If NFC title game was any indication, Bears have long way to go
BY MARK POTASH Staff Reporter January 20, 2014 8:49PM
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Updated: January 21, 2014 10:01AM
The NFL is known as a copycat league, but emulating the teams that reached the Super Bowl — or came close — will prove problematic for the Bears or any other NFL team that thinks it’s close to getting there.
The Broncos are in Super Bowl XLVIII for one reason and one reason only: They have the most prolific and, arguably, the best quarterback of our time in Peyton
Manning. Only the Colts, with Andrew Luck in his second season, have real hope of duplicating that difference-making factor.
And, closer to home, the NFC Championship Game between the Seahawks and 49ers provided a template that might be just as difficult to follow. Two of the top three defensive teams in the NFL slugged it out, with the better defensive team — the Seahawks — winning by making three big defensive plays in the fourth quarter.
Just the Bears’ luck that as they finally joined the 21st-century NFL with an explosive offense, their road to the Super Bowl appears to be blocked by two great defensive teams that aren’t likely to go away.
As much as general manager Phil Emery likes to play it close to the vest, his game plan for the offseason is so obvious even he can’t hide it. Rebuilding their defense — in free agency and the draft — will be the Bears’ top priority.
But their chore is much bigger than getting a pass rusher such as Aldon Smith, linebackers such as NaVorro Bowman and Patrick Willis or defensive backs such as Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. It’s going to take more than just acquiring 6-3 and 6-4 cornerbacks such as Sherman and Brandon Browner.
The biggest obstacle facing the Bears and everybody else in the NFC is that the Seahawks and 49ers are coached by over-the-top guys who condition their players to compete at a level well above anybody else in the league.
The NFC Championship Game was as fiercely competitive as a football game can be in this era. And the Seahawks and 49ers play at that level without losing their fundamentals. According to Pro Football Focus, the Seahawks had the second-fewest missed tackles in the NFL this season (78); the 49ers had the fourth-fewest (92). For the record, the Bears were 28th (137).
The Seahawks and 49ers have great defensive talent and play at a level that is — or should be — almost impossible to attain, given the rules. But they do it because coaches Pete Carroll and Jim Harbaugh push the envelope and challenge the rules. Instead of trying to stay away from the line, their players seem to cross it as much as they can and force the officials to do something about it. It’s almost as though their aggressiveness has redefined what a penalty is in the minds of the officials.
And it’s all generally within the bounds of fair play. The teams aren’t dirty. They don’t cheat. Carroll, in particular, uses the rules as a guide, not as a wall. The USC football program was sanctioned heavily by the NCAA for violations that occurred under Carroll’s watch, with Reggie Bush having to return his Heisman Trophy. In the 2012 offseason, the Seahawks were forced to forfeit two offseason practices after Carroll admitted holding impermissible live-contact practices. Carroll also violated the rules when Terrell Owens practiced in pads before he was allowed to after signing with the Seahawks in training camp in 2012.
Those aren’t major infractions, but they’re an indication of how far Carroll is willing to go to build a winning team. He and Harbaugh push their teams to the limit and then some. It commands respect and sets the bar for challengers such as the Bears, Packers and Panthers higher than they might think.