(MCT) — MINNEAPOLIS — In a telling fit of frustration appropriate for Sunday’s 21-14 loss to the Vikings, Bears wide receiver Devin Hester followed up a failed late fourth-down conversion by throwing his helmet against the turf of Mall of America Field.
Hester did it in clear view with such force near the 20-yard line that his mouthpiece landed at least 10 feet away. His chin strap flew another direction. His helmet bounced, going nowhere, like his team’s offense.
Similarly, the Bears’ season went to pieces badly enough to doubt whether they can put it back together with three games left.
The defense gave up only 14 points and one long touchdown drive, but Lovie Smith inexplicably acknowledged never recovering from the opening series. The offense did more to help the Vikings score than the Bears thanks to two bad Jay Cutler interceptions, one Harrison Smith returned for a touchdown. In all three phases, the Bears passively allowed a team they dominated two weeks earlier to expose them as unprepared and overwhelmed for the second straight Sunday.
“We’re digging ourselves into a hole, and we have to make sure we close this hole up before it gets too late,” Hester said.
Work faster and smarter, men. The playoffs indeed remain a possibility in a mediocre NFC, but the sixth-seeded Bears have done nothing to inspire optimism by losing four of their last five games. In December, when playoff teams traditionally come together, the Bears have developed a habit of unraveling.
The last two losses have revealed the Bears as underachievers. They have too many good players at key positions to be 8-5. They risk wasting those players’ primes and have regressed steadily after a 7-1 start. They look like a collection of playoff talent playing like a 6-10 team, and, though players bear responsibility, it mostly falls on Smith.
“It looks like we weren’t ready, but we were,” cornerback Kelvin Hayden said.
Watching the tape makes it easy to disagree. As football coaches say, the eye in the sky doesn’t lie.
Smith sounded angry after losing to the Seahawks last week but failed to transfer any of that rare flash of emotion to his players. Teams reflect their coaches, especially one in his ninth season. The Bears have a knack under Smith of letting confidence become complacency.
The Vikings seized the moment by drawing motivation from a Friday visit from owner Zygi Wilf. The Bears pretended everything was fine because, well, did you know they started 7-1?
Instead of showing a sense of urgency that should have carried over after an overtime loss at home, the Bears defense took the field too casually against the NFL’s leading rusher. On the Vikings’ first play, Adrian Peterson ran off right tackle, broke three tackles and exploded for 51 of his 154 yards. The touchdown Peterson scored five plays later should have counted for more than six points because of how it softened the Bears’ mentality.
“That opening drive really put us on our heels, and we never really recovered,” Smith said.
I asked Smith why the Bears never recovered, what with 56 minutes left in an NFL game after Peterson’s touchdown.
“You tell me,” Smith snapped. “How do you answer a question like that? If I knew that, we would have done a little bit more about it.”
At least Smith didn’t offer injury excuses every NFL head coach deals with this time of year. The Bears didn’t lose because they missed linebacker Brian Urlacher or cornerback Tim Jennings. They lost because a defense with more than enough playmakers never took advantage of Christian Ponder, the NFL’s most limited starting quarterback, who passed for 91 yards — and won.
They lost because the league’s most basic offense never discovered another way to move the chains other than to throw the ball up and pray for the incomparable Brandon Marshall to bring it down. They lost because Smith has yet another offense that is broken with no idea how to fix it. They lost because Bears receivers, including Marshall once, caught the ball like they were wearing greased mittens.
Marshall’s drop cost the Bears a fourth-down conversion. Hester’s drop cost the Bears a touchdown. The sense in a gloomy postgame locker room was that the Bears had let more than just a few passes slip through their fingertips.
“The window of opportunity, for us, is a lot smaller,” Smith said. “But we still control what happens with us.”
Lately the Bears have shown they can’t control their fate any better than they can the weather, which included a blizzard Sunday in the Twin Cities. Messy conditions suddenly confronted the Bears as they left the Metrodome. About 6 inches of snow lay on the ground too.