On the John: Sloppy seconds now first

On the John

Sloppy seconds now first

Originally completed October 22, 2009

Fumble once, that's life. Fumble twice (in a row), that's a problem.
Fumble once, that's life. Fumble twice (in a row), that's a problem.

Four days later, this is what kills me about the Atlanta game: we actually played pretty good. I mean, when we weren’t absolutely destroying our own chances, we were playing quality football. Talk about Good Rex-Bad Rex…the loss to the Falcons featured nose-bleed highs and face-planting lows.

And yes, in Sunday night’s maddening game of no cigar, the lows ultimately reign. If it don’t get worse than blowing a one-point lead in 11 seconds on a 44 yard kick return, a 26 yard sideline pass, and a 48 yard field goal, no one can accuse the 2009 Bears of not trying. They just spread their gaffes over the entire game, like when they…

…threw a pick on 3rd and 9 from the Atlanta 12.

…missed two tackles on the Falcons’ first touchdown.

…blew the coverage on the Falcons’ second touchdown despite having three defenders near only one Atlanta receiver. (The one who scored.)

…fumbled on both 2nd and 3rd and goal from the Atlanta 1.

…negated an Atlanta punt with a “12 men on the field” penalty, giving the Falcons a 1st down.

…allowed a 62-yard kick return despite first hitting the return man near the 20.

…failed to set themselves on the d-line multiple times on Atlanta’s game-winning drive.

…committed consecutive penalties on their would-be game-tying drive.

…committed a false start on 4th and 1 from the Atlanta 5.

In all, Lovie Smith’s team was penalized nine times for 65 yards, scored only once on four trips to the red zone, collected not a single sack, turned the ball over three times, and fumbled on each of their two defensive interceptions, just for kicks.

But wait: Jay Cutler posted only the fifth 300-yard passing game in Lovie’s tenure. Devin Hester had his best day returning punts since 2007, matched a career high in receptions, and collected his fourth highest total in receiving yards.

His pass-catching mates Earl Bennett, Greg Olsen, and Johnny Knox all made difficult catches for impact yards, as did the old veteran Dez Clark, who might have been lauded as a hero had the Bears won.

In fact, despite the lousy running game and brutal offensive line, the Bears managed to convert 9 of 16 third downs, much better than Atlanta’s 5 of 12 mark. We gained 120 more yards than Atlanta, out passed them, out rushed them, gained more first downs, and won the time of possession.

And the defense held Michael Turner to 30 yards on the ground and Matt Ryan to 185 in the air.

Of course we know that these numbers are meaningless without the W. The reason for the loss? Discipline. Turnovers and penalties, always at the wrong time…

But maybe “discipline” is too simple an answer. Maybe something else is going on.

Because on the very same day that the Bears cannon blasted themselves in the foot, the New England Patriots rubbed out the Tennessee Titans 59-0.

The Patriots were marvelous, nearly perfect, simply unstoppable. They scored 35 points in the second quarter. They led 45-zip at the half. They committed no turnovers and only one penalty of lasting consequence.

How great were they? How about this for a comparison:

Kerry Collins, Titans starting QB: 2 of 12 for -7 yards, a quarterback rating of 4.9.

Brian Hoyer, Patriots backup QB: 9 of 11 for 52 yards, a quarterback rating of 86.4, and one rushing touchdown.

(Hoyer, by the way, was an undrafted rookie taking his first NFL snaps.)

Yes, even an undrafted rookie etched his name in the box score. It was that kind of weird day, a day in which New England’s win is an NFL record-setter while the Bears’ nightmare is just another game. Why? Because as sloppy as the team was, their ineptitude was merely average.

Has the NFL gotten too sophisticated for its own good?

Players are faster, bigger, stronger, more skilled and more knowledgeable than ever before. Playbooks are thicker with more specialized language. NFL coaching staffs have access to more data, more film, more scouts. They work more hours more months of the year, as do players, whose entire lives revolve around the sport from the age of 18 onward in a way that just did not exist even fifteen years ago.

Yet week after week, season after season, the quality of play seems to worsen. With all this knowledge, all of this information, all of this specialization, and all of this talent on both sides of the ball and on the sideline, shouldn’t on-field communication and team cohesion be better than ever? Shouldn’t outcomes be determined by who is best, not by who isn’t the worst? Shouldn’t the league be advancing towards an era in which “discipline” is the least of a team’s problems? To quote Jay Landsman: “If that ain’t the plan, then what is?”

I don’t pretend to know as much about football as Lovie Smith or Ron Turner. But when performances like the Bears’ penalty-choked redzone disaster occur with greater frequency than the beautiful efficiency of New England’s 59, I do know this: something ain’t right.

Copyright 2009, jm silverstein

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