Chicago Bears fans have always loved a Grabowski, a down-to-earth player who looks as comfortable in a barstool as a football jersey. In 2005, we had just that kind of player under center: Kyle Orton. He was called into action in his rookie season when Rex Grossman went down with an ankle injury in the preseason, and with the backing of an amazing defense, he was able to set an NFL rookie record of 10 wins.
The Bears had been dominating teams in 2005, but many around the league thought the team had yet to put up a signature win to prove they should be counted among the NFL's best. If there were doubters before this game, there were certainly a lot less by the time clock hit zero. The Bears offense started slowly, going three and out on their first possession, but the defense hit the field with a full head of steam. On the Panthers first third down, Delhomme was flushed from the pocket by a blitzing Mike Brown and threw the ball up straight to a waiting Nathan Vasher, who caught the ball in stride and returned it all the way to the Panthers 8. While the Bears had to settle for three when a pass headed for a wide-open Bobby Wade was tipped away at the line of scrimmage, the tone had been set. The Bears weren't going to make anything easy for the Panthers.
If Kyle Orton was the epitome of a Grabowski, Mike Brown was a model Bears defender. While Steve Smith was able to move the ball eight yards on a catch-and-run first down play, Brown snuck into the box and tackled the Panthers running backs on consecutive plays, giving them only one yard on the two runs. Orton looked to be getting into his groove on the other side of the ball, but Mushin Muhammad couldn't hold onto a long shot that hit him square on in double coverage and the Bears had to punt yet again. While the last defensive outing was Mike Brown's, this time Vasher was the safety with the big play: with two men on the blitz, Delhomme threw up another jump ball right into Vasher's bread basket and brought the ball back to the Panthers 20. This time, Orton would not be denied, and with the Panthers thinking run after a eight yard cutback by Thomas Jones, Orton found Muhammad in the end zone to make the game Bears 10, Panthers 0.
Much to the dismay of my hairline, the Lovie Smith defense is designed to give an offense yards without giving up points, and if anyone was going to find the seams of the zone, it was Steve Smith. The Panthers hit him for a 48 yard play on their first play of the next drive, but the Bears weren't going to give an inch after that. After Tommie Harris and Brian Urlacher ate up two running plays, Delhomme worked deep in his pocket only to have Alex Brown sneak up on his blind side. Brown stripped the ball, and while Delhomme recovered, the strip set up a 44 yard field goal that John Kasay hit wide. Yards may be allowed, but points never come easy.
With the momentum now firmly on the side of the Bears, Orton was in his zone. With the Panthers still thinking run, Orton racked up 40 yards on three perfect passes, the sweetest being a third and three to Mushin Muhammad that Moose turned into a twelve yard play. But while Orton was playing like a veteran, Moose was looking like a rookie: on the first play of the second quarter, he dropped what would have been an easy touchdown and the Bears once again had to punt. The Panthers knew what was coming from the Bears D - pressure, and lots of it - but they couldn't do much to stop it. Working out of a two tight end formation, Alphonso Boone was able to get a sack on his first play of the game in relief of Alex Brown, and the Panthers went three and out again after Brian Urlacher smelled out their third-down screen and batted the ball down at the line.
With time running out in the half, the Bears seemed to already be thinking clock control and came out with four straight handoffs to Thomas Jones on the next drive. And while Jones was able to churn out first downs, including a sweet 20 yard shuffle that exemplified his ability to kick it into top gear once he got past the defensive line, Orton was still in the action. After a three yard run was called back because the play clock never started, he wound up and hit Muhammad in stride for a nice 11 yard slant right over the head of the blitzing safety. With the ball now at the 21, the drive stalled, but Gould was his usual self and gave the Bears a 13 point lead with the second quarter coming to a close. The Panthers and the Bears traded punts, and once the Panthers had the ball back again, they started to look like their usual selves. Steve Smith dragged in a nifty 20 yard catch to put his team on the edge of the Bears side of the field, but the deep route he ran on the next play was covered perfectly by Charles Tillman, who had a better look at the ball than Smith and broke up the pass. Delhomme tried another quick pass outside to beat the front four, but after that went for only two yards, he had to stand in the pocket and throw it for the first down. Alex Brown was there once again, taking Delhomme down and ending the drive and the half.
With the ball at the start of the second half, the Panthers were looking for a quick strike, and they got one: Steve Smith came up with a nice 25 yard catch on third down. The play, however, was called back for holding, and the Panthers had no chance of converting a third and 21. Orton was able to assemble a nice string of passes to Justin Gage and Muhammad, but Thomas Jones came up short on three straight runs and the Bears kicked it away again. While the Bears O was looking conservative, the defensive line was still out for blood. Alex Brown got to Delhomme yet again, stripping him of the ball and forcing a loss of seven on their second down of the next drive. It was Thomas Jones' turn to take a break, but Adrian Peterson followed up his 120 yard performance from last week with a strong relief effort. He notched 28 yards on four carries, and while the Bears were inching into Panthers territory, Orton still had a rookie mistake to make. He underthrew Muhammad on the slant, and while Moose was able to get a hand on it, it was just enough to tip the ball to a waiting Ricky Manning for the interception.
Alex Brown was also getting his break as the third quarter came close to ending, but Boone came up as big as Peterson: he was able to bat down Delhomme's only decent passing attempt of the drive and force the Panthers to punt yet again. With the third quarter now over and the Bears still thinking shutout, it was all clock control on the next drive. Unfortunately, Thomas Jones couldn't follow up his eight yard scamper on first down with another two yards and the Bears sent it right back to the Panthers. With the clock looming in on John Fox's team, it was time to get crafty. He had RB Deshawn Foster attempt a pass to Steve Smith, but the ball flopped harmlessly in front of the double coverage that was still on Smith. With all eyes on 89, however, former Bear Ricky Proehl was able to drag in two straight passes to set up a classic Steve Smith catch and run. And while Smith is fast, he wasn't the fastest man on the field: #54 came up from behind and dragged him down to save the touchdown.
With the ball in the red zone for the first time, the Panthers were focused on making it a one-score game. Alex Brown, now back on the field, wasn't having it. He took down Delhomme yet again to push them out of the red zone and back to the 27. He wasn't the only hero on this defensive stand: rookie Chris Harris was able to get just enough of his hands on a perfect pass from Delhomme to Proehl to keep him from making an easy catch in the endzone. Kasay wasn't going to miss a thirty-yarder, and with 8:31 left in the game, the Panthers finally got on the board with the score 13-3. With time running out, you would think the Bears would come out running, but Ron Turner and Orton had other plans. Orton moved the ball 20 yards on two passes to Justin Gage, including an amazing catch by Gage in which he twisted his body 180 degrees in midair to touch the tip of his toes in bounds with the cover man blanketing him. With the ball now down to the Panthers 32, it was time to work the clock, a plan which became much harder after a bad holding call against fullback Brian Johnson. Lovie, never much of a risk taker, punted the ball away rather than taking a 50 yard field goal attempt, but the drive left the Panthers down by ten with only 3:38 remaining.
Like I said, the Bears defense does give up yardage, and Steve Smith was more than happy to take it. He set a career high for receptions - 15 - but still hadn't seen the end zone. The Bears looked to have the game and Delhomme wrapped up with a quick sack on the first set of downs, but back-to-back facemask and illegal use of the hands penalties moved the Panthers to midfield. Delhomme was finally getting some time to throw, and was able to find Steve Smith on fourth and six to get the ball all the way to the edge of the red zone, but unfortunately for the Panthers, there wasn't much room after that. Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson were able to put the final nails in the Panther coffin with two huge sacks on Delhomme, the last of which came on fourth down. All that was left was for the Neckbeard to take the field one last time and take a knee while the home crowd went wild. While things went a little differently when the teams met again in Carolina during the playoffs, this game showed the NFL the Bears were more than a flash in the pan: their dominating offensive and defensive lines and the star power lined up behind them were a sight for sore eyes after years of mediocrity. 2005 was a great season, and while many credit the play of the defense as the sole factor for the Bears dominance, Orton was more than just the guy who hadned the ball to TJ. He showed poise, skills, and a down-to-earth attitude that makes me still root for the man even though he no longer wears a Bears jersey. Plus, he's the only quarterback who someone I know has bought a beer for.
See you back here next week, where we will look back at one of only two times the Bears faced one of the greatest quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. Who will win? I'll give you a hint: I haven't done a write-up of a Bears loss yet.