The Chicago Bears are tied for first place in the NFC North, but they do not have the look, swagger, or the performance level of a team that will maintain its divisional status for much longer. In fact, they have the look of a team that is going to continue to slide, in part because of all the mistakes they make on and off the field.
On Sunday against the Redskins, the Bears started the second half with a short but impressive drive (one that did not require a third-down conversion) and had a first-and goal-from the Redskins 1-yard line. The Bears got there on a 48-yard pass from Jay Cutler to Earl Bennett, but coach Lovie Smith thought Bennett had scored and challenged the call. On the play, Bennett extended himself across the goal line, but his knee was ruled down at the 1.
Looking at it from several angles, it appears the call on the field was correct, but the emotions of the game must have gotten the better of Smith and he threw the red challenge flag. Smith is among the worst replay-challenge coaches in the NFL; since 2009, only four of his 16 challenges have been overturned, but this poor past performance didn't concern him on Sunday.
Here's a question I have: Who is advising Smith from the coach's booth to make these calls? Maybe that person should stay home.
Naturally, the play Smith challenged on Sunday was upheld, and the ball was placed on the 1-yard line. On the very next play, Jay Cutler fumbled on a quarterback sneak while trying to extend the ball over the goal line, and the Redskins recovered. Because he had lost the previous challenge on the play before (and a timeout), Smith decided to let this one go, and Washington kept the ball.
But on replay, the ball clearly crossed the goal line, even though it was only for an instant. Smith did not throw the challenge flag, even though on change of possession there is ample time to review the calls, from the booth or on the big screens at the game.
When Redskins coach Mike Shanahan was in Denver, he would have a member of his staff in the video replay booth run the replay the minute Shanahan extended his hand in the air. He always had someone review the call before challenging it, leaving nothing to chance and covering every detail.
After the game, when asked by the media about why he did not challenge the call, Smith said he "considered it quickly. I thought the ball came out. Normally, if it's a critical play like that, we will challenge."
What? Losing the ball on the goal line is not a critical play? On Monday, after reviewing video of the play, Smith changed his tune.
"There are a lot of things we would like to do differently, a lot of things I would like to do differently," he said. "You guys want to know about whether I should've thrown the red flag on the fumble by the end zone. Yes, I should have.
"Looking at it in hindsight, normally if there's a critical situation I throw it whether I have a good look on it or not. I didn't have a good look (at the fumble). That was a critical play in the game; I need to be able to make that call."
Hearing that, there should be little wonder as to why Smith is so bad at challenging calls. He will challenge any critical call, no matter what? How is that rational thinking? I am all for challenging critical calls, but I am more for being correct with every challenge. As Edward R. Murrow once said, "Difficulty is the excuse history never accepts." Just because the challenge might be hard doesn't mean you throw caution to the wind and throw the flag.
You would think, after being so poor at these challenges, Smith would spend a part of his week to work on the mechanics of the challenge. he could have someone cut out every challenge each week, then review them to make sure he completely understands the rules, thus turning a weakness into strength.
For example, Chiefs coach Todd Haley has made an effort to improve his game-management techniques. Since he has handed over all play-calling duties to his coordinators, Haley has a chance to preside over the team on game day and make the right personnel decisions along with the right challenges. He has taken an area of weakness last year and has turned it into one of the reasons the Chiefs are leading the AFC West right now.
Working on areas to improve should not be a foreign subject inside of Halas Hall. When Mike Ditka was the coach of the Bears in 1982, his team failed at a quarterback sneak on a critical down in part because of a lack of execution and planning. The day after the game, George "Papa Bear" Halas placed a large binder on Ditka's desk, detailing the mechanics of the sneak based on the location of ball on the field. Everything was covered in Halas' notebook pertaining to the art of the QB sneak.
The Bears currently rank 24th in points scored, and their offensive line is a mess. Therefore, they have to be perfect in every other area to cover their many deficiencies. I admire Smith for admitting he was wrong to not challenge, but I question why he has not done something to improve his ability to make the right calls when it comes to throwing his red flag.
No Hall pass for Haynesworth
When DeAngelo Hall intercepted Cutler and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown near the end of the third quarter, Albert Haynesworth took a shot at Bears tackle J'Marcus Webb, who was defenselessly trying to chase Hall some 30 yards away from the play. Haynesworth's violent helmet-to-helmet hit ranks up there with any of the hits that carried a huge fine last week. In fact, it was so bad, Webb retaliated and was called for a 15-yard personal foul.
It will be interesting to see if the NFL makes Haynesworth pay for the hit. I am sure the Bears have sent the play into the league office for review.