If you want one reason why the Bears missed the playoffs, despite a 10-6 record, and why Love Smith lost his job today, it's this: the Bears went 8-0 against teams that finished at or below .500, and 2-6 against teams that finished above .500. And the two teams with winning records that the Bears beat were the weakest in the league: the Colts (who were 11-5, but were outscored on the year) and the Vikings (who gave up 71 more points than the Bears, while scoring only four more points on the year).
There's another, more sophisticated way of looking at it. Football Outsiders has something called DVOA, or Defense Adjusted Value Over Average, which looks at every NFL play to compare a team's performance to a league baseline. Through Week 16, the Bears had the sixth-best DVOA in football—ahead of the 13-3 Falcons, ahead of the 12-4 Texans (both of whom had comparatively easy schedules), ahead of the playoff-bound Ravens and Redskins.
And way ahead of the Vikings and Colts. The Vikings were, according to DVOA, a below-average team, 19th in the league. The Colts were 26th. These were far and away the lowest DVOA ranks for teams that finished above .500. And they were the only two teams above .500 the Bears beat (and they lost to the Vikings once). The Vikings and Colts were also either extremely clutch or very lucky:
In 2011, the Colts and Vikings were a combined 3-14 in games decided by one touchdown or less. For Minnesota, that included an 0-4 start, with three consecutive losses in games in which they led by 10 points or more at halftime. This year, amazingly, those same two teams are 14-2 in games decided by the same margin, and one of the losses was by the Vikings to these Colts. History tells us that there's virtually nothing sustainable about that statistic, but that's admittedly hard to reconcile with teams that carry themselves like winners and play confident, focused football.
The Bears were 3-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less, 3-4 if you count games decided by eight points or less.
The Bears started strong because they had a weak schedule early on. They only played one good team, the Packers, in the first eight games (they played the Colts in the opener, the first game for a rookie quarterback, and a team that, as noted, was outscored on the season). Then they played six straight games against playoff teams, winning only one—against the Vikings.
Against teams that finished at or below .500, the Bears averaged +2.5 turnovers; against teams above .500, they were even. Against teams with even or losing records, they averaged just over three touchdowns; against teams with winning records (including their 41 points against the Colts, the most the Bears scored this season) they averaged just under two touchdowns. The Bears' vaunted scoring defense came one shy of the NFL record with nine on the season, just two fewer than the Bears' rushing offense scored, but none came against a team with a winning record.
What will be interesting to see is if Mike Tice keeps his job. The defense was outstanding: third in the league in points against; number one in rush and pass defense by advanced statistics; number one in points per drive and interceptions per drive. The offense was mediocre to bad, depending on the metric: 29th in yards per drive (out of 32 teams), 23rd in points per drive, below average in both running and passing. Football Outsiders ranks Cutler as the 27th-best quarterback in the NFL, between Matt Hasselbeck and Michael Vick, six slots behind rookie Christian Ponder, and below replacement level.
Consider two quarterbacks:
Quarterback A: 2,789 yards, 19 TDs, 14 INTs, 58.8 completion percentage
Quarterback B: 2,792 yards, 18 TDs, 12 INTs, 58.9 completion percentage
Quarterback C: 3,052 yards, 23 TDs, 20 INTs, 54.7 completion percentage
The first is 2012 Jay Cutler. The second is 2008 Kyle Orton. The third is 2006 Rex Grossman. It's a disappointment, considering that the Bears added one of the better wide receivers in the league. For the past decade, Chicago's been the place where offensive coordinators go to die:
Since Smith took over in 2004, the Bears have ranked higher than 23rd in offense only once. They have ranked 28th or lower four times.
Smith tried four offensive coordinators during his Bears career. His first thought was to run a similar offense to the one he was familiar with when he was defensive coordinator of the Rams, so he hired Terry Shea.
The Bears finished last in the league in offense behind quarterbacks Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Jonathan Quinn and Rex Grossman, and Shea was dismissed after one season.
Smith then turned to Ron Turner for his second stint as Bears offensive coordinator. Turner lasted five years in what was the heyday for Smith's offense.
But after the Bears traded for Jay Cutler in 2009 and they still finished 23rd in offense and missed the playoffs, Turner was made the scapegoat and fired.
So that's four offensive coordinators in nine years, but one of those, Ron Turner, lasted for five years. They've changed coordinators, philosophies, quarterbacks, main receiving targets, running backs, and finally added their first elite wide receiver in years, all with the usual result: a good team with a great defense and a mediocre-to-bad offense that usually promised a lot (Smith was 81-63 over nine years) but never brought home a Super Bowl. They've tried everything else, so now it was Lovie's turn.
Bears fans seemed to like Lovie. I'll miss his East Texas accent. But I don't feel too bad for him; there are a lot of head coaching opportunities opening up today, and it's hard to imagine Lovie Smith won't get one of them.
Update: Huh (h/t Omar):
Photograph: Chicago Tribune