota the following week are good places to start. Their time will be better spent, however, compiling ways they can improve in 2013 after a second-half collapse could not be saved by road wins over the lowly Cardinals and Lions at the end of a season that began with great promise.
The Bears held on for a 26-24 victory over the Lions on Sunday at Ford Field, but their playoff dreams were dashed a little more than three hours later as the Vikings upset the Packers 37-34 on Blair Walsh's 29-yard field goal as time expired.
The Bears join the 1996 Redskins as the only teams since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams to miss the playoffs after a 7-1 start. An easy first-half schedule turned challenging, an opportunistic defense stopped scoring touchdowns and the offense again failed to blossom in the fourth season for quarterback Jay Cutler, who will enter the final year of his contract with scarce reasons for the franchise to guarantee him tens of millions of dollars.
Under first-year offensive coordinator Mike Tice, wide receiver Brandon Marshall rewrote the team record books, but far too often there was no semblance of balance, and an offensive line general manager Phil Emery did little to augment played a lot like the one he inherited. Whether the failures were due more to personnel, scheme or play calling, ultimately it's the offense of head coach Lovie Smith, who failed to guide his team to the postseason for the fifth time in six years.
Questions will persist about the future of Smith, who has an 81-63 regular-season record in nine seasons, until Emery announces his plan. It will be interesting to see what role Chairman George McCaskey takes; most believe it was his call to fire GM Jerry Angelo a year ago.
Smith is signed through next season, and Emery has been conspicuously silent this season, although he said on the WBBM radio pregame show Sunday that Smith "has done an outstanding job coaching the Bears."
"It is the full season and the whole body of work," Emery said of how he will judge Smith.
Bringing back Smith as a lame duck could be a disastrous distraction but would not be unprecedented. President Ted Phillips required Emery to keep Smith for this season, and Phillips lauded Smith for his "consistency" in explaining the decision.
Smith generally has avoided long losing streaks, but the Bears lost five of six before the final two wins. They also consistently have missed the playoffs since the 2006 Super Bowl season, and if Emery makes the unusual move of firing a coach coming off a 10-win season, it will condemn the organization's failure to clean house a year ago.
Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, the face of the franchise for 13 seasons, has an expiring contract, and his future could be tied to Smith's. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Henry Melton might be headed to free agency. The aging defense was solid for most of the season but needs more young firepower at a time when the offense must be upgraded.
The offense showed some life Sunday, even if it couldn't put the Lions away as four trips to the red zone resulted in only one touchdown — a 1-yard run by Matt Forte, who had a season-high 24 carries for 103 yards.
Cutler, who said during the week he didn't know how the offense would get more receivers involved besides Marshall, completed five passes for 109 yards to Earl Bennett, including a 60-yard touchdown that featured nice blocking by Marshall. Alshon Jeffery had four receptions for 76 yards, while Marshall was targeted 14 times but made just five catches for 42 yards.
The Lions clawed back with three 80-yard scoring drives, but the defense got a stop when it needed one as cornerback Tim Jennings deflected a pass for Kris Durham with less than four minutes to play before Forte helped run out the clock.
Asked how he would view a 10-win season with no playoffs, Forte said, "We'll have to look forward to next year."
First, we'll see what change a new year brings.