In Week 4 of the 1999 season, when it still seemed like it was just a matter of time before the Bears mastered the nuances of Gary Crowton’s “razzle-dazzle” offense and took the NFL by storm, the Bears and Shane Matthews were getting shut out by Mike Ditka’s Saints at Soldier Field late in the fourth quarter.
Suddenly, everything clicked. With 4:35 left and the Bears down 10-0, Matthews led a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive, hitting Curtis Conway for a 22-yard score to make it 10-7 with 1:48 left.
The Bears got the ball back with 1:08 to go and Matthews engineered an even more stunning drive, going 67 yards on six plays for the game-winning touchdown — a six-yard pass from Matthews to Conway with seven seconds left.
The Bears won 14-10, but it was a red flag for the Crowton offense more than a celebration of it. Out of desperation, Matthews took control of the offense and called all the plays in “two-minute drill” fashion. How is it that Matthews could call plays in Crowton’s offense under duress better than Crowton could during the course of the game?
That was the second seed of doubt about the Crowton offense (the first was the scoreless second half in the opener against the Chiefs). And the rest was history.
I guess it is a little ironic that on that same day, while the Bears were struggling to get their promising offense off the ground, Mike Martz and the St. Louis Rams were doing everything the Bears had hoped to do and more. In his third game as a fill-in starter, Kurt Warner threw three more touchdown passes and had a perfect 158.3 passer rating as the Rams — who like the Bears were a 4-12, last-place team the previous season — whipped the Bengals 38-10 to improve to 3-0 en route to an unlikely Super Bowl victory.
Ironic, because the Bears’ 34-29 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at Soldier Field gave me that same feeling of doubt about Martz’s offense as I had about Crowton’s in 1999. Here is this offense that is supposed to drive defenses batty with a relentless passing attack (the Rams led the NFL in passing from 1999-2001 and were in the top five for six consecutive seasons) and after 21 games is resorting to the most standard of running attacks to beat a middle-of-the-pack-at-best defense.
The Bears had 224 yards rushing and 93 passing. Jay Cutler didn’t throw a pass in the first quarter, threw only four in the first half and finished 9-of-17 for 102 yards and an interception for a 46.7 passer rating.
Another red flag: After nearly two years of work on a precision offense (though without an offseason in 2011), after the Bears molded their roster to give Martz players who best fit his system — like Roy Williams and Matt Spaeth and Dane Sanzenbacher — the biggest addition has been fullback Tyler Clutts, who was picked off the Cleveland Browns’ practice squad five days before the season opener.
Clutts was on the field for most of the Bears’ biggest plays against the Panthers. He was the lead blocker for 176 of Matt Forte’s 205 rushing yards. He had the key block that sprang Forte for gains of 46 and 40 yards and blocked 6-2, 275-pound defensive end Charles Johnson to clear the way for a big four-yard gain on fourth-and-one in the fourth quarter.
It’s true that even with ”The Greatest Show on Turf” in St. Louis, the Rams would have similar games where the running game dominated. Two weeks after the Rams beat the Bengals in 1999, Marshall Faulk rushed for 181 yards and Warner passed for only 111 in a rout of the Falcons. But by then the offensive identity had clearly been established — Warner had already thrown 14 touchdown passes to three interceptions and was averaging 304 passing yards a game.
That’s not the case with the Bears. They look like an offense designed to use the pass to set up the run, but looks much more comfortable using the run to set up the pass. As my Sun-Times colleague Neil Hayes pointed out earlier this week, their biggest crisis on offense is not Jay Cutler, Roy Williams or the tight ends, but one of identity. Until they figure out what they do best, they’re destined to muddle through this season on offense and let the defense and special teams do the heavy lifting. It worked last season, but as we can see already, it’s a dicey proposition in 2011.