After the Bears punted the football to Lions with 4:33 left in the fourth quarter and a 30-20 lead, they had a 99.1 percent chance of winning the game.
They didn’t win the game.
What transpired over the next four and a half minutes was a clinic in how to lose a football game, which the Bears did -- 34-30 -- Sunday at Soldier Field.
The first ingredient was soft – and frankly – bad defense. The Bears’ expensive pass rush couldn’t create pressure and there were multiple coverage mix-ups on the back end. The result was Matthew Stafford completing six straight passes for gains of 14, 22, 17, 5, 13 and 25 to make it 30-27 with 2:24 to go. The Lions didn’t even need to use a timeout. Heck, they barely needed to try.
Next came the confusing special teams call. Worried about an on-side kick, the Bears put All-Pro returner Cordarrelle Patterson up near the kick and had rookie wide receiver Darnell Mooney back in case the kick went deep. The ball did go deep and instead of trying to return it, Mooney just slid down at his own 11-yard-line. This created two key questions:
- Why switch an All-Pro returner with another wide receiver on the hands team? Why was that necessary, especially if you didn’t trust the new returner to, you know, return the ball?
- Mooney has return ability, but you instructed him to slide back near his own end zone? The game is far from over and now if you have to punt, you just gave the Lions good field position.
(For the record, I tried to ask the head coach about this play after the game but was not called on before the Zoom call was ended by the team.)
Then came the inconsistent offensive philosophy. If the mindset was so conservative that Mooney laid down on a kickoff, why were two of the next three play calls passes while trying to milk the clock?
“We're backed up where we don't really have the field position, so we have to get a first down,” Bears head coach Matt Nagy said. “We have to make them use their timeouts. We ran a play that's good versus all coverages.”
But the 3rd-and-4 play wasn’t good against Lions pass rusher Romeo Okwara, who leads the NFL in third down pressures, according to Next Gen Stats. Nagy said it was a play they run “Day 1 of training camp,” but Okwara blew by right tackle Germain Ifedi – who wasn’t playing right tackle in training camp – and stripped Trubisky as the Lions recovered at the Bears’ 7-yard-line.
Not even in hindsight, the 3rd-and-4 options looked like this:
- Run the ball with David Montgomery, who was the best player on the field Sunday. If he gets a first down, the Lions only have one timeout with about 1:50 left on the clock. Their chances of winning are extremely low. If Montgomery doesn’t get the first down, the Bears are punting and the Lions have one timeout with about 1:40 left (of course, now they have decent field position because of the situation you created with your special teams mistake).
- Ask the quarterback you benched earlier this season because of trust issues to sit in the pocket near his own end zone and make a big throw. If he makes a play, the Lions only have one timeout with about 1:50 left on the clock. If he doesn’t, well, the clock could stop on an incomplete pass and the Lions would have two timeouts as they get the ball back. Or the quarterback you haven’t trusted could do something really bad like turn the ball over.
“I’m emphasizing ball security in practice, that’s something I always do, protecting the ball and the football,” Trubisky said. “I thought the guy made a good play. I was about to get ready to throw, I had one hand on the football and he must’ve timed it perfectly.”
It’s hard to put too much blame on the quarterback there. The decision to throw was bad and Ifedi allowed the pressure. At some point the quarterback has to take a hand off the ball to throw it, as Trubisky was about to do.
Moments later, the lead was gone, as 35-year-old running back Adrian Peterson carried four Bears defenders into the end zone to give the Lions a 34-30 lead.
Briefly, it looked like the Bears would threaten to score. After all, this was Mitch Trubisky in the fourth quarter against the Lions. Usually good things happen.
But this time, the opposite of good happened. On 3rd-and-5 at the Lions’ 24-yard-line, wide receiver Allen Robinson lost track of where he was on the field and stepped out of bounds short of the first down. With one timeout left, it looked like Robinson could have turned up field and gained more yards, but instead he was intent on getting out of bounds. Too intent.
Then, with just 16 seconds left, the Bears ran the ball on 4th-and-1 and Montgomery was stopped short for no gain.
That’s right. After throwing the ball with the lead, the Bears then ran it when they were behind and running out of time. Had Montgomery gotten the first down, the Bears would have had the ball at the 19-yard-line and no timeouts left with 11 seconds to go. At best, that would have meant two more plays with the Lions sitting back on defense. A throw on 4th-and-1 at least gets you closer to the end zone while potentially preserving the timeout if you can get out of bounds.
It was all very hard to explain.
“I think I was just in shock a little bit. I felt like we were in control the whole game,” Trubisky said.
Also hard to explain is how Montgomery only received six carries in the second half of a game the Bears were controlling. Perhaps that’s why they weren’t in control when the game ended. Montgomery had 62 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries in the first half.
And yet his last carry came in a moment that really didn’t call for it. If Nagy fails to survive 2020 as the Bears head coach, that’s the moment – the climax of Sunday’s collapse – that will have done him in. Similar to when John Fox challenged a goal-line play against the Green Bay Packers in 2017 and the challenge resulted in the Bears losing possession of the football. That’s the moment he sealed his fate.
And right now, it’s hard to see how the head coach, general manager, and perhaps, even the team president survive this one.