by Brett Maly | January 11, 2018 10:09 am
Many of my fondest Bears memories are from 2006. It was a season of great moments. Rookie Devin Hester took the league by storm and made kick-off and punt returns must-see events. The Bears’ dominant defense—spearheaded by Lance Briggs, Tommie Harris, Charles ‘Peanut’ Tillman, and pending Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher—drew comparisons to the 1985 Monsters of the Midway. The offense featured a Thunder and Lightning-esque backfield of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson, an enigmatic big-armed young QB in Rex Grossman, and a host of key contributors (particularly wide-receivers Bernard Berrian and Mushin Muhammad, and TE Desmond Clark) that helped the Bears become the highest scoring team in the NFC that year.
I have the complete season on DVD and for several years, whenever I needed a pick-me-up, I would pop in their 26-0 opening day shut-out of the Pack at Lambeau, or their 40-7 thrashing of the Buffalo Bills (and former Bears’ coach, Dick Jauron), or—if I was really feeling down—the dramatic “the Bears are who we thought they were” comeback win over the Arizona Cardinals and the reviled Dennis Green. Frankly, there isn’t much about the 2006 season not to like.
Except for how it ended.
I still get irritated thinking about the Bears’ 29-17 Super Bowl XLI loss to the Indianapolis Colts in rainy Miami. It isn’t so much that we lost—the 2006 Colts were a quality team lead by one of the greatest QBs of all-time—but it’s the way we lost that bothers me. It’s the same way so many Bears games have been lost in recent years.
By playing not to lose.
The Colts were favored by 7 points, largely due to the disparity at quarterback and the fact that the Bears were banged-up (what else is new?) with Pro Bowlers Tommie Harris and Mike Brown on the shelf. Still, I felt confident. After eking-out a dramatic win in overtime against the Seahawks in the Divisional round of the playoffs, the Bears dominated the Saints, an arguably more dynamic offense than the Colts, in the NFC Championship. They were loose, aggressive, and playing like the “team of destiny” Lovie Smith purported them to be.
In the two-weeks leading to the Big Game, my confidence began to erode. Starting defensive tackle Tank Johnson was arrested on gun charges late in the season, and there was a question as to whether or not he’d be allowed to leave the state to play in the game. Additionally, Ron Rivera, our Defensive Coordinator, was at the top of many head-coaching lists and had interviewed with several teams. Rumors were swirling that he already had a tacit agreement with another team before the Super Bowl. Ultimately, Tank Johnson was allowed to travel to Miami and Ron Rivera was still leading the defense, but the distractions were real.
Still, the game started out well. Everyone knew it would take a strong effort from all three-phases (another Lovie Smith expression) in order to upset the Colts, and the Bears were getting it early. At the end of the first quarter, the Bears lead 14-6 and had gotten a return touchdown from Devin Hester, a key interception from the defense, and a nice TD drive from the offense. Sure, there was the fluky blown coverage bomb to Reggie Wayne, but that was an aberration. The defense would respond like it had all year and clamp down with a lead, right?
All year long the Bears’ defense had played with an effective mix of discipline and aggression, but neither made their way to Miami. The blown-coverage TD (which would become a staple of Lovie Smith’s Bears) was one thing, but the complete lack of aggression that followed was inexcusable. The Bears rarely wavered from their base Cover-2 zone and, to no one’s surprise, Hall of Famer Peyton Manning picked it apart repeatedly, consistently throwing for 5, 10, and 15 yard gains.
Today’s fans lament Vic Fangio’s tendency to drop Leonard Floyd into coverage. My lasting memory of Super Bowl XLI will be of Brian Urlacher, the team’s unquestioned leader and top playmaker on defense, sprinting away from the line of scrimmage at every snap. This lack of aggression opened up the run game and soon the Colts, with their “finesse” zone blocking scheme, were gouging the Bears for 4-8 yards a pop.
The Colts killed the Bears with 1,000 paper-cuts…and it was just as prolonged and painful watching from home. My parents hosted a viewing party and guests in attendance saw my mood sour from jovial to testy to downright cantankerous by the 29-17 conclusion. I guess watching Peyton Manning dance around in the rain in his lily-white uniform and the countless “what happened to your defense?” questions proved too much for me.
My frustration immediately following the game was largely levied at Ron Rivera. I assumed the defense’s poor effort was a result of his spending too much time polishing his resume and wooing other teams in the weeks leading to the game. However, history suggests the Bears’ passivity on defense was largely due to Lovie. “Riverboat Ron” has proven to be one of the most aggressive coaches in the league, while it’s hard to think of Lovie Smith (unemployed by the NFL since 2015) without yawning.
According to multiple reports, it was Lovie Smith who ordered the Bears retreat into their Cover-2 shell after the blown coverage touchdown. In theory, it wasn’t a bad strategy–limit big plays and force the offense to drive the length of a very sloppy field. Unfortunately, the Bears were playing a disciplined offense helmed by one of the most accurate quarterbacks of all-time. The Colts’ defense adopted a similar bend-but-don’t-break philosophy and it proved much more successful against the less disciplined Bears and their turnover-prone QB.
Once the Bears gave back the lead, they should have gotten aggressive against the statuesque Manning. Even with the injuries, the Bears had a fast and talented defense capable of playing press coverage and bringing heat from all angles. Instead, they stayed passive and Manning, who was rarely pressured and only sacked once in the game, continued his MVP performance. (I half-expected him to credit the Bears defense for his success in the acceptance speech.) Of course, our own offense, forced to play catch-up, made the mistakes the Bears were hoping for from the Colts.
My Father told me growing up: “If you’re going to go down, go down swinging.” The Bears didn’t, in the biggest game on the biggest stage, and it still sticks in my craw after all these years.
Believe it or not, there was a silver lining to the Bears’ Super Bowl loss…and in typical Bears fashion it was allowed to tarnish.
The poor defensive effort in the Super Bowl soured some teams on Ron Rivera. The head-coaching offers that seemed eminent never came, and Ron (whose defenses ranked first and third in the league, respectively, in 2005 and 2006) was preparing to be back at the helm of the Bears’ defense in 2007.
Then Lovie Smith stepped to the podium on February 19, 2007, and announced that Rivera’s contract would not be renewed. Bob Babich, the Bears’ linebackers coach (and Lovie Smith’s close buddy), was promoted to Defensive Coordinator and Ron Rivera was left scrambling for a job. He ultimately took a demotion to coach inside linebackers for the Chargers.
And the Bears’ defense promptly plummeted to 28th in points allowed.
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