DETROIT – An old-fashioned tube-screen TV set hung from the ceiling of the visitors’ locker room as the Bears watched two teams determine their playoff future about 700 miles away.
No flat screen. No high definition. No way to describe the utter strangeness of the moment.
“It’s a funny feeling,” Bears safety Major Wright said.
Now, it’s an empty feeling.
The Bears did their part Sunday by beating the Detroit Lions, 26-24, to preserve their hopes for making the playoffs. But the Bears also needed the Green Bay Packers to beat the Minnesota Vikings, and their rivals let them down with a last-second loss three hours later.
Bears players who arrived to training camp with a Super Bowl-or-bust mentality now must embrace a slogan all too familiar to Chicago sports fans: Wait ‘til next year.
Instead of preparing for a playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers, the Bears will spend the next couple of days cleaning out their lockers and saying goodbye. The group of players that reconvenes for organized team activities this spring will feature at least a few new faces, and the same could be said for the Bears’ veteran coaching staff.
At best, Lovie Smith will have to explain himself to first-year general manager Phil Emery. At worst, Smith will have to search for a new job after nine seasons on the lakefront.
Even if Smith keeps his job, he might part ways with a few of his assistants, including offensive coordinator Mike Tice. The future of 34-year-old linebacker Brian Urlacher, who missed the final four games of the season with a bum hamstring, also is uncertain.
Because a 10-win season means little when the Bears head home to watch a dozen teams compete in the playoffs. Because Smith’s successes with his “Tampa 2” defensive scheme cannot change the fact that he has missed the playoffs five times in the past six years.
Curse the Packers if you wish, but the truth is that the Bears are fully to blame for their playoff absence. After a 7-1 start to the season, the Bears lost five of six games to fall out of the top six playoff positions in the NFC and hope for a favor from their oldest rival.
The Bears’ season officially ended after a 29-yard, game-winning field goal by Vikings kicker Blair Walsh, but the first signs of trouble arrived months earlier.
The Bears’ playmakers could not score a touchdown in a seven-point loss to the Houston Texans on a muddy field in mid-November. The offensive line could not protect fill-in quarterback Jason Campbell in a blowout at Candlestick Park a week after that. A veteran defense wilted two weeks later as the Seattle Seahawks rallied for a win in overtime.
The Bears proved all season that they could beat subpar teams such as the Lions and Arizona Cardinals and Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
Before he learned the outcome of Sunday’s Packers game, Bears cornerback Tim Jennings was asked whether missing the playoffs with 10 wins would be an injustice or deserved.
“You could say both,” Jennings said, “because we put ourselves in this situation.
“We got off to a fast start early in the year, but we also put ourselves in this situation to [need] help from another team. It would be a major disappointment.”
As has been the case for years, the Bears’ offense was the biggest disappointment.
Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett unintentionally described a long history of the sputtering offense as he described its inconsistent performance in the finale at Detroit.
“We would get a rhythm and then we’d stall,” Bennett said. “It was just some miscues that we had. We’ve just got to get back to the practice field and correct those.”
It’s too late for that.
As the TV flickered in the corner of the visitors’ locker room, veteran Bears center Roberto Garza tried to stay positive. The Vikings had built an early 10-point lead against the Packers, but Garza clung to hope before heading to the airport.
“In our minds, hopefully it all goes our way,” Garza said. “But if it doesn’t, it was a [heck] of a year. We were able to close it out on a good note.”
Like the Bears’ season, it wasn’t good enough.