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News » Low marks for evaluators

Low marks for evaluators

Low marks for evaluators
HOUSTON -- It wasn't all Danieal Manning's fault. Not by a mile. But Manning's performance in the Bears' 31-24 loss at Houston personified a major problem with the defense. It's a problem that ultimately cost the team a playoff spot and puts the future of a once-proud unit under serious question. It's a problem you can file under player development or player evaluation or coaching decisions.

Whatever you want to call it, don't let the issue be obscured by a winning season. The Bears finished 9-7 and afterward coach Lovie Smith deemed them ''close'' for the second straight year.

It's not easy to win in the NFL, so achieving more victories than losses is a difficult task. But for Smith to claim his team is closer than they were last year at 7-9 does nothing but lower the bar. Close is not an acceptable standard.

The Bears did exceed expectations. But why did they? Because nobody had much faith in the coaching staff to begin with? The offensive staff was under scrutiny at the end of last year, but before this team got out of the preseason there were open questions about defensive coordinator Bob Babich and his staff and the value of Smith's beloved scheme.

Falling down

Here's a fact you can count on after the Bears allowed a season-high 455 total yards in the most crucial game of the season: The defense is going to finish in the bottom half of the league for the second year in a row. The unit came into this game ranked 14th. By the time you compute Andre Johnson's 10 catches for 148 yards, Matt Schaub's 328 passing yards and the Texans' 127 rushing yards, the Bears are going to be closer to the worst defense in the NFL than the best. That is alarming because the Bears were a top-five defense in 2006 when they reached the Super Bowl and a bottom-five defense last year.

Injuries were thought to be the culprit last year, not Smith's launching of defensive coordinator Ron Rivera and defensive line coach Don Johnson.

Now, on top of delaying the promotion of cornerback Corey Graham and defensive tackle Anthony Adams to the starting lineup until late in the season, we have this Manning move that blew up on the coaching staff Sunday.

Manning was back at free safety for the first time in a year and a half and blew an assignment on Johnson's first touchdown catch, which began the Texans' comeback from a 10-0 deficit.

''I bit on the run and blew the coverage,'' Manning said of leaving the game's most productive receiver wide open.

Smith talked to Manning on the sidelines after the play.

''He just said, 'Stay deep, we really don't need you on the run support in cover-2,'' Manning said. ''That was just me trying to play outside the defense. I should have been more patient than what I was. I thought I read run, it wasn't. It was a good play call by them, bad play by me.''

But wait, there's more

Manning made another bad play on the ensuing kickoff. In his patented high-effort return style, he was fighting for extra yards when the ball bounced off his ribs and he fumbled it at the Bears' 38. Houston recovered and eight plays later the Bears trailed 14-10 despite dominating the first half. They never regained the lead.

On one hand, it's understandable why the Bears risked switching Manning's position in such a crucial game. He had been playing well, especially on kickoff returns, and the confidence carried over to his play at the nickel position, where Smith has been giving him private lessons.

History repeats itself

Manning started at free safety next to Chris Harris in the Super Bowl, but he blew a coverage that led to the Colts' first touchdown. He was moved first from safety to cornerback, then back to safety, to nickelback and now back to safety. Smith called Manning ''our best option'' at the position for the Houston game, but admitted not knowing where Manning will play next year.

''We have a little bit of time to figure that out,'' Smith said.

Manning said he believes his job is to fill in wherever there is a hole in the secondary. Clearly, he showed signs of development this season, but that only underscores how difficult that is to find elsewhere on the Bears defense.

The Bears have drafted 22 defensive players among 42 draft picks since Smith became coach. Fourteen of the 22 are still on this team, including all five rookies taken in 2008. But just four of those 22 started the season finale: Tommie Harris, Graham, Kevin Payne and Manning. Graham has developed nicely. Payne seems to have gotten better. Is Harris still improving? Does Manning have a position?

Not following the money

Harris is the only first-round selection on defense in the Smith era, but the team has fallen flat on high draft picks such as second-rounders Tank Johnson and Dan Bazuin, third-rounders Dusty Dvoracek and Michael Okwo and fourth-rounders Leon Joe and Jamar Williams. They let Chris Harris get away to Carolina and have watched Mark Anderson fail to develop at end.

The Bears need to evaluate the evaluators. Has the scheme been found out? Are the draft picks getting coached up enough? Does the staff need an upgrade?

The Bears have allocated more salary-cap space to their defense than any team other than Baltimore. Why are they paying that kind of money for a unit in the bottom half of the league?

Comment at suntimes.com.

Mike Mulligan and Sun-Times colleague Brian Hanley host a sports-talk show from 5 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday on

WSCR-AM (670).

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: December 29, 2008

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Geoff Hangartner Name: Geoff Hangartner
Position: C
Age: 26
Experience: 4 years
College: Texas A&M
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