Oct 2, 2011
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — This one looked like a potential breather for the Chicago Bears when the NFL released the schedule.
Now? Maybe not.
The way Cam Newton is playing, Chicago could be in for a tough time against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The No. 1 draft pick is off to a record start, and the Bears are staggering after back-to-back losses to New Orleans and defending champion Green Bay.
"There's a lot of football left," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "There's a lot of things that can happen. I don't think we need to start panicking quite yet."
Even so, he realizes the Bears (1-2) are in a hole, with the Packers and Detroit tied for the NFC North lead at 3-0. A loss to Carolina (1-2) would be a big blow for a team trying to build on a run to the division title and conference championship game a year ago, and things aren't looking good after a dominant win over Atlanta in the opener.
The offense was out of sync again last week while the defense had little luck containing Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.
Cutler continues to absorb a beating after being sacked a league-leading 52 times a year ago and is admittedly skittish even when he's not really under pressure. He had enough protection against the Packers after absorbing six sacks by the Saints but still completed only 21 of 37 passes, rushing throws and misfiring. There were drops by receivers, too, and the run blocking was more of a rumor than a reality.
The Bears managed 13 yards rushing, with Matt Forte finishing with two on nine carries, and called 43 pass plays in another unbalanced performance.
This time, coach Lovie Smith felt they had no choice but to throw. He wasn't seething over the lack of balance the way he was a week earlier, when Chicago went with 52 passes and 11 handoffs.
This might bump his blood pressure, though — a look at the statistics.
The Bears are near the bottom in yards per game (23rd), rushing (31st) and third-down conversion rate (29th). They're 11 of 40 and that makes offensive coordinator Mike Martz cringe
"If you're not making yards on first down, then you're going to have some three-and-outs," Martz said. "To me, three and outs are the worst thing in football, next to turnovers. That's the worst thing. I hate three-and-outs, with a passion. That's something, in the past, we've been pretty good at."
It's not like the defense has been bailing them out lately. Not with Drew Brees and Rodgers on the other side.
Now, they are about to face Newton, and all he's done so far is add his name to the record book.
He threw for 422 yards at Arizona, the most ever by a debuting rookie. That tied Matthew Stafford's single-game rookie record, and he topped that with 432 against Green Bay. Last week, Newton finished with 158 in a win over Jacksonville but hit former Bear Greg Olsen with the go-ahead touchdown late in the game, and he comes into this one trailing only Tom Brady and Brees with 1,012 yards.
"I think success comes if you continue to yearn to be good, or to strive for your common goal," Newton said. "Do you want to be average, do you want to be good or do you want to be great? I think that's what separates the Tom Bradys from the other quarterbacks in this league."
Coach Ron Rivera sees that desire, sees Newton examining the video on Monday and coming in when he's off on Tuesday to talk to the coaches. He sees a rookie soaking in all he can, and he sees a player keeping his poise during games.
"But the success he's had, the magnitude is I guess you just sit back and go, 'Wow.' The kid is really surpassing expectations," he said.
Smith is impressed. He joked this week, "We don't play many teams who get off the bus and their quarterback looks like Julius Peppers."
The Panthers' rookie star could come face-to-face with their former star. Newton realizes this will be another test for him, with Peppers trying to take him down and Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs creating havoc at linebacker.
For Rivera, it'll be a homecoming.
He played nine seasons for the Bears and was on the 1985 championship team, served as an assistant in the late 1990s and was their defensive coordinator from 2004 through the 2006 Super Bowl season. He had talked with eight NFL teams about head coaching jobs over a two-year span, and when Smith informed him that they were letting him go with an expiring contract, Rivera took a job as San Diego's linebackers coach.
Not too long after that, he wound up as the Chargers' defensive coordinator. Now, finally, he's in his first season as a head coach and he's coming back to his old home.
"Bear fans are Bear fans and they've got to cheer for their team," Rivera said. "But at some point, I hope to get a nice little applause at some point. But if not, I understand, because they are Chicago Bear fans."