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Monday, November 26, 2012

The Story so Far (and Why it is Dumb)

Like the others, allow me to apologize for my extended absence from the airwaves. In my case, I was away simply because my job didn’t need doing. Everything coming out of Chicago was surprisingly positive for the last two weeks, and there just didn’t seem to be anything worth saying that Red or Iggins couldn’t say better.

Even the intrepid crew at the Sun-Times was pretty much on the same page as we were: the Bears are still leading their division and these losses came with a backup QB to two of the best teams in the NFL. Cutler’s absence was the death knell against the Texans, but people calmly noted that a single TD at any point in the second half would’ve changed the game completely and Cutler probably could have gotten one.

The 49ers loss was, in my book, an unfortunate repercussion of Cutler’s injury. The defense played poorly, but to me it looked like it was because they weren’t prepared. Colin Kaepernick threw the passes, but Jim Harbaugh was the one who beat the defense. He had them on their heels all night with plays they had clearly never seen before. Cutler being present does more than put numbers on the Bears’ side of the board, it gets the defense off the field. They get time to rest, to think about what they saw and try to adjust to it. Maybe they still lose, but at least they have a chance. As it was, Campbell gave them enough time to get some water and strap their helmets back on before they had to get back in there.

However, due to what I’m assuming is the magic of my birthday, the Bears got back on top of the division after a thrashing of the Vikings and an even worse Giants thrashing of the Packers. And it is with that that I get to the point.

When the Bears lost to the Texans after a punishing illegal hit that took Cutler out of the second half, people were talking about how they “showed who they truly were” and “got exposed as pretenders.” Nevermind that their offense has statistically been about three times as effective after halftime, Cutler’s presence would have been good for at least one TD in that game, and a TD might have been all it took to turn that one around; the team that lost was the real Chicago Bears, and the team that won seven games fooled us all into thinking they could play football well.

Today, the Packers were torn apart by the then-6-4 Giants. They got slaughtered at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, their superstar receivers were unable to break open in coverage, and Aaron Rodgers got sacked five times for the fourth time this season. Despite his admittedly incredible mustache, he just couldn’t get it going in the face of a fierce pass rush.

Not one person is talking about who the Packers “really” are. For three hours, not one commentator or reporter said word one about the Packers being “exposed.” The same way nobody was doing so after they lost to the Colts. The same way they weren’t when Aaron Rodgers had a hard time getting started this season. And it’s really pretty simple to explain.

The Packers are a “good” team. One of the NFL’s teams. The league loves them. And so, when they play poorly, it’s an aberration. A freak accident, one that will be rectified next week. On the other hand, when the Bears lose one hard-fought game against (probably) the best team in the AFC, it’s a return to form. They’re losers, and they lose. Even when they win, and no matter how much they do it by or who the opponent is, the talk is generally about how they almost lost or how they could’ve been better.

Before I go any further, let me say that none of this is a dig against the Packers. They’re a hell of a football team, and it takes more than one bad game or even one bad season to take away the credit Aaron Rodgers deserves. They will almost certainly go to the playoffs if they can recover from their injuries, and there’s at least a fair chance they’ll beat the Bears in three weeks because the Bears just don’t seem to know how to beat them anymore. This is about the way the media treats them, not their performance on the field.

This is an unfair comparison, but the Packers are like the Cowboys when it comes to the media. No matter how bad they are, no matter how much of a stretch it is, they get the benefit of the doubt. The NFL just picks teams that it likes, and the Packers have been one of them for as long as anybody can remember. You can see it in microcosm with the way they treat individual players.

When Tim Jennings picked off Rodgers, the commentators were falling all over themselves trying to explain how it wasn’t his fault. He made a stupid decision and a bad throw, and Jennings made him pay for it; but to hear them tell it James Jones all but handed the ball to the defense. When Peyton Manning made three of the shit-stupidest throws of his career against the Falcons, you could practically hear the record scratch in the broadcast booth as ESPN praised Atlanta for their “clever disguises” and “tight coverage.” Bad passes happen to everybody. He is no less a legend because he threw a couple lousy balls, but they can’t get his dick out of their mouths long enough to see that.

So what is it about the Bears that makes them the opposite? Is it the Super Bowl thing? I think not, considering they did the same thing to the Lions last year and all they proved is that Calvin Johnson is really great at catching footballs.

The reason you hear most often is that they “haven’t beaten any great teams,” and the Packers, Texans, and 49ers have. The Texans haven’t beaten any “great” teams either, judging by their schedule, but for some reason that doesn’t factor. The only “great” team they played is the Packers, and Green Bay stomped Houston even harder than they stomped the Bears. Hell, the Jaguars took them to overtime and they only beat the Lions because sometimes the rules work against justice. Structures become shackles, as Gary Oldman would say.

Still, though, why is that reasoning so pervasive? Commentators still talk about the Lions, Cowboys, and Vikings with words like “dangerous,” “explosive,” and “not burning garbage,” but beating them doesn’t count for anything? As we’ve pointed out before, you can only get to the playoffs by beating bad teams because three quarters of the league doesn’t get to go to the playoffs. If you only beat playoff teams, you won’t have enough wins to be one yourself.

For that matter, why is losing to a division-leading team somehow more embarrassing than losing to a shitty one? The Packers lost to the Colts, who will probably go to the playoffs because the AFC is a shitshow, but are almost certain to lose in the first round. The 49ers lost to the Vikings, who were off to a hot start before people realized that Christian Ponder is slightly more effective than a stiff breeze as a quarterback and you should just pay attention to Adrian Peterson. It’s worth noting that the Bears beat the ever-loving shit out of both of those teams. And if they are so lowly that it isn’t an achievement to beat them, it is certainly an inescapable mark of shame to have lost to them.

You hear commentators talk about their flaws like good teams don't have any. Yes, the offensive line might be improved were they to replace a few guys with some mean-faced blocking sleds. But then they get going about what they need to do to be "great," and all I hear are fart sounds. They need to throw it to somebody other than Brandon Marshall to win games? Sure, it's important to have a good secondary option, but that doesn't mean they have to spread it around when Marshall is working. As far as I can tell, they tend to win games when they give the ball to Brandon a lot, so they should keep doing that unless their opponents make them do something else.

You hear that Cutler "doesn't look like a franchise QB" a lot. That's because, to the people saying it, "franchise" means "throws a lot of passes really accurately." That's a nice thing for a QB to do, but what a franchise QB does is win games for his team. Matt Ryan throws a lot of passes and is generally accurate, but I wouldn't build a franchise around him. Tony Romo had the league's best QBR for a long time, I don't think anybody is scrambling to get him away from Dallas.

The Bears are 12-1 in games Cutler has started since last season, and 1-6 in games he's been out or been sidelined over the same period. Who gives a shit about completion percentage? It's obvious that he's doing something right, and that should be all he needs to do. If I wanted to root for Peyton Manning, I'd be a Broncos fan.

It all comes down to the league narrative, and the league narrative requires that the Bears be exposed as a good-but-not great team. The league narrative requires that Aaron Rodgers hold the NFC North in an iron fist, and whether he does or not that’s the story we’ll get. They’ve always ignored the fact that even the worst teams almost always get a win because these are still professional athletes and the official FOX Sports Seal of Greatness doesn’t mean nearly as much as the score at the end of the fourth quarter.

So I say fuck the league narrative. The Bears are winning the NFC North, and the Packers certainly looked mortal tonight. If they want the crown, they can come and take it, but until they do the Bears deserve the praise. To hell with what Jim Nantz thinks about the Bears. I care about the standings, and about who wins over the next four weeks.

With the Seahawks’ secondary facing a pair of devastating suspensions for performance-enhancing-drug use and the Packers reeling from a series of injuries, there’s a strong chance the Bears can win this division. If you care about results, this is still an exciting time to be a Bears fan. If you care about headlines, though, get ready for a long wait.

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