Listen to the Thunder, pt. 3: Rats on a Sinking Ship

It reminded me of what happened in the Wrigley Field locker room toward the end of last season.  It started with a smell that kept getting stronger.  It was right in our locker area.  I thought it was Doug (Buffone), and he probably thought it was me.  If it wasn’t Doug I thought it could be Bob Hyland.

The next day I noticed the smell was still there, even stronger.  I thought maybe it was me after all.  Everybody gave everybody else fishy looks. 

Our equipment manager Bill Martell started spraying deodorant around, but that didn’t do any good.  So one day after practice he took down one of the ceiling tiles where the smell seemed to be strongest.  A big, dead rat fell out.  It must have been up there a couple of weeks.  We all looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“It sure is nice to play in the big leagues,” said Doug.  “You go first class all the way.”

Excerpt from Stop-Action by Dick Butkus


While the taste of failure was fresh on their tongues from the crushing loss to Green Bay to conclude the 2013 season, the bad sentiment had been bubbling under the surface before the season ever began.  It was clear that Phil Emery was more than happy to burn bridges:

He fired Lovie Smith.

He ignored Rod Marinelli.

But before that, he told Brian Urlacher to go away.

Urlacher, a member of the 2018 class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was in a unique situation prior to the start of the 2013 season.  His contract was up, his knees were becoming a serious issue, and his game was falling off, but he was still a major contributor, defensive leader, and iconic face of the franchise.

When negotiations began in spring of 2013, it went poorly.  Urlacher’s side of the story indicates that it was Emery who showed him disrespect, and negotiated in bad faith:

“I just didn’t get along—I didn’t like the way he handled my situation or other situations around there with players.  I didn’t like the way he acted sometimes.  I just didn’t feel comfortable being in the building when he was around.

“If he came to me and said, ‘Hey man, look, we don’t think you’re the same.’ Which, I wasn’t the same player. After my knee got hurt, I was a little bit slower and older. I agree. But I still wanted to play. I feel like I could have still played. With another year of rehab on my knee, I probably could have played one or two more years.

“If he had said, ‘Hey man, you’re not the same player. You know that. We know that. But we still want you here. You’re a good leader. Blah, blah, blah. You’re a team guy, this, that. But we can’t pay you more than this. But we want you here. Can you do it?’

“Hell yeah, I can do it. If you handle it like that, 100 percent I can do it, you know? But the way it was handled — ‘This is the offer, take it or leave it. You have till tonight to decide. If you don’t want it, we’ll get somebody else. And then we’re going to tweet it out right when you say no.’” – Brian Urlacher

Urlacher retired not long after talks broke down.

The Bears defense, devoid of all forms of leadership, plummeted into league obscurity during the 2013 season, ultimately costing them dearly when it mattered most.  Disarray and betrayal lingered in Halas Hall, but it hadn’t resulted in complete dystopia.  Yet.

The 2014 season began with the Bears opening their season at home against the Buffalo Bills.  Expectations for the Bears were high, as several key acquisitions were believed to send the Bears well beyond the 8-8 record of the previous season.  Lamarr Houston signed a lucrative contract after several years of quality pass rush contributions.  Willie Young was an exciting dark horse acquisition formerly of Detroit.

Phil Emery’s prize acquisition, however, was former Chiefs and Vikings star Jared Allen, whom Emery craftily signed sight-unseen in what he felt was a coup.

On offense, Jimmy Clausen was brought in to replace Josh McCown, who reaped the benefits of his fine play with a big offseason contract elsewhere.  The top of the rookie class was clear:  Replace the disgruntled & departed Bears.

CB Kyle Fuller, DT Ego Ferguson, and DL Will Sutton had high expectations on their shoulders, especially considering Julius Peppers joined the rival Packers after escaping Chicago.

Major media outlets penned the Bears to finish at least .500, if not winning the division and/or making the playoffs.  Needless to say, when the lowly Bills came to town, the Bears, one of the NFL’s statistically most dominant home-opener teams, had a lot to live up to.

It couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.

Cutler threw two interceptions, one of which was to a defensive lineman.  The Bills won in overtime thanks to an embarrassing moment when Fred Jackson tore through a wide open gap in the defense, stiffarming Chris Conte away with ease, setting up the Bills’ game winning field goal.

Injuries set in:  Brandon Marshall sprained his ankle; Alshon Jeffery hurt his hamstring; starting offensive linemen Roberto Garza and Matt Slauson had ankle injuries that would keep them out for weeks.

Consecutive road wins seemed to right the ship, but all that momentum means nothing when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers come to Soldier Field.  Cutler threw two interceptions.  Rodgers threw four touchdowns.  You can guess how that one ended up.

By the time week 7 rolled around, the Chicago Bears were 3-3, fledgling to come together as a group, and they needed a win against the Dolphins to get things back on track.  Injuries were piling up on both sides of the ball, and the scales were on the verge of tipping for the worse.

It tipped.

The Dolphins handled the Bears 27-14 in Chicago, and the end of the line began to rear it’s head.  Brandon Marshall was overheard yelling at his teammates in the locker room, specifically kicker Robbie Gould.  Gould, a longtime Bear who represented the team with the NFLPA, had enough of Marshall’s comments on leadership.  Marshall told him, “You just kick the ball.”

Reporters fielded Marshall’s grievances after the yelling subsided, as he declared the effort as “unacceptable.”  Kyle Long aimed his vitriol outward, blaming the fed up fans for booing the Bears at home and not helping the defense make stops on third down:

“As somebody that is blood, sweat and tears in this locker room like the other guys, the coaches, the trainers, the staff and the equipment guys, to be getting booed at home when you’re walking off the field down two possessions is unacceptable — especially when there is not a lot of noise being made on third down [when Miami had the ball], period.” – Kyle Long

Gould downplayed the event, but it was indicative of much larger problems, and there was a lot of season left, including huge contests against the hated Packers and dominant New England Patriots.  Winning one or both of those games could do far more than simply cure locker room barking.

This Bears team had no business being in the same stadium as the Patriots, it turned out, as New England pasted 38 points on Chicago’s defense in the first half.  The second half was full of further humiliation, as Lamarr Houston recorded his first sack of the year in garbage time against a backup quarterback in a long-since-lost game (disappointment #1), celebrated by jumping into the air as if he had saved a playoff win (disappointment #2), and promptly tore his right ACL in the process (disappointment #3).

The 51-23 final score isn’t representative of just how badly the Bears were beaten.  This game was over before it began, and at no time was Chicago ever competing.  It was the football equivalent of a curb stomping.

Rumors were circulating that the Bears, heading into Lambeau Field and coming off of a bye week, needed to win against Green Bay to save Marc Trestman’s job.  The ground dissolving from under their feet, it was do or die against Bear-killer Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in a prime time contest for all the world to see.

The Bears died.

Aaron Rodgers threw six (6!) touchdown passes in the first HALF, leaving the score at the break an earth-shattering 42-0.  Jay Cutler threw two more interceptions, bringing his turnover total by that point to a whopping fifteen.

The rivalry was well and truly dead.  The Packers let the Bears have it in the media afterwards, too:

“You could tell that they kind of laid down a little bit.”  – Randall Cobb

“We believe in Aaron (Rodgers).  That’s what separates us from the Bears.  I feel like the Bears really don’t believe in Cutler.” – Datone Jones

The Bears would go on to win 2 or their next 3 games before another marquee matchup was set against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday Night Football.  The 5-7 Bears needed something, anything, and a win against an 8-4 Dallas squad would perhaps save some jobs.  It would give an indication that the Bears weren’t merely bumslayers, and had a big win or two left in them.

As it turns out, the 2014 Bears didn’t have a single win left in them at all, and the final rotten months of the Trestman/Emery regime began to smell in earnest after the Cowboys game.

DeMarco Murray and Tony Romo accounted for 384 yards and 4 touchdowns between them, scoring 21 unanswered in the 3rd quarter.  A late Bears rally wasn’t enough, and the vultures began to circle the corpse.

Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network reported just days later that he had spoken at length with a Bears insider who stated the team had “serious buyers remorse” over the Cutler contract, and were incensed by his inability to check out of bad plays.  Further, there was desire within to have the star, with ink still drying on his 7-year deal, benched for first-round-failure Jimmy Clausen.

While that was embarrassing enough, it was when Rapoport’s source was revealed that the shit hit the fan with a resounding splatter:  Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer had been the culprit, and fessed up to his team with a shameful display featuring crocodile tears, shocking and disappointing the roster.  Brad Biggs detailed the event:

The offense learned that Monday in a meeting room at Halas Hall when offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer made an emotional and tearful apology for criticizing the quarterback in a private conversation at Soldier Field with an NFL Network reporter last week.

Four sources told the Tribune that Kromer adamantly denied he said anything about the franchise having buyer’s remorse for Cutler’s blockbuster contract and assured players that portion of Sunday’s report on NFL Network did not come from him. With Cutler in the room, Kromer did admit however to being frustrated with the quarterback’s play management and expressing that to Ian Rapoport as he left Soldier Field on Dec. 4 after the fifth loss in seven games.

Cutler shook his head during Kromer’s apology, one source said.

“I’m still kind of trying to sort my way through this to be honest,” one player said. “It’s one of the most (messed) up things I have ever seen.”

“It’s a (messed) up situation,” another player said.  – Brad Biggs

The end was near.

After another loss, Trestman benched Cutler.  The move wasn’t unmerited, as Cutler by this point had 24 turnovers alone, leading the NFL.  Jimmy Clausen playing out the string was Marc Trestman showing the Bears his ass, and an ad hoc audition for NFL teams.  With a quarterback who listened to his instruction, I can be a good coach.  Hire me.  This was not my fault.

Clausen was above-average in his single start, but in true Bears fashion, he was injured.

Cutler was awkwardly trotted out to start the season finale, and it resulted in another division loss, giving the 2014 Chicago Bears a 5-11 record; their worst in a decade.

The next day, a bomb was dropped:  Chairman George McCaskey was firing both Phil Emery and Marc Trestman.

The dysfunctional locker room and mortifying losses had even gone so far as to rattle the typically gentle and rarely-heard-from Virginia McCaskey:

“She’s been very supportive, she agrees with the decisions that we’ve made, she’s pissed off.  I can’t think of a 91-year-old woman that that description would apply to but in this case I can’t think of a more accurate description.  She’s fed up with mediocrity.  She’s been on this earth for eight of the Bears’ nine championships and she wants more.  She feels that it’s been too long since the last one and that dissatisfaction is shared by her children, her grandchildren and her great grandchildren.” – George McCaskey

Marc Trestman would go on to be the Ravens offensive coordinator for a span before too being fired.  Returning to the CFL, he now coaches the Toronto Argonauts and it appears he may never again return to the NFL, and that’s likely the best thing for everyone.

After a year away from football, Phil Emery returned hat-in-hand to the Atlanta Falcons organization where he continues work as a scout.  Ryan Pace kept on some of Emery’s scouts, in some cases even promoting them.  The long-winded and cowboy-boot-wearing Emery is back doing what he’s best at in a market where his reach cannot exceed his grasp.

While Emery did indeed find talent in Kyle Long, Alshon Jeffery, Charles Leno Jr, Pat O’Donnell, and (potentially) Kyle Fuller, the remainders of his draft classes were devastatingly poor, including wasting a first round pick on Shea McClellin.

Brian Urlacher restored ties with the Bears franchise not long after Emery was fired, and continues to be an ambassador for the team in addition to donning the gold jacket later this summer in recognition of his incredible career in Chicago.

Jay Cutler continued his mercurial play for another 2 seasons before released.  After a weird season in Miami, many still wonder if he’ll take that broadcasting job.

Josh McCown had short-lived stays in Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and New York.  He is now primarily tasked with being something of a player-coach, and even at 37 isn’t interested in retiring.

Brandon Marshall joined former Bears teammate Matt Forte as a New York Jet for two years before transitioning to the Giants.  He still generates controversy and appears to be in the fading tail of his strange career.

Mike Martz dabbled in football media, retiring as a coach.  He interviewed with the Browns in 2014, but was passed over.

Rod Marinelli has been with the Cowboys ever since he resigned in 2012, and appears to be putting off retirement for one more season, sticking with Dallas through at least the 2018 campaign.

Bruce Arians would be hired by the Arizona Cardinals, leading them to the playoffs twice, including an appearance in the NFC title game.

Lovie Smith’s NFL star fell after a brief tenure in Tampa Bay, and he became head coach of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini in 2016, where he remains today.  The road seems long for Lovie in Champaign, but there is plenty of optimism as only he can cultivate, and no real timetable for success.

The Lovie-Era Bears have mostly bid the sport farewell.  Lance Briggs retired in 2015 after going unsigned in Free Agency.  In the summer of 2016 Charles “Peanut” Tillman too called it a career after a brief stay in Carolina.  Tommie Harris succumbed to injuries and heartbreak, retiring at 28.  Devin Hester never found the magic again, going from team-to-team for a spell, retiring in late 2017 as a member of the Seahawks.

Many fans will always have so many “what-if’s” regarding the Lovie Smith era, but perhaps just as many in the opposite direction as it comes to Trestman and Emery’s tenure.

If only the McCaskey family and Ted Phillips could’ve realized what a hole they were digging themselves into by hiring those two, much embarrassment could’ve been avoided.

In my favorite television series “Deadwood,” there is a scene where rich widow Alma Garrett is being counseled by hired gun Wild Bill Hickok regarding whether or not she should stay in town after the murder of her husband.  Hickok, aware of the dangerous circumstances she now finds herself in, encourages her to listen to the warnings in her heart.

“You know the sound of thunder, don’t you Mrs. Garrett?  Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?  Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result.  But I didn’t say it in thunder.

“Ma’am…listen to the thunder.”

Like Mrs. Garrett, the Bears chose to ignore the warning, and disaster was their reward.

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