Lovie Smith might have accepted Sunday's 31-14 season-ending rout by the Green Bay Packers more easily if he had reduced the mismatch to a disparity in skill level.
But all week Smith framed the season finale as a measure of pride for his team, and a 17-point home loss to the franchise's archrival left the Bears' coach defending his players' effort level.
"Oh, you know, I think our guys try to give effort always," Smith said after wrapping up his first season with a 5-11 record. "We didn't play well."
Indeed, the only way the Bears hurt the Packers might have been in giving them a false sense of security heading into the playoffs. With nothing to gain but momentum, Green Bay exploited either the Bears' lack of talent or tenacity or maybe both.
"This game was embarrassing for us," center Olin Kreutz said. "To be a good team, at some point you've got to say if somebody gets hurt our backups are good enough. You can make as many excuses as you want. I can make an excuse for every player who misses a block. But if we continue to do that, we won't get any better."
It could not get much worse for the Bears' offense.
The NFL's most anemic offensive unit managed 246 total yards and failed to score more than 14 points for the 12th time this season. The offensive line gave up sacks at the rate of a busy grocer, tying the franchise record with nine. The usually reliable defense gave up three touchdown passes and made it hard to tell the difference between Brett Favre and Craig Nall.
Such poor execution in a pride game suggested poor concentration, but Kreutz disputed the link.
"I don't think you can ever question a man's intensity," Kreutz said. "If someone wants to question it, line up on the field against him. I don't think anyone in here is not playing intense. To question a guy's intensity is questioning his character, and I'm not going to do that."
Neither did an exasperated Smith, who begins planning for next season Monday morning during the first round of meetings with coaches and players.
"We really think we were able to get some things accomplished [this first season]," Smith said. "But of course right now we have a bad taste in our mouths."
The more bitter the better for a Packers team that remembered how the Bears celebrated their 21-10 victory at Green Bay on Sept. 19. That memory motivated a team that easily could have lost its edge before a game that meant nothing in the standings.
"They came into our house and poured champagne, did all this stuff, acting like they won the Super Bowl," wide receiver Donald Driver said. "Our thing was to come down here and take care of business. There is always payback."
It began after the Bears scored on the fourth play of the game, on Thomas Jones' 2-yard touchdown run. Chad Hutchinson's 63-yard completion to David Terrell set up the TD, most of the yardage coming after the catch as Terrell showed the breakaway ability the Bears have waited four years to see.
The touchdown marked the Bears' first on an opening series in nine games, but the optimism passed quickly.
"After that we kind of went downhill," Smith said.
The defense started the snowball rolling.
The Packers obviously found a mismatch they liked when they inserted tackle Kevin Barry as a second tight end, and isolated it.
When Barry entered the game, the Bears substituted run-oriented safeties Bobby Gray and Todd Johnson for free safety R.W. McQuarters and cornerback Jerry Azumah. Favre's first touchdown pass, a 17-yarder to tight end Bubba Franks, came out of that formation against a Bears secondary that looked confused.
When Franks scored, safety Mike Green yelled at cornerback Charles Tillman, who did not follow Franks on the crossing route.
"We had some miscommunications out there," Tillman acknowledged.
The Packers took advantage, and the lead, at the beginning of the second quarter.
Backed up on his own 14, Favre threw deep and allowed Driver to make a play over Azumah for a 48-yard gain. On the next play, Green slipped covering fullback William Henderson and Favre went to Henderson, who punctuated his 38-yard touchdown catch-and-run by running through a feeble tackle attempt by Azumah near the 5.
"We didn't make some plays, and that's about it," Smith said.
Packers safety Darren Sharper made matters worse on the ensuing series when he intercepted Hutchinson's telegraphed pass intended for Bobby Wade and returned it 43 yards to make it 21-7. On the play, Hutchinson hesitated before releasing the ball, giving a veteran such as Sharper ample time to read the play and step in front of the pass. "I thought I had it, [but] he undercut it and picked it off," Hutchinson said after going 20-for-29 for 196 yards and an interception.
His counterpart, Favre, turned in a full day's work9-for-13 for 196 yards and two TDs with a quarterback rating of 151.4before clocking out with 9:05 left in the second quarter. But Nall made it hard to tell he'd left.
Nall drove the Packers 71 yards in five plays on his first series, capping it with a 25-yard beauty that Jevon Walker plucked out of the air over Azumah. Nall completed 7 of 13 for 131 yards in reminding the Bears of the value of a quality backup quarterback.
Only Packers mistakes helped the Bears hold the interest of the 57,037 who showed up.
A penalty for having 12 men on the field on a fourth-and-1 punt at the Bears' 31 with 9:47 left in the third quarter gave the Bears a fresh set of downs that ended eight plays later with Jones' second touchdown, a 1-yard plunge.
Later, on fourth-and-10 from their 35 with 10:57 left in the game, the Bears desperately tried some razzle-dazzle to spark a late rally. In punt formation, the Bears drew a penalty when Brad Maynard threw a pass intended for running back Adrian Peterson and cornerback Joey Thomas interfered with the ball in the air.
It was to no avail. A sign that greeted players on their way off Soldier Field summed up the futility and the frustration. "Bring Back Shoop," it said.
Optimist to the end, Smith chose to focus on other signs, even as he became the seventh straight Bears coach to have a losing record in his first season.
"We are disappointed in the way the season ended," Smith said. "In time we will be a good football team."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun