The 2005 Chicago Bears: A Return To Relevance Under Lovie Smith

The 2005 Chicago Bears were a team that had been terrible for the better part of a decade—a 2001 NFC North title and quick playoff exit was the only bright spot over the previous nine seasons that had otherwise seen sub-.500 campaigns. Chicago had to live with the fact that it was the hated Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre that had otherwise owned the NFC North.

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Nor did the opening of the 2005 season give reason to think the second year under head coach Lovie Smith would produce a substantial change. Chicago first lost starting quarterback Rex Grossman to a broken ankle in the preseason and had to give the job to rookie Kyle Orton. Then they lost a defensive battle in Washington to start the season, managing only 41 yards on the ground.

It turned out the Redskins were like the 2005 Chicago Bears—on their way to a revival that would get them to the second round of the NFC playoffs—but at the time it looked like an ugly loss to a bad team. Any optimism a 38-6 thrashing of Detroit brought was given back in a 24-7 loss to Cincinnati. The Bears went into an early bye week at 1-2.

The Bears came out of the bye week and promptly lost to a bad Cleveland team 20-10. With a record of 1-3, it wasn’t too much to say the season was on the line. For as much as the offense was struggling, the defense was capable of playing at a very high level.

Five starters on this unit would make the Pro Bowl, from defensive tackle Tommie Harris to linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs to strong safety Mike Brown to ballhawking corner Nathan Varsher. And that doesn’t include defensive end Adewale Ogunleye who registered ten sacks. This defense, combined with a running game led by Thomas Jones, should at least be able to compete.

It was Sunday, October 16 that worm turned for the better. Perhaps it was appropriate, because later that night, the Chicago White Sox would give at least half the city immense joy with a pennant-clinching win the 2005 American League Championship Series. The Bears set the tone for the city’s fans early in the day with a big win over the Minnesota Vikings.

After giving up a second quarter field goal, the defense locked down and explosive Viking quarterback Dante Culpepper completed only 26-of-48 passes and those completions only got 237 yards, while the running game was non-existent. Orton flipped consecutive short touchdown passes to tight end Desmond Clark to get control of the game and a pair of rushing TDs from Jones put the finishing touches on a 28-3 rout. Chicago could breathe a sigh of relief.

The Bears’ defense continued its dominance with 10-6 win over the Baltimore Ravens, marking two straight games they hadn’t allowed a touchdown. But the solid two-game stretch had merely given Chicago a chance to compete, at 3-3. Now they had to string more wins together.

That’s exactly what happened. Chicago battled to an overtime win at Detroit, nipped New Orleans by a field goal in the Bayou and then came home to beat San Francisco 17-9. The wins weren’t dazzling by any stretch, but Chicago was now 6-3 and had two future playoff teams from the NFC South up next, in Carolina at home and Tampa Bay on the road. The Bears won both, with the defense, well on its way to a season-ending #1 ranking in the NFL, leading the way to wins of 13-3 and 13-10.

December 4 marked an opportunity for the changing of the guard. Green Bay had effectively fallen apart. 2005 would be the worst year of Brett Favre’s career, save his hanger-on 2010 finale and the ’05 season would spell the end of Packer coach Mike Sherman. But the Bears hadn’t yet played their long-time nemesis and this game in Soldier Field was the chance to officially announce themselves as the new boss of the NFC North.

The rivals played a good game, with four Robbie Gould field goals giving the Bears a 12-7 lead they took into the fourth quarter. Varsher made the play to seal the game, picking off a Favre pass near midfield and taking it to the house. Similar to how Chicago had defended Culpepper and the Vikings in the game that turned the season, the Bears took the run away, allowed a high  number of completions—Favre would go 31-for-58—but kept the passing game underneath, as the Packers got only 272 yards from the completions, and then added two interceptions.

Chicago’s win streak ended the following week in Pittsburgh against a Steeler team that was only 7-5 coming in, but beginning a run that would ultimately lead them a Super Bowl win in February. The idea of shutting down the run didn’t work against Jerome Bettis and a muscular offensive line, as Bettis piled up 101 yards on 17 carries, while Ben Roethlisberger was efficient, at 13-for-20, and got the ball downfield, producing 173 yards.

At 9-4, the Bears took care of Atlanta and a Christmas Day visit to Green Bay to wrap up both the division and a first-round playoff bye, then lost a meaningless finale in Minnesota.

Chicago’s path to the Super Bowl was there—as the #2 seed, they would have a week off and then a home game for the second round of the playoffs. Grossman had come back late in the regular season, and the NFC’s top seed, the Seattle Seahawks, was not seen as overwhelming. Of course neither were the Bears, which made the entire NFC bracket seem wide-open. Wild-card teams won road games in the first round, with Carolina and Washington advancing. It was the Panthers who came to Soldier Field for a late afternoon game on Sunday to conclude this round of the playoffs.

With Fox crew Joe Buck and Troy Aikman watching from on high, the Bear secondary cracked in the first quarter as Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith on a 60-yard touchdown strike, then got three John Kasay field goals sandwiched around a Bear touchdown. It was 16-7 at the half and the team built on defense had to find a way to rally.

Grossman led a drive in the third quarter that ended with a 1-yard flip to Clark, but Delhomme and Smith again combined for a big play, producing a 39-yard touchdown pass that pushed the lead back to 23-14. The Bears found the end zone early in the fourth quarter, but now special teams blundered and allowed a 61-yard kickoff return for the Panthers, which they quickly converted into a touchdown. Bear Nation could breathe a sigh of relief when Kasay shanked a huge extra point that kept the lead 29-21, within one possession.

Chicago got as close as the Carolina 37 with just over two minutes to play, plenty of time to run an offense and get the touchdown and tying two-point conversion. But Grossman was intercepted and the season was over.

The season was over but Lovie Smith’s building process in Chicago was not—the following season the Bears got the #1 seed in the NFC and reached the Super Bowl before losing to Indianapolis. The 2005 Chicago Bears had least made the city’s most beloved franchise relevant again.