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In January 2007, the Chicago Bears organization and their fans found themselves in a peculiar situation. Instead of sitting at home watching other teams compete in the playoffs, the Bears owned the number one seed in the NFC playoffs. Despite losing two key defensive starters (DT Tommie Harris and S Mike Brown) during the season and that unit suffering as a result, Chicago squeaked out its first home playoff win since 1990 in the divisional round, then stunned a Saint-loving nation with a 39-14 NFC Championship Game victory. On that snowy January 21, key Bears stood on the NFC Championship podium as Virginia Halas McCaskey accepted the NFC Championship trophy named after her father. Players, coaches, staffers and fans joyously looked forward to Super Bowl 41 in Miami and what certainly would be years of celebration to come.
Little did they all know that after January 21, 2007, it would all be down hill. Despite some prognosticators’ predictions that the Chicago Bears may be this generation’s Buffalo Bills, who reached the Super Bowl four times in the late 80′s/early 90′s, the Super Bowl Bears flamed out in one year. What actually caused the downfall will always be up for debate, but surely the organizations’ purposeful subtractions, and even subtractions they thought would actually be additions by subtractions, would play a major part.
Predicted by many to easily reach at least one more Super Bowl, mostly due to weak competition in the NFC, the 2007 Bears finished in LAST PLACE in the NFC North division, after easily dominating it the previous two seasons.
Late in the evening of February 4, 2007, blue confetti exploded all over the field at Miami Dolphins stadium with the conclusion of Super Bowl 41. But the confetti was not navy blue, but the lighter blue of the Indianapolis Colts, who had just defeated the Bears 29-17 in the game that had taken Chicago 21 years to reach again. As the Colts’ celebration raged on the field, several Bears congregated near the entrance to their locker room to watch. “I want to see it so I know how to do it next time,” said cornerback Charles “Peanut” Tillman. At training camp in Bourbonnais, IL, that July, several media members would note how the feeling of destiny to reach Super Bowl 42 in Glendale, AZ would permeate camp and the preseason.
But much news would be made by the Bears long before training camp opened. In a shocking move, on February 20th Head Coach Lovie Smith announced that defensive coordinator Ron Rivera was being replaced with Smith’s longtime associate Bob Babich. Rivera had interviewed for several head coaching positions prior to the Super Bowl, and was considered a valued commodity around the league. Speculation flew that Rivera was an Angelo hire in 2004, of which Smith didn’t completely endorse, and now after a Super Bowl appearance the head coach felt he had the clout to make the move he wanted to make.
Also let go was defensive line coach Don Johnson, who was replaced with Brick Haley. Former NFL linebacker Hardy Nickerson joined the staff to fill Babich’s old role as linebackers coach.
Foremost on the organization’s agenda that February was addressing the situation of Smith’s contract. When Smith was hired in January 2004, he signed a four-year deal taking him through the conclusion of the 2007 season, and as of that time remained the NFL’s lowest paid coach. This could be contrasted with recently hired Atlanta Falcons head coach Bobby Petrino, who signed a five-year deal paying him $25 million, easily $15 million more than the total value of Smith’s deal. Bears President Ted Phillips had mentioned throughout the 2006 season that he didn’t want to make any rash decisions based on the Bears’ 2005 success, the organization having been burned by Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron just after they had signed extensions.
But the outcry to re-sign Smith was loud, and rumors flew that Smith could play out the final season of his contract and move elsewhere in 2008, perhaps to the Dallas Cowboys in his home state of Texas. Those rumors were squelched on February 28th when the organization announced that Smith had agreed to a new four-year deal commencing following the 2007 season, paying him top NFL head coach dollars to lead the team through the 2011 season. Quietly announced at the same time were new deals for Phillips and General Manager Jerry Angelo, taking their contracts through the same timeline as Smith’s. The Bears organization that stumbled from the mid-90′s to mid-2000′s with incongruous leadership timelines, would now be on the same page for five more years. Just one more reason to be confident in the future, fans thought.
Several weeks after the aforementioned re-signings, the organization also signed seven assistants to new three-year contracts, including offensive coordinator Ron Turner. The confidence continued to grow.
On March 6th, in a shocking move to some but easily explained by Angelo, the Bears traded incumbent running back Thomas Jones to the New York Jets in return for swapping picks in the second round. The transaction allowed the Bears to move from the 63rd to the 37th position in round two. Many fans and analysts were incensed or puzzled. But Angelo calmly explained that he had come to a secret agreement with Jones prior to the 2006 season. The running back desired a new contract based on a strong 2005 performance, but with ’05 fourth overall selection Cedric Benson waiting in the wings with $18 million guaranteed in his deal, no extension could possibly be worked out. Angelo agreed that if Jones would turn in a workmanlike 2006, he would do whatever he could to find Jones a place and the money he desired. Fans should remain calm, Angelo argued, as Benson would be the man. The GM should know, after all, since he had called Anthony Thomas “not an elite running back” and thus made no effort to resign him prior to drafting Benson. So clearly, Benson must be an elite running back. Yet more confidence in the future for all.
March 2007 wouldn’t end without another bold and fantastic personnel move. Seemingly tired of consistent injuries to Mike Brown, the Bears traded a sixth-round draft pick to the Washington Redskins for safety Adam Archuleta. The Redskins had outbid the Bears prior to the 2006 season for the player’s services by paying him a record $25 million contract for the position. But midway into that season, Archuleta was on the bench, blaming his demotion on internal problems at Washington. The safety was a personal favorite of Smith, who even stated that he taught other players how to play the strong safety position by showing them video of his friend Archuleta. The Bears paid a guaranteed $5 million to Archuleta, who agreed to a re-worked three year, $8.1 million contract. It was initially reported that Archuleta would team with Danieal Manning in the defensive backfield, but eventually it was decided that Brown would be back at free safety to team with the new sign.
Clearly, Smith knew Archuleta was a great player all along and it was the dysfunctional Redskins organization that resulted in his 2006 problems. As Smith told David Haugh of the <i>Chicago Tribune,</> “as the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears, you should trust that my decisions are the right ones for this football team.” In essence Smith was saying “don’t question me.”
The lone Bears free agent signee was defensive tackle Anthony Adams from the San Francisco 49ers. It was thought that the Adams signing was directly related to the Tank Johnson situation. Defensive tackle Johnson had several well-publicized brushes with the law in late 2006/early 2007, and would spend several months in Cook County Jail on a weapons violation. It was well known that should Johnson screw up one more time, he would be gone, and Adams’ signing was insurance should that situation happen.
In the April draft, it was thought that the Bears could go any of several directions with their first round pick. Offensive or defensive linemen, linebacker, safety, wide receiver were thought to be top priorities. Or if a satisfactory pick weren’t there, they could trade out of the round for the second year in a row. After the 49ers gave up their 2007 first rounder to trade back into the first to select OT Joe Staley from Central Michigan, the Bears zeroed in on Miami tight end Greg Olsen. The potential top-ten pick was amazingly still there at 31, and the Bears pounced on their first tight end in the opening round since they had selected Mike Ditka in 1961. And many believed Olsen would turn out to be every bit as good.
Many of the rest of the Bears’ picks were curious. When San Diego offered their second pick, fifth pick and 2007 and 2008 third-round selections for the Bears’ 37th, Chicago jumped at that chance to trade down. Where they landed with the 62nd pick, they took DE Dan Bazuin from Central Michigan of the MAC conference. A curious pick with the Bears loaded at defensive end, more curious spending that high of a pick on a small-conference player. Perhaps more curious was their first third-round pick, running back Garrett Wolfe from Northern Illinois (another MAC school). Wolfe did set numerous Northern Illinois and NCAA records as a collegian, but his 5’7″, 180-pound stature made many analysts believe he would last well into the sixth round. Other selections for the Bears were Michael Okwo, a small but fast linebacker, a short (6’1″) guard in Josh Beekman, and defensive backs Kevin Payne, Corey Graham and Trumaine McBride. Tackle Aaron Brandt, their final selection, would quit football at training camp.
As the arduous months of May and June wore on, two Bears stories dominated the news. Two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs was threatening to sit out the season in lieu of a new contract. Briggs had been designated as the Bears’ franchise player, the first time the Bears had used that tag in their history. The designation guaranteed Briggs a 2007 salary of $7.2 million, but the linebacker refused to sign.
In June, the Tank Johnson saga came to an end when the news broke into the White Sox-Cubs game to announce he had been pulled over in Arizona for suspicion of DUI. Several days later, on June 25th, the Bears released the oft-troubled defender.
On the eve of the opening of training camp, Lance Briggs announced he would sign his one-year tender, and it seemed that all the pieces would again be in place for one more run at the Super Bowl. On defense, all the key pieces were back, including a healthy Mike Brown and Tommie Harris. A solid safety was added in Archuleta, and corners Tillman and Nathan Vasher had been signed to long-term extensions. Despite the loss of Johnson on the line, Adams had been added and promising second-year tackle Dusty Dvoracek was returning from his rookie season on injured reserve.
On offense, the Bears returned what was thought to be one of the NFL’s most solid lines, although it was old and would desperately need rebuilding soon. The unit added playmakers in rookie tight end Olsen, and had switched the electrifying Devin Hester from corner to wide receiver. Angelo had urged that Benson was the elite running back the team needed, and would be fine. And at quarterback, Rex Grossman pledged to rebound from a roller-coaster 2006 with a 30 touchdown, single-digit interception season.
In the early days of training camp, punctuated by what have been overconfident players, the Bears pulled another surprising move when they traded a 2008 fifth-round draft pick to Buffalo for defensive tackle Darwin Walker. Walker wanted a new contract or out of Buffalo, and the Bears gladly gave him a five-year deal that would easily void to one if his performance were not satisfactory. Several weeks later, having what they thought was a logjam of talent and health at the safety position, Chicago traded veteran Chris Harris to Carolina, also for a fifth-round selection. A seemingly innocuous move at the time, but a move that would depend on the health and performance of Archuleta, Brown and the rookie DB picks.
In the team’s first preseason game at Houston, Cedric Benson bowled over defenders and the offense looked extremely sharp in a 20-19 win. Debuted was a two tight end look featuring Olsen and incumbent Dez Clark, fascinating fans with its potential. The Bears finished the preseason 3-1, poised to pounce as the real tournament began.
First up in the regular season was a trip to visit the Chargers, who finished 14-2 in 2006 but were quickly bounced from the playoffs. The Bears led San Diego 3-0 at halftime and their defense looked stronger than it had at any point since the beginning of the 2006 season. But Grossman missed on several opportunities to score touchdowns in the first half, and behind the offense that could only muster 202 yards of total offense, the Bears lost 14-3. Losing the game was easy to get over. Losing two key defensive starters in the opener was not. Both Mike Brown and Dvoracek, who had looked dominant in the preseason, tore ACL’s and were finished for the season before it really even began.
The following week the Bears got on the winning track, defeating the weak Kansas City Chiefs 20-10. The game did feature a 73 yard punt return touchdown by Hester, and Cedric Benson’s first 100 yard rushing performance. But Grossman had another shaky performance, passing for just 160 yards with two interceptions.
On September 23, a national audience tuned into Soldier Field to see the undefeated Cowboys take on the defending NFC Champions at night. It wasn’t just a duel of two teams, but a duel of two quarterbacks acquired in 2003. That year the Bears selected Grossman with the 22nd overall pick, while the Cowboys watched 262 picks go by before signing free agent Tony Romo from tiny Eastern Illinois. Grossman’s 2007 seemed to mark the decent of his career, while Romo was lighting up the NFL. The two teams entered halftime with an even 3-3 score, but the Bears had again blown several chances to score touchdowns-including one on a drop by a wide-open Bernard Berrian. On the first possession of the second half, Dallas scored a touchdown, punctuated by several miraculous scrambles by Romo. Early on in the second half, the Bears also lost Tommie Harris, Lance Briggs and Nathan Vasher to injuries, and Dallas walked through Chicago the rest of the way. The final score was 34-10, and the Bears fell to 1-2.
At that point, Rex Grossman had become the first Chicago Bears quarterback to start 19 consecutive regular season games since Jim Harbaugh in 1991-1992, but following his three game start of 1 touchdown and 5 interceptions, Smith benched Grossman for journeyman Brian Griese. Griese would have to start and try to win consecutive games at Detroit and Green Bay, suddenly resurgent teams that held 2-1 and 3-0 records, respectively.
At Detroit, down five defensive starters and facing Mike Martz’ high-flying offense, Griese passed the Bears to a 13-3 fourth quarter lead. But the Bear defense and special teams would give up an NFL record 34 points in the fourth quarter, and the Bears lost 37-27. In the following week, players including defensive end Adawale Ogunelye and tackle Tommie Harris hinted that players may have thought they’d have an easy walk to Super Bowl 42, only to be faced with a much harsher reality. On the positive side, Hester turned in his second kick return for a touchdown on the season with a 97-yard kickoff return.
Chicago traveled to face 4-0 Green Bay in Lambeau on Sunday October 7th, in another nationally-televised Sunday night game. Analysts predicted an easy Packer win over the wounded Bears, but Chicago turned in a surprising and thrilling 27-20 victory. The defense turned in a solid second half and Griese piloted Chicago to their first victory under his direction. Benson, shut down in three of the season’s five games, turned in a solid effort with 64 yards rushing and an 11-yard touchdown, but averaged only 2.3 yards per carry. This statistic would remain a troubling trend throughout the season.
After an emotional upswing with the Packer victory, the team endured a disastrous follow-up when they lost 34-31 at home to the Vikings on a last-second Ryan Longwell 55-yard field goal. For the Bears, Griese and Hester shined. The quarterback threw for 381 yards, and Hester caught his first touchdown pass, an 81-yarder to tie the game. But the defense for the first time was abysmal, missing countless tackles and allowing rookie Viking running back Adrian Peterson 224 rushing yards, the most ever allowed by the Bears to one player in a game. Adding insult was that Minnesota’s second running back, Chester Taylor, rushed for 83 yards himself, on a day when the Bears allowed 311 total yards rushing.
It was revealed after the game that perennial All Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher was battling an arthritic back that caused major pain, and may never be the same player he was for the first seven years of his career.
The next week, backs against the wall, the Bears pulled out another improbable victory when Griese led a 97-yard drive in the game’s final minute to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia. But that jewel of a win was followed up by another frustrating, humiliating defeat, this one at home at the hands of Detroit, 16-7. The Bears were swept by Detroit for just the second time since 1997, and were 4-4 at the halfway point of the season.
Smith and the players argued that the team was still very much alive for the playoffs, despite Green Bay and Detroit commanding the NFC North with 7-1 and 6-2 records. The Bears did win their first game of the season’s second half, 17-6 at lowly Oakland, and Grossman returned following a Griese shoulder injury. The second half of the 2007 season would reveal only two other bright spots following their week nine bye.
At home against the Denver Broncos on November 25th, the Bears trailed by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. But after a Tillman blocked punt and an amazing touchdown pass and catch from Grossman to Berrian, the Bears won 37-34 after a brief overtime drive. The game featured two more punt return touchdowns for Devin Hester, solidifying his reign in just two years as perhaps the greatest kick returner of all time. That win kept the Bears’ improbable playoff hopes alive, until consecutive losses in the next three games sealed their fate.
Not many NFL teams are forced to start three quarterbacks in a season, but the 2007 Bears did so for the fifth time in seven years, an amazing statistic, when third-stringer Kyle Orton was named the starter for the season’s final three games.
One more happy Sunday in a season of so few occurred two days before Christmas at Soldier Field. The official game time temperature for the 175th meeting of the Bears and Packers was 16 degrees. But winds gusting to 50 miles per hour dropped the wind chill to a reported minus-10 degrees. On this day the Bears did everything right in a season of wrongs, while the Packers were stifled in a 35-7 Bears win. As of that time, coach Smith owned a 6-2 career record against the arch-rivals including two season sweeps, in a rivalry dominated by the Packers for almost two decades.
Following a 33-25 win over the Saints in a disappointing rematch of the 2006 NFC Championship, the Bears finished the season 7-9, with many more questions remaining than answers. These included how to repair a suddenly poor offensive line, one that was still regarded as elite prior to the season. At quarterback, none of the quarterbacks on the roster appear able to lead the team to another Super Bowl unless they’re playing with one of the best defenses in the league, a luxury the Bears no longer possess. Cedric Benson’s 674 yard season, cut short by an injury, was massively disappointing for the fourth overall pick in a draft. Not to mention the sluggish attitude he portrays. The team’s only playmaking wide receiver, free agent Bernard Berrian, is expected to be priced out of Chicago.
On defense similar questions remain for a unit just one year removed from being best in the league. Darwin Walker will probably not be retained following disappointing and injury-prone season. Dusty Dvoracek will return with promise, but with two injuries in two years, can he stay healthy? End Mark Anderson followed up an amazing 12-sack rookie season with a sad five-sack sophomore campaign, during which he was also gashed on run plays. Will Brian Urlacher’s back ever recover, and will Jamar Williams be an adequate replacement for Lance Briggs, who will most certainly not get top free agent dollars in Chicago, given all the other holes to fill. Adam Archuleta, a lock to be a solid cover two safety in Chicago, was benched here as he was in Washington, and if he is back in 2008 it will be a maddening decision. Will Mike Brown recover from his fourth straight season-ending injury or will the Bears need to find three new safeties?
2007 was as disappointing a season for Chicago Bears fans as any in memory. And with so many disappointing seasons to choose from, that’s saying a heck of a lot.