First-and-10: Until Bears stink it up for real, hold your fire

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Jay Cutler and the Bears’ first-team offense struggled against the Kansas City Chiefs, producing just 18 net yards on 18 plays. “We still have some time,” Cutler said. (Tom Lynn/AP)

You have to go all the way back to 2010 — the Barack Obama administration — to find a Bears team that looked like it was doomed to a losing season only to make the playoffs.

As dreadful as the Bears’ first-team offense was in a 23-7 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on  Saturday at Soldier Field, Jay Cutler was statistically worse in a 14-9 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the “dress rehearsal” game in 2010 — 10-for-20 for 129 yards, two interceptions, four sacks and a 31.0 passer rating.

That effort, part of an 0-4 preseason, also drew boos from the Soldier Field crowd as the Bears looked worse under Mike Martz than they did under Ron Turner. The defense — playing without Brian Urlacher — was no great shakes either against journeymen Matt Leinart and Derek Anderson as the overall performance was panned by the experts as a harbinger of a difficult season. At that point, 8-8 looked “wildly optimistic.”

That Bears team recovered to finish 11-5 in the regular season, win the NFC North and reach the NFC Championship game — as close as the Bears have come to the Super Bowl since the glorious 2006 season.

Rarely are developing, rebuilding teams like the Bears as bad as they look — or as good as they look — in the preseason. As an organization, the Bears haven’t earned the benefit of the doubt. But head coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio have. Both are old-school guys who have even less interest in preseason public perception than most NFL coaches. If they could hold their entire training camp and preseason in private, they would do it. They’re not prone to run Kevin White and Alshon Jeffery downfield or blitz safeties and cornerbacks just to show off.

That doesn’t mean the Bears are going to reach the NFC Championship game or even make the playoffs. A reasonable range in Ryan Pace’s second season was 7-9 to 9-7 heading into camp and until we see how many starters can’t play in  Week 1, that has not changed.

The Bears are a rebuilding team that needs to develop a core of future Pro Bowl players — Kevin White, Leonard Floyd, Eddie Goldman, Jeremy Langford, Adrian Amos, Deiondre Hall, Cody Whitehair being prime candidates — that not only lays a foundation but provides proof that Ryan Pace and his personnel staff know what they’re doing in the draft. It looks shaky right now, but the third preseason game is not the time to make that judgment.

2. It works the other way as well with misleading preseason results. In Marc Trestman’s first season with the Bears in 2013 — when his approach was fresh, his message was resonating and focus was high — the Bears had one of their most impressive dress-rehearsal games in a long time against the Raiders in Oakland. The Bears took a 27-3 lead at halftime. Cutler threw for 142 yards and a touchdown and was not sacked, the Bears rushed for 110 yards and Tim Jennings and Isaiah Frey had interceptions.

It turned out to be a mirage against a team headed for a 4-12 season. After a 3-0 start in the regular season, the Bears slumped to an 8-8 finish and the wheels were soon to come off for the Trestman/Phil Emery regime.

In general, when it comes to the preseason, you’re better off learning some hard lessons against the Seahawks and Patriots than mining fool’s gold against 4-12 teams like the Raiders were that season.

3. Fangio defenses have a history of taking significant leaps in the regular season. In his first season in San Francisco in 2011, the 49ers’ allowed 17 points and 257 yards and had no sacks in the first half against the Texans in their third preseason game. The 49ers were fourth in total defense and second in scoring defense in the regular season.

In 2012, the 49ers allowed 24 points and 265 yards against Fox’s Broncos in the third preseason game. The 49ers finished third in total defense and second in scoring defense in the regular season — and played in the Super Bowl that season.

3a. The Bears’ defense looked like a saving grace against the Chiefs compared to the offense, but was hardly spectacular. The Bears allowed 239 yards and 13 points as the Chiefs converted 6-of-10 third-down plays.

But linebacker Jerrell Freeman is confident they’ll be ready when the bell rings. “The stuff we’re messing up on is easily correctable,” Freeman said. “It’s one step here, little of this, little of that. It doesn’t bother me. If people are blowing stuff and don’t know what they’re doing out there, that would bother me.”

4. Quarterback Connor Shaw didn’t even get a chance to enjoy being the people’s choice after a stellar performance in a third-string role against the Chiefs. His broken left leg ended his season just as he appeared to be picking up steam with the Bears. He was 5-of-6 for 68 yards and a 16-yard touchdown pass to Cameron Meredith for a near-perfect 153.5 passer rating.

For the preseason Shaw was 11 of 16 for 127 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 132.0 rating. He also was not sacked — the Bears’ other quarterbacks have been sacked 10 times in three preseason games.

4a. It would have been interesting to see if the Bears would have given Shaw a rightful chance to win the No. 2 job behind Cutler after that performance. Even considering he was working exclusively against back-ups, Shaw looked like the better option so far — much more comfortable in the pocket under pressure than Hoyer. Against the Chiefs, Hoyer was wildly incomplete on throws with a defender in his face. Shaw stepped up and threw accurately — including the 18-yard pass to Josh Bellamy on fourth-and-seven that precipitated the injury when Chiefs nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches hit Shaw after he released the ball.

5. When Tracy Porter left Saturday’s game to be evaluated for a concussion, the Bears had a Glenn-Hall cornerback tandem — a fine last line of defense for the Blackhawks in the ‘60s, but a little dicey for the Bears, as neither Jacoby Glenn nor rookie Deiondre Hall has played a down on defense in a regular-season NFL game. Porter not only is the Bears’ best cover corner but the only cornerback on the roster with any NFL experience at that position — though Bryce Callahan (who missed Saturday’s game with a hamstring injury), and safety Demontre Hurst have played nickel back in the NFL.

With the regular season opener just 13 days away, the focus is squarely on Porter and other key players who did not participate Saturday — with all due respect to those players fighting for spots on the bottom half of the roster this week.

In order of need: guard Kyle Long, Porter, tight end Zach Miller, cornerback Kyle Fuller, outside linebackers Pernell McPhee and Leonard Floyd, Callahan, wide receiver Eddie Royal and safety Deon Bush. 

6. Tony Romo’s injury — a broken bone in his back — could only add to the scrutiny of Pace’s drafting. With Romo out 6-10 weeks, the Bears likely will face impressive rookie Dak Prescott in Week 3 at Cowboys Stadium. Working mostly against Seattle’s first-team defense on Thursday night after Romo was injured on the first series,, Prescott was 17-of-23 for 116 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 99.2 passer rating.

With greater needs than a developmental quarterback, the Bears passed on Prescott three times in the fourth round of the draft to take linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski (113th overall), safety Deon Bush (124th) and cornerback Deiondre Hall (127th). The Cowboys took the intriguing Prescott with the 135th overall pick and he has been a revelation in the preseason as a back-up — 39-of-50 for 454 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions for a 137.8 passer rating.

7. Nick Kwiatkoski remains a mystery four months into his Bears career. The West Virginia product suffered a hamstring injury on July 29 — the third overall practice, first day in pads — and though he has made some progress with the injury, he has not practiced since. Though he’s obviously behind Jerrell Freeman and Danny Trevathan at inside linebacker, Kwiatkoski was expected to provide help on special teams — which like every other facet of the Bears still needs a lot of work.

8. For What It’s Worth Dept.: Jay Cutler did not throw an interception in the preseason for the second consecutive year and only the third time in his eight seasons with the Bears.

9. The Bears have trailed in the first half in all six preseason games in which the starters have played in two seasons under John Fox — outscored 50-11 this year (trailing 20-0, 17-11 and 13-0). They were outscored 42-15 in the first half in three games with the starters last year (trailing 10-3, 11-9, 21-3).

10. Pick to click: Safety Harold Jones-Quartey was playing for the Cardinals at this time last season, but he has taken to Vic Fangio’s defense as well as any of the young players on it.  His aggressiveness puts him in position to make plays and he seems to be more productive every time out.

Jones-Quartey’s exuberance and aggressiveness didn’t come without a cost Saturday. He inadvertently hit Tracy Porter in the head with his leg trying to go for a big hit on a pass play — Porter left the game to be evaluated for a concussion and did not return. And linebacker Jerrell Freeman had to leave the game for a series after tweaking his leg when Jones-Quartey excitedly jumped on him while Freeman was celebrating a big hit on running back Darrin Reaves for a one-yard gain.

“Are you kidding me?” Freeman said when asked if Jones-Quartey needs to give him some room to celebrate his big plays. “He’s a friendly-fire guy out there. So if anybody gives it, it’s going to be him. I just know he’s going to be around that ball. I love Harold. I love his attitude.”

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