Given the challenges Marc Trestman has faced with free agent defections, Brian Urlacher’s retirement and the rampant injuries besetting the Bears this season, the first year NFL head coach has done an exceptional job keeping his troops in contention for both the NFC North title and a Wild Card berth. Yet last Sunday was certainly not Trestman’s finest hour, as three mind-boggling decisions he made in a pivotal game against the Detroit Lions likely cost the Bears a victory and gifted their rivals sole possession of first place in the division and a season-series sweep of the Bears.
The latter issue is of the utmost importance because,with both teams having seven games remaining on their schedule, the 5-4 Bears will almost certainly have to overtake the 6-3 Lions in the standings to win the division. Following Sunday’s defeat, the Bears are now also a full game behind the Carolina Panthers for one of the two NFC wild card berths.
The most egregious decision Trestman made Sunday was not replacing quarterback Jay Cutler before the Bears’ final series of the fourth quarter, when the team was trailing 21-13. Just before the second half concluded, it has since been reported, Cutler suffered a high ankle sprain. He had been showing no ill effects from the groin injury he sustained against Washington three weeks earlier that was supposed to sideline him for at least four weeks but from which he returned earlier than expected. His first half numbers were exceptional: 12-18 for 148 yards and one touchdown. Yet, his final pass of the half, which occurred after the ankle injury and inside the Lions’ ten yard-line, was ill advisedly flipped in the direction of a pack of Lions defenders. The ball was deflected at the line of scrimmage and intercepted, costing the Bears a sure tie-breaking field goal and representing a harbinger for Cutler’s disastrous and injury-plagued second-half.
In the second half, Cutler’s condition appeared to deteriorate with each Bears’ offensive play, as he hobbled to and from the huddle and sidelines, wincing in pain and clearly favoring the left ankle later diagnosed as sprained. The Bears added only six points with Cutler at the controls in the second half, three of them resulting from a field goal following an interception returned deep into Lions’ territory by Strong Safety Chris Conte. Cutler consistently underthrew receivers, and his passes lacked their usual accuracy and velocity.
He finished the second half a paltry 9 of 22 for 102 yards.
Certainly, after the 2010 NFC championship game, following which Cutler was viciously and unfairly maligned for not continuing to play after suffering a sprained MCL to his knee, Trestman could not have expected Cutler to have voluntarily removed himself from the Lions game. This was a classic case of a coach needing to save a player from himself amid the gray area where the trainers had cleared him to play but where he was too physically compromised to maximize his team’s chances to win. Significantly, once backup quarterback Josh McCown replaced Cutler for the Bears’ final offensive series, he completed 6 of 9 passes for 62 yards and a touchdown to draw the Bears to within 21-19 before they failed to convert a two-point conversion that likely would have sent the game into overtime.
To his credit, it took Trestman only 24 hours to concede that he had erred in not replacing Cutler sooner after initially defending his decision in his postgame press conference based on feedback from Bears’ trainers and doctors that Cutler was medically cleared to continue playing. Trestman’s contrition is a a refreshing change from his smug predecessor, Lovie Smith, who never admitted fallibility, even, as I previously wrote about, when he was questioned for quitting on his team in a 2007 game against the Minnesota Vikings.
The other two strategic errors Trestman made involved egregious play calling. Early in the second quarter with the teams tied at seven, the Bears faced a fourth and one at the Lions 27 yard-line. The week before, Trestman elected to go for it–and Bears’ Running Back Matt Forte successfully converted–in the same down and distance against Green Bay early in the fourth quarter in Chicago territory with the Bears clinging to a 24-20 lead. The difference in that instance is that Forte was running effectively in particular and the team in general. The Bears finished with 171 yards rushing against the Packers on 5.2 yards per attempt.
Against Detroit, the Bears never established any running proficiency and finished with just 20 carries for 38 yards. Nonetheless, the Bears called a running play for Michael Bush, who was swallowed up for no gain. Clearly Trestman could not be tasked with realizing then that the potential 44-yard field goal he passed up could have proved pivotal to the outcome. Yet to go for the first down at that juncture of the game and attempt a running play was the wrong decision compounded by the wrong play call.
Trestman repeated this folly on the Bears’ second chance to convert a two-point conversion after they cut the deficit to 21-19 in the final minute of the game and the Lions committed a personal foul on the Bears first two-point conversion attempt. By this point, it was clear to every beer hotdog vendor taking an occasional peak at the action at Soldier Field that the Bears had left their running game in Green Bay. Yet Trestman inexplicably called a running play for Forte, who was thrown for a loss, effectively ending the game.
One subpar game does not define a coach. The fact that the Bears remain in contention despite a MASH unit that expands each week is a testament to Trestman’s fine work this season. However, for the Bears to overcome their injuries and increasingly small margin for error and have any chance to make the playoffs, Trestman must make better personnel and play-calling decisions than the bungled ones he made against the Lions.Follow paulmbanks