The Chicago Bears are the snooze button of these NFL playoffs. Reach out and touch them, and you’re certain to fall back to sleep.
Their coach isn’t calling out his counterpart and declaring the game will come down to their matchup. Their quarterback isn’t an iconic figure. Their running back hasn’t caused an earthquake.
The Bears are just a good football team lost in the frills of this postseason. For a team with an 11-5 record, they’re underappreciated, but part of that is by design. They’re trained to be boring. They shoo hype even when it would benefit them. They shun praise by refusing to enjoy their success publicly.
We can call them no-nonsense, but sometimes, they don’t make any sense at all. Wide receiver Johnny Knox was so committed to being bland Wednesday that he nonchalantly referred to a Bears victory over Green Bay in the season finale when, in truth, they lost the game. No one bothered to correct him. The NoDoz probably hadn’t kicked in yet.
Don’t let their supposed disinterest fool you, however. The Bears have more fire than they show. They’re ready for the Seahawks. They want to avenge last October’s home loss to Seattle. More than that, they crave to end a 25-year championship drought for this storied franchise.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
“There’s definitely more pep,” coach Lovie Smith said.
The Bears are back in the playoffs after missing three consecutive postseasons. In 2007, when they advanced to Super Bowl XLI and lost to Indianapolis, the expectation was that they would be competing for championships for a while. But they fell apart because of poor quarterback play, bad offensive strategy and an unexpected regression on defense.
They’re back, though, with a true franchise quarterback in Jay Cutler, a dangerous offensive coordinator in Mike Martz and a defense that has rediscovered its edge. Over the final 10 weeks of the season, Chicago posted a 7-3 record. The Bears are a much more complete team than the version that the Seahawks befuddled in October with multiple defensive looks and an array of short passes on offense.
“You look back at that film, the whole offense, it wasn’t playing the same as it is now,” Olsen said. “It was kind of tough to watch. It was like, ‘Wow, we weren’t where we thought we were as a unit, even at that point.’ ”
Back then, pass protection was the Bears’ biggest problem. The offensive line was a mess. Cutler was just coming back from a concussion he’d suffered against the New York Giants. The Seahawks wound up sacking him six times. They were especially effective using blitzes from the secondary, turning to a Bandit defense that is heavy on defensive backs.
Seattle, which had also just traded for running back Marshawn Lynch, was coming off a bye, and it showed. The Bears were held without a third-down conversion (0 for 12).
“I think, in that game, we were like 0 for 100,” Olsen exaggerated.
So, what’s changed?
Well, for one, Chicago has a stable offensive line. Martz settled on five linemen — Frank Omiyale at left tackle, Chris Williams at left guard, J’Marcus Webb at right tackle, Roberto Garza right guard and, of course, former Washington star Olin Kreutz at center — and they improved as the season progressed.
They still have some problems, as Green Bay exposed by getting six sacks. But the Bears say their offensive line is better equipped to handle the Seahawks’ speed and versatility this time.
“We have a different crew in there,” Cutler said of the offensive line. “It’s fun to watch them mature and get better and better each game.”
Another huge difference is that they’re more committed to the run. In Week 6 against the Seahawks, Martz’s embarrassing play-calling effort included only 14 runs — two of those quarterback scrambles. Bears running back Matt Forte had only eight carries for 11 yards.
During the Bears’ bye week two months ago, Martz realized he needed to tweak his scheme to fit his personnel. It has meant more run calls.
With a balanced offense, Cutler has been more efficient, and the Bears have returned to being the Bears. Philosophically, they’re aligned. They’re no longer an awkward hodgepodge of old-school Bears dominant defense and new-school Bears passing attack.
They’re more boring. But, typical Bears, they’re better off going bland.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” Forte said. “We can’t go out and throw the ball 40-50 times and run 10 times. We have to have a balanced offense.”
In a town 30 miles north of Chicago, the Bears practice away from the hype, away from the pressure, away from everything, really.
In an open locker-room session for media, only a handful of players sit at their lockers. They avoid attention as much as they can. But they’ll be back in the spotlight Sunday. And for all the yawns they induce as they prepare, they’ll be ready at kickoff.
“For us, it’s been awhile since we’ve been in the playoffs, so we’re pumped up about that,” Smith said.
When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll overuses the word “pumped,” you believe him a lot more than you do Smith.
Don’t let the dispassion fool you.
The Bears relish a chance at revenge.