8:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: San Diego -4
Time is running out for both of tonight’s combatants, which is not a good thing considering we’re at the midway point if the season, but that’s exactly where the Chicago Bears and the San Diego Chargers find themselves as they meet under the spectacle of Monday Night Football. Not much was expected out of the Bears (2-5, 3rd in NFC North) as they entered the 2015 campaign as a franchise in transition, as both Head Coach and General Manager were replaced after back-to-back disappointing terms, with vested veteran skipper John Fox quickly accepting the position of the former (and Ryan Pace as the latter) after his unceremonious and surprising ousting in Denver. Armed with thirteen years of Head Coaching Experience, Fox was a very logical choice to take over in the Windy City, having turned around both the Panthers and Broncos in short order; Carolina was a putrid 1-15 before his arrival, only to earn a 7-9 mark the following season, while Denver was a dreadful 4-12 before Fox steered them to an 8-8 division title. In fact, the skipper had Carolina in a Super Bowl in just his second season at the helm, while his Denver charges claimed that same distinction in his third year on the sidelines. So that alone should be enough to make Bears’ fans breathe a sigh of relief, right? Well, with seven games in the books, that argument remains open. Rather than wasting time discussing their merits in representing the NFC in Super Bowl XLX, let’s instead take a look at how much improvement they’ve shown in the (very) early stages of their rebuild. It seemed like the Front Office was waving the proverbial white flag as so many executives are apt to do when the going gets rough, as Chicago traded a number of players away after getting off to an 0-3 start, in exchange for a cadre of draft picks, including veteran pass-rusher Jared Allen. Now we know what you’re thinking, this isn’t baseball! Teams don’t start a fire sale in September, this is the NFL, baby! That was the exact vibe given off, as Management looked to expedite the rebuilding process by acquiring assets. However, since that moment the Bears have begun to play much better, splitting their last four contests, while coinciding with the return of the maligned Jay Cutler, who suffered a strained hamstring in the loss against the Cardinals (48-23), causing him to miss the following defeat at the Seahawks (26-0).
Few Quarterbacks in the history of the league have been as criticized as Cutler, who now in his seventh season in Chicago presides over a fledgling roster, yet remains charged with supporting them through what looks sure to be lean and mean rebuilding years. Many around the league were convinced that Cutler would join the early season purge, mainly because of his absurdly hefty contract ($15.5 million), not to mention his on-field performance. After all, new regimes are notorious for jettisoning any holdovers of their predecessors’ deemed unworthy of their wages. Ironically, it was indeed his contract that kept him in the Windy City; if released altogether, the Bears would incur a staggering $29.5 million cap hit, and thanks to his contract running until 2021, trading him was damn near impossible. Sure, you could do a whole lot worse than the now 32-year old, but anyone who’s watched his ten-year career transpire to this point can’t deny that he’s far from the league’s elite. In seven years under Center, No. 6 has made eighty-eight starts, earning a 46-42 record, while completing 61.4% of his passes for an average of 229.2 yards, tossing 137 touchdowns to 97 interceptions. Again, hardly mediocre, but when you play in a division with the Packers, playoff victories become paramount, and that’s something that Cutler doesn’t have a lot of. In fact, he’s only taken the Bears to the postseason once (2010), and that ended in his premature exit due to injury against Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game, a page in history that the faithful of the Second City are still sensitive towards today. So yeah, the honeymoon has been over for quite a while for this guy, but for the most part he has proven that Fox and Co. charity was not unwarranted. Now under his fifth different Offensive Coordinator since arriving to Chicago, Cutler has taken to Adam Gase quite well. Now, before we get into that tired rhetoric of will this be the coach that finally figures this dude out?, let’s instead look at the numbers; over the last four starts, Cutler has completed 62.96% of his passes for 1,097 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions, while leading Fourth Quarter Comebacks over both the Raiders (22-20) and Chiefs (18-17). Even in the ensuing two losses to the Lions (37-34) and Vikings (23-20), his play by and large was very consistent, as he and his teammates held late leads in both outings. The question of course, is can he manage to keep this up? Whether or not he can, it will likely be without one of his most important weapons for the foreseeable future. Versatile Tailback Matt Forte suffered a sprained MCL in the loss to Minnesota last weekend, and will likely be out for a couple of weeks. Just how vital is Forte to the Bears’ Offense, you ask? Very. Chicago’s leading rusher seven years and running (pun intended), the eighth-year veteran is also one helluva receiver out of the backfield; Forte has logged no fewer than forty-four receptions in any of his seven years in the league, and totaled a ridiculous 102 catches for 808 yards a season ago. In fact, he has been targeted a staggering 538 times in that period, easily the most amongst his contemporaries over that span. Unfortunately, Forte isn’t the only member of Cutler’s support system languishing on the Injury Report, as Offensive Linemen Jermon Bushrod and Hroniss Grasu are both listed as Questionable, with the former suffering from the lingering effects of a concussion, and the latter dealing with an undisclosed malady. Thankfully, the strong-armed Quarterback will have the combined talents of Alshon Jeffery (23 catches, 341 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Martellus Bennett (37 catches, 324 yards, 2 touchdowns) at his disposal, which could pose problems for a Chargers’ defense that has been absolutely shredded in recent weeks by the likes of Derek Carr (289 yards, three touchdowns) and Joe Flacco (319 yards, one touchdown).
Meanwhile, despite an even more dismal record, the story in San Diego is presented in a far different light, for this franchise had plenty of expectations heading into the 2015 campaign, with some even touting them as dark horse Super Bowl contenders. Then again, hasn’t that been the case for like, the past ten years? Now, please excuse the hyperbole, but the Chargers (2-6, 4th in AFC West) have made quite a living in recent times of crumbling in the face of expectations. Since 2004, this team has been lauded for their innate ability to amass a wealth of talent, evidenced by the number of players they have sent to Honolulu over the years. Because of this, they have annually been a favorite by many pundits to hoist a Lombardi Trophy, which would indeed be the first in franchise history. However, they almost always underachieve; despite going an impressive 67-29 from 2004 to 2009, a period in which they won four consecutive AFC West Titles, the Chargers have managed just three postseason victories. In the ensuing era they have earned a 43-44 mark, highlighted by one lone trip to the Playoffs in 2013, where they were eliminated by eventual AFC Champion Denver. A successful offseason, including a widely celebrated draft led many to choose San Diego as the team to finally knock the Broncos off the mountaintop in the West, and perhaps represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLX. Now, the only thing they seem to be contending for is the top pick in the NFL Draft. After a 2-2 start to the campaign, Mike McCoy’s charges have slumped considerably, losing four consecutive outings in all manner of ways. Against Pittsburgh four weeks ago, they allowed a Ben Roethlisberger-less to offense come back from a 17-10 deficit to steal a victory as time expired. With Michael Vick leading an inspired fourth quarter drive and no timeouts to speak of, the hosts crumbled as the Steelers surprisingly eschewed a game-tying Field Goal that would’ve sent them to Overtime, in favor of a Le’Veon Bell touchdown run out of the Wildcat to secure a 24-20 victory. If you were shocked, you should have seen McCoy’s face. A week later at Green Bay, the offense totaled a staggering 548 yards on the strength of Philip Rivers’ prolific arm (488 passing yards), but it wasn’t enough as their final drive ended at the Packers’ 3-yard Line, and the final score read 27-20. After a pair of heartbreakers, the Oakland Raiders stormed into Qualcomm Stadium and humiliated the hosts in the first half, leading 30-6 at the midway point en route to a 37-29 defeat. Finally, last week’s trip to Baltimore proved to only further prolong the losing, as a back-and-forth contest ended with an all too familiar result (29-26). Though it’s overly cliché’, football has oftentimes been described as a game of inches, and the Chargers just keep coming up short.
Now listen, we know we’re coming across has unjustly harsh on this team, but it’s not just the media that’s been harsh on San Diego, it’s the Injury Report. McCoy’s starting XI on both sides of the ball has resembled a revolving door this season, as his roster has been dogged by a new assortment of ailments every week. Seriously, folks, McCoy may want to look into his Strength and Conditioning Department, because in a season where it seems like the entire league has been marred by injuries, the Chargers have been infested with them. So, with that said, let’s take a moment to run down the Injury Report, which only inflated after the loss last week to the Ravens; starting Offensive Linemen Chris Watt (shoulder), King Dunlap (ankle), and Orlando Franklin (knee) along with Free Safety Eric Weddle (groin), Defensive Tackle Corey Liuget (foot) and Tight End Ladarius Green (ankle) are listed as Questionable, while Defensive Backs Brandon Flowers (knee), Jason Verrett (groin), Darrell Stuckey (hamstring), and Patrick Robinson (concussion) are listed as Probable. Longtime Tight End Antonio Gates (knee) may or may not make his return from a nagging knee injury, while Linebackers Manti Te’o (ankle) and Denzel Perryman (pectoral) are expected to miss the game altogether. And that doesn’t even include Injured Reserve where Guard Johnnie Troutman (arm) and more importantly stud Receiver Keenan Allen (kidney) have landed. The latter exited the contest at Baltimore after suffering a lacerated kidney on a hit in the End Zone, and will be out for the season after setting an NFL record with 74 catches through seven games the week prior. Add it all up, and you have as many as a dozen starters who could be sidelined tonight, which is a blow that even the deepest teams in the league would be hard-pressed to endure. With so many prominent players out for different periods of time, you could imagine that the Chargers have been a mess on both sides of the ball. Any hope of continuity, particularly along the Offensive Line and in the Secondary is shot with all these ailing players, and it has reflected in the numbers. With half of the season in the books, San Diego has averaged 23.9 points (14th Overall) on a league-high 438.4 total yards (1st Overall), including 352.0 yards through the air (1st Overall) on 7.2 net yards per attempt (4th Overall), and another 86.4 yards on the ground (29th Overall) on a mere 3.6 yards per carry (30th Overall). Everything they’ve been able to get has seemingly been on the arm of Rivers, who appears to be the only healthy player on offense. Indeed, it’s Rivers or bust for this team; the twelfth-year veteran has been fearless in the face of pressure, posting career-bests in completion percentage (69.8%) and passing yards (344.1), while tossing eighteen touchdowns to seven interceptions. However, the revolving door in front of him at Offensive Line has left him a sitting duck on many an occasion, leading to nineteen sacks and a host of other hurries and knockdowns. It also doesn’t help things that they have been completely one-dimensional, with the rushing attack nearly nonexistent. Rookie Tailback Melvin Gordon was drafted 15th Overall with designs on balancing the offense, but the frosh rusher has found the running lanes in the NFL far more difficult to navigate than the gaping chasms his linemen opened for him at Wisconsin where he racked up over 2,300 yards a year ago. Gordon has averaged an underwhelming 47.8 yards per game on just 3.7 yards per carry, hardly meeting the expectations that come with a high draft selection. And then there is the defense, which has floundered this term after some rather stout performances over the past few years; Defensive Coordinator John Pagano has seen his charges allow 28.4 points (27th Overall), while being gashed against the run where they have yielded 124.6 yards per game (27th Overall) on a league-worst 5.0 yards per game. Think about it folks, every two rushes allowed by these guys has essentially led to a First Down, which is simply unacceptable. Turnovers would be welcome here, but they’ve been hard to obtain, for the Chargers have accumulated the third-fewest takeaways in the NFL (seven), with none over the last three games.