Apocalypse Now: Chicago Bears and the NFL’s Greatest Second-Half Collapses

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Dec 21, 2012



By Scott Kacsmar

Cold Hard Football Facts’ Comeback King (@CaptainComeback)

 

The Bears are who we thought they were.

At least that’s how Arizona coach Denny Green felt in 2006 after his famous post-game conference. That came following a second-half collapse in a game won in dramatic fashion by Chicago.

This season’s Bears return to Arizona in Week 16 for the first time since that fateful night, but they are looking at a much different second-half collapse. This time Lovie Smith’s team can no longer blame Caleb Hanie like last season when a 7-3 start turned into an 8-8 finish after the injury to Jay Cutler.

The Bears are now on the verge of missing the playoffs after a 7-1 start, which has rarely happened since the 16-game season began in 1978. A total of 61 teams started exactly 7-1 from 1978 to 2011, and 58 of them made the playoffs.

Chicago (8-6) must win out on the road against Arizona (5-9) and Detroit (4-10), and even then will need some help to make the playoffs.

So where has it gone wrong for Chicago, and what kind of company may they be joining for this second-half collapse? We will also look at what caused those teams to fall apart after such promising starts.

 

Bear Down: Why Chicago has struggled

Halfway through the season Chicago was 7-1 with only a loss to their nemesis in Green Bay. The defense had a ridiculous 28 takeaways, Charles Tillman was a strong candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, Tim Jennings had a breakout season to lead the league in interceptions (8), and they managed seven return touchdowns.

If you subtracted points allowed that were not the defenses’ fault, added the points they scored on return touchdowns, then the defense allowed just 56 net points through eight games (7.0 points per game).

That is an absurd number, and also not a sustainable one. Remember, offensive performance is more consistent than defense, and anyone could have guessed the defensive scores would stop coming after their record pace early on.

The Bears had just scored 51 points in Tennessee, and were preparing for a marquee Week 10 matchup with the Houston Texans (also 7-1 with a loss to Green Bay) on Sunday Night Football.

The weather was lousy, the defenses came hitting hard, and the Bears walked away wounded in a 13-6 defeat. Jay Cutler suffered a big hit that gave him a concussion and forced Jason Campbell to finish the game. Campbell couldn’t move the offense in their comeback attempt, and he would have to start the following week in San Francisco.

Chicago was stunned by Colin Kaepernick’s effectiveness in his first career start, and the 49ers blew the Bears out 32-7. Cutler returned in Week 12 to lead a 28-10 win at home over Minnesota, but that is Chicago’s only win in their last six games. It is also the only time they scored more than 17 points in a game.

In their first eight games the offense averaged 325.3 yards per game. That has fallen to 280.2 yards per game in the last six.

The offense has sputtered as Brandon Marshall continues to be the only real receiving threat on the team. He has 107 receptions while no other wide receiver or tight end has more than 23. The running game with Matt Forte is just average, and the offensive line continues to be a work in progress.

Cutler really was not having a special season at any point this year, but in the second half he has thrown just five touchdowns to six interceptions.

Defensively, the takeaways went down. After 28 in eight games, they have just nine in the last six games. They have played their three worst games of the season on defense in the last five weeks, and recently Brian Urlacher and Jennings went down with injuries.

One of the most critical losses was Week 13 at home to Seattle, who had not done well on the road this year. After the Bears defense was playing well, they allowed Russell Wilson to drive 97 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the last minute. A miracle play to Marshall forced overtime, but Wilson again drove 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown.

That was only the sixth comeback/game-winning drive Lovie Smith’s defense has allowed at home in his career (since 2004). It was a big blow against direct competition in the playoffs.

Cutler struggled in Minnesota with a pick six, and the defense was ripped by Adrian Peterson (154 yards). But Peterson is killing everyone right now. The bigger story was the lack of offense, which continued this past Sunday at home in a very important game with Green Bay.

As usual, Dom Capers’ defense shut down Cutler and the Bears in a 21-13 win, handing the NFC North to Green Bay. Cutler averages 13.3 points per game against Green Bay, and has a miserable 1-7 record against them as a member of the Bears.

That’s where the Bears are at right now. You can see they have been losing to playoff-caliber opponents, which has led to a much tougher schedule than the start of the season.

  • Chicago’s first eight opponents were a combined 49-62-1 (.442), and that included three teams with a winning record (Colts, Packers, Cowboys).
  • Chicago’s last six opponents were a combined 57-26-1 (.685), and all six had a winning record.
  • We stat guys hate ties (Rams/49es).

Is it as simple as the schedule and a few key injuries? Maybe so. We will find out with games against bottom-dweller teams like Arizona and Detroit remaining.

 

The greatest second-half collapses in NFL history

Like a true rookie quarterback, this is another one of those NFL concepts that is not easily defined. First let’s acknowledge the changing history of the game.

They did not have a real playoff system until the Super Bowl era. For that reason we are just going to ignore pre-Super Bowl results. A lot of teams with great records were left out of the “playoffs” as it was usually just a championship game that made up the entire postseason.

It was not until 1967 that the NFL split into four divisions of four teams each so more teams could make the playoffs. The Wild Card was not created until 1978, when the number of playoff teams went from eight to ten. These were also 14-game seasons.

A total of 29 teams from 1966 to 1977 started anywhere from 5-2 to 6-1 and still missed the playoffs. A team like the 1967 Colts started 11-0-2, lost to the Rams in the finale and missed the playoffs on a tie-breaker (Rams were also 11-1-2). So this was still not a good era to compare to.

Two years later the 1969 Rams started 11-0, but lost their last three regular season games, then lost a 23-20 game to Minnesota in the playoffs. That is really a collapse to end a season, but we are looking more along the lines of the entire second half rather than the last few games.

So let’s start with the 1970 merger and look at the 14-game seasons up through 1977. Eighteen teams started off well, but failed to make the playoffs.

NFL 2nd-Half Collapses (1970-77)

Team

Year

1st Half

2nd Half

Final

NE

1977

5-2

4-3

9-5

MIA

1977

5-2

5-2

10-4

CLE

1977

5-2

1-6

6-8

SF

1976

6-1

2-5

8-6

CIN

1976

5-2

5-2

10-4

CRD

1976

5-2

5-2

10-4

MIA

1975

6-1

4-3

10-4

HOU

1975

6-1

4-3

10-4

WAS

1975

5-2

3-4

8-6

BUF

1975

5-2

3-4

8-6

NE

1974

6-1

1-6

7-7

BUF

1973

5-2

4-3

9-5

NYJ

1972

5-2

2-5

7-7

CIN

1972

5-2

3-4

8-6

RAI

1971

5-1-1

3-3-1

8-4-2

CHI

1971

5-2

1-6

6-8

RAM

1970

5-2

4-2-1

9-4-1

CRD

1970

5-2

3-3-1

8-5-1

However, of the 18 teams, only eight had a losing record in the second half of the season. Three teams were 1-6, the 1972 Jets were 2-5, and four more teams were a not-so-bad 3-4 to end the season.

Go figure it was the 1971 Chicago Bears that was the first to suffer a 1-6 finish. They were only +8 in scoring differential when they started 5-2, which is the second lowest margin for the 18 teams. The offense fell apart in the second half of the season, and the unholy quarterback trio of Bobby Douglass, Kent Nix and Jack Concannon combined for 28 interceptions and a 41.3 passer rating.

But the biggest collapse would have to go to the 1974 New England Patriots. After a strong 6-1 start, they slumped to a 1-6 finish with only a win over the Colts (2-12). They lost five games by one score. Fourth-year quarterback Jim Plunkett started the season with 12 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but he ended it with seven touchdowns and 15 interceptions.

The only other team to finish 1-6 (6-8 overall) was the 1977 Cleveland Browns. Though 5-4 with Brian Sipe at quarterback, he injured his shoulder and was replaced by Dave Mays, who won his first start. But the Browns would lose their final four games, and fired coach Forrest Gregg with one week to go in the season.

Now we can focus on the 16-game seasons and expanded playoff format (1978-present). The following table shows teams with various records at various points in the second half of the season in regards to how many times they missed the playoffs. The teams are listed where space permits.

NFL Teams Missing the Playoffs Despite Strong Starts (1978-2011)

Games

Record

Teams missing playoffs

Teams

1-8

7-1

3

1987 Chargers, 1988 Saints, 1996 Redskins

1-8

6-2

30

-

1-9

8-1

1

1987 Chargers

1-9

7-2

10

-

1-10

8-2

3

1987 Chargers, 1993 Dolphins, 1995 Raiders

1-10

7-3

24

(includes 2011 Bears)

1-11

9-2

1

1993 Dolphins

1-11

8-3

10

-

1-12

9-3

3

1988 Saints, 1993 Dolphins, 2008 Buccaneers

1-12

8-4

28

-

1-13

9-4

8

-

1-15

10-5

5

-

1-16

11-5

2

1985 Broncos, 2008 Patriots

Not all of the teams contributing to the totals had a second-half collapse after a strong start. Teams like the 2008 Jets (8-3; finished 9-7) and 2008 Buccaneers (9-3; finished 9-7) really blew it four years ago. But both only started 5-3 before getting hot in the third quarter of the season.

However, you can see some of the same names being repeated above. Here is a table of 33 teams who did start 6-2 or 7-1 and missed the playoffs.

NFL Teams (6-2/7-1) Missing Playoffs (1978-2011)

Team

Year

1st Half

2nd Half

Final

NY Giants

2010

6-2

4-4

10-6

Pittsburgh

2009

6-2

3-5

9-7

Denver

2009

6-2

2-6

8-8

Washington

2008

6-2

2-6

8-8

Detroit

2007

6-2

1-7

7-9

Denver

2006

6-2

3-5

9-7

Atlanta

2005

6-2

2-6

8-8

Minnesota

2003

6-2

3-5

9-7

New Orleans

2002

6-2

3-5

9-7

Denver

2002

6-2

3-5

9-7

San Diego

2002

6-2

2-6

8-8

NY Jets

2000

6-2

3-5

9-7

Washington

2000

6-2

2-6

8-8

New England

1999

6-2

2-6

8-8

Oakland

1998

6-2

2-6

8-8

Washington

1996

7-1

2-6

9-7

Chicago

1995

6-2

3-5

9-7

Oakland

1995

6-2

2-6

8-8

Philadelphia

1994

6-2

1-7

7-9

Miami

1993

6-2

3-5

9-7

New Orleans

1993

6-2

2-6

8-8

New Orleans

1988

7-1

3-5

10-6

San Diego

1987

7-1

1-6

8-7

Dallas

1986

6-2

1-7

7-9

Denver

1985

6-2

5-3

11-5

NY Jets

1984

6-2

1-7

7-9

Minnesota

1983

6-2

2-6

8-8

Kansas City

1981

6-2

3-5

9-7

New England

1980

6-2

4-4

10-6

Washington

1979

6-2

4-4

10-6

New England

1979

6-2

3-5

9-7

Washington

1978

6-2

2-6

8-8

Green Bay

1978

6-2

2-5-1

8-7-1

Only the 1985 Broncos finished with a winning record (5-3) in the second half of the season. They were the first 11-5 team to miss the playoffs, joined recently by the 2008 Patriots. Only three more teams finished 4-4, so 29 teams finished with a losing second half.

You can probably recall the 2009 Broncos and 2003 Vikings both starting 6-0 before falling apart. Denver makes the list a few times. Those 2003 Vikings were eliminated from the playoffs on the last play of the game in a wild comeback by the Cardinals. Could Arizona do that to the Bears this week?

Detroit’s infamous 1-7 finish in 2007 led to the only 0-16 season ever the following year. They are the most recent example of the four teams who finished 1-7 (1984 Jets, 1986 Cowboys, 1994 Eagles).

The 1984 Jets struggled when Ken O’Brien started for Pat Ryan, while the 1994 Eagles were 7-2 before losing their final seven games. That’s a rough one. The last two losses were by a field goal each.

The 1986 Cowboys were 4-2 when Danny White started, but struggled with Steve Pelluer (3-6 as starter). They lost five consecutive games to end the season.

But the real standout teams are the three who started 7-1, which is the group Chicago can join if they do not get in this year.

1987 San Diego Chargers (started 8-1, finished 8-7)

This was a strange team. They were 8-1, but took full advantage of the replacement games with three victories there. This was hardly a dominant team in Dan Fouts’ final season. He only had 10 touchdowns to 15 interceptions and was 5-5 as a starter.

But after that 8-1 start, everything went downhill and the Chargers lost their last six. More than just lose, they were beat down 162-61 in those games. Clearly the replacement games and some close wins distorted their record, and it is no surprise something fishy would result from that strike-impacted season in 1987.

1988 New Orleans Saints (started 7-1, finished 10-6)

A year later the Saints looked to take the NFC West crown from San Francisco, but lost to them 34-33 in Week 1. They then picked up seven wins in a row. Even though San Francisco was slumping at 6-5, Jim Mora’s Saints failed to capitalize.

New Orleans was 9-3, but lost three in a row, including a crucial game in San Francisco. They won their finale to get to 10-6, but lost the division to the 49ers on virtue of being swept. If they could have taken just one of those games, we may be looking much differently at the San Francisco dynasty.

1996 Washington Redskins (started 7-1, finished 9-7)

This might be one of the sneakiest 7-1 teams ever. Gus Frerotte led the No. 8 scoring offense, made the Pro Bowl, and Terry Allen had 21 rushing touchdowns. The offense only had a league-low 18 giveaways on the season. They scored 31 points in four different wins during that 7-1 start.

But after getting blown out in Buffalo, they soon dropped two games in overtime, then struggled to keep up with the NFC East competition in a three-game losing streak. A win over Dallas to get to 9-7 was not enough for the postseason.

Finally, there are two more teams who stand out as the greatest collapses. They both come from the mid-90s.

1995 Oakland Raiders (started 8-2, finished 8-8)

Another one of those teams that falls through the cracks of NFL history, the Raiders were 8-2 in 1995. Jeff Hostetler was having an efficient season, but the Raiders played a lot of musical chairs at the position for various reasons with Vince Evans and Billy Joe Hobert also seeing playing time.

A tough schedule took the Raiders down in a six-game losing streak to end the season.

  • First it was a home game with future Super Bowl champion Dallas. Oakland lost 34-21 at home.
  • Next was a three-game streak with four giveaways in each contest, and this came against San Diego (playoff team), Kansas City (13-3; best record in 1995), and Pittsburgh (would represent AFC in Super Bowl).
  • Slumping at 8-6, they went on the road to play a solid Seattle team, and were blown out 44-10.
  • Finally it was a home meeting with Denver, and John Elway led an 11-point comeback in the fourth quarter to put the final nail into the Raiders at 8-8.

Three years later the Raiders suffered a similar collapse, starting 6-2, then 7-3, before losing five of their last six in Jon Gruden’s rookie season.

1993 Miami Dolphins (started 9-2, finished 9-7)

Then you have the most unusual of teams. Dan Marino was enjoying one of his best seasons before rupturing his Achilles’ tendon. Miami was 4-1, and had their bye week to prepare the young Scott Mitchell for his first career start.

Now coach Don Shula has had a lot of success with backup quarterbacks before. Just look at the work he did with Earl Morrall on the 1968 Colts or 1972 Dolphins, or using Don Strock later on.

Mitchell won three of his first four starts, and had some impressive stats at the time. He too would be injured, and veteran Steve DeBerg stepped up next. Miami continued to win, and got one of the biggest gifts ever in Dallas on Thanksgiving when Leon Lett touched the blocked field goal, giving the Dolphins another chance for a 16-14 win.

Miami was now 9-2, but then it all went south in December. They lost close games at home to solid playoff teams in the Giants (11-5) and Steelers (9-7). The offense turned it over three times in each game.

Mitchell returned at quarterback to take on rival Buffalo, and as was often the case in this era, the Bills won 47-34. Mitchell threw three interceptions in San Diego in a game that got out of hand in the second half.

If Miami could go up to New England and win, they would be in the playoffs. After blowing a fourth-quarter lead, the Dolphins forced overtime. Drew Bledsoe threw his fourth touchdown pass of the game, and the Patriots won 33-27. Miami was done.

The 1993 Dolphins are the only team to start 9-2 and miss the postseason.

 

Will Chicago join the club?

If Denny Green was onto something, it is that you should not crown a team halfway through the season. Even though 16 games sound like a small number, it is a long season with many twists and turns.

Chicago was not a fraud at 7-1. While their early schedule was not the toughest, they were outscoring opponents by 14.5 points per game. The record pace of return scores was fluky, but this wasn’t 2001 and Mike Brown all over again. Chicago was legitimately outplaying teams not named Green Bay.

While the Bears should be able to take care of the Cardinals and Lions to get to 10-6, neither win is guaranteed. They are both road games, the Chicago offense is too dependent on Brandon Marshall, and the defense misses starters like Brian Urlacher and Tim Jennings.

Even if they make it to 10-6, the NFC is crowded with the Giants, Minnesota, Seattle, Dallas and Washington fighting for the three remaining spots. One will belong to the NFC East winner, while Seattle has the tie-breaker over the Bears and will likely get to 10 wins themselves as they have two home games left (6-0 at home this year).

That leaves the No. 6 seed for Chicago to battle out with Minnesota and another NFC East team. Chicago really needs Minnesota and the Giants to lose, which is their most realistic scenario. The Giants are at Baltimore this week while the Vikings go to Houston, who is playing for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. They finish up with a Green Bay team seeking a first-round bye.

So the playoffs are still possible, but any Bears fan should be holding their breath that they will actually get these last two wins. Sure, Arizona and Detroit may let them off the hook, but this finish is a stark contrast to the promise the Bears showed when they started 7-1, had the best defense in football, and were starting to make comparisons to the 1985 team again.

Now they probably compare better to the 1971 Bears.  

 

Scott Kacsmar is a football writer/researcher who has contributed large quantities of data to Pro-Football-Reference.com, including the only standardized database of fourth quarter comebacks and game-winning drives. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive. Please send any questions or comments to Scott at smk_42@yahoo.com, or you can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.


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