The best part about sports is the unexpected mistakes. It isn’t the suspense. It isn’t the terrific athletes putting on a show. It’s human beings at peak performance making human mistakes. The reason fantastic athletic feats primarily stand out is because of these errors, as an athlete is transcending beyond the human archetype of regular mistakes.
One of the biggest NBA Finals underdogs in years, the Cleveland Cavaliers, had a chance to steal Game 1 of the 2018 Finals on the road against basketball’s powerhouse in the Golden State Warriors. All-time great LeBron James put up the highest scoring game of his playoff career with 51 points and was generally transcendent. Output needed to upset the defending champions.
With 4.7 seconds to go in the contest, Cavaliers point guard George Hill had a chance to take the lead for Cleveland in a tie game. Hill missed. J.R. Smith had the rebound and instead of attempting a shot or passing to an open teammate such as James, he dribbled the ball back out before realizing his blunder too late. The Cavaliers would go on to lose in overtime.
If you’re not a savvy lip reader, Smith thought Cleveland “was ahead” in the immediate aftermath, which is why he protected the ball. His spin moves in press conferences afterward could not divert attention away from the camera. He had an epic brain fart on one of the most monumental stages. The game is now firmly in the rearview mirror, but Smith’s mistake is forever etched in time.
Having been the NFL’s oldest and charter franchise, the Bears have the second most championships of all time with nine. Longevity gives you that opportunity. Over a 96-year history, they also possess a ridiculous amount of blunders similar to Smith’s. Basketball players aren’t unique in losing themselves mentally. These are errors that made players, coaches, and fans pull their hair out in frustration. Mistakes memorialized as “What If?” in regards to how they changed Chicago’s football fortunes each time.
From the halcyon days of the early NFL, to the modern dark ages of the Marc Trestman and John Fox era, here are the “greatest” Bears’ J.R. Smith moments. The qualifier is that these nonsensical errors cost Chicago chances at victory (directly or indirectly) and became famous for the humiliation they manifested. The epitome of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory.
Bears at Rams, Week 6 (1949): Penalties and titles
In the late 1940’s, Bears owner George Halas had unearthed the versatile Johnny Lujack at quarterback. Lujack was so good in his short four-year stint with Chicago, he helped keep the Bears a championship contender. Given the confines of a small league back then, teams had to win one of two divisions to play the other division winner in the title game. Despite going 10-2 in Lujack’s first year as a starter in 1948, the Bears didn’t quality.
In 1949, looking for redemption, they again missed out on a golden opportunity and this time through self-inflicted wounds. In Week 6 while visiting the Rams in Los Angeles, the Bears held a late 24-20 4th quarter lead. Setting a prevent defense of sorts, the Bears covered all lanes in the end zone to protect that lead. Quarterback Bob Waterfield recognized this and aimed at his receiver Vitamin T. Smith. John Hoffman mugged Smith to prevent him from catching the ball and received two penalties on the same play: facing and pass interference. The double penalty on one play moved the ball to the one-yard line where Los Angeles would eventually get the go-ahead score and pull out the win.
Once the season ended, Hoffman’s double penalty ended up being the reason the Rams made the NFL Championship Game with a one game edge in the standings. Meanwhile, the Bears sat out for the second straight year despite a 9-3 record.
Bears vs. Giants 1956 NFL Championship Game: The Sneaker Game(s)
To understand what happened in this game, we need to travel back 22 years to another Bears-Giants title bout.
In 1934, the Bears led New York 10-3 at halftime at the frozen Polo Grounds in Manhattan, waiting to ice (no pun intended) a championship away with one solid half of football. With the turf frozen solid and no reprieve in sight, the Giants elected to switch into basketball sneakers to try and obtain an advantage. The Bears stayed in cleats, and the Giants prevailed 30-13 on the strength of a 27-0 fourth quarter where they literally ran circles around Halas’s bunch.
Back to 1956, the Bears were once again playing in New York for a championship, this time at Yankee Stadium. It being winter, the field was frozen solid once more. Instead of waiting for a half, this time New York came out with the basketball sneakers right away. The Bears again played in cleats. The Giants won 47-7 in a laugher as Chicago could never get a footing.
The kicker? They were wearing the same cleats from 1934, according to Hall of Fame linebacker George Connor, who was an assistant coach in 1956.
“Andy Robustelli (a Giants defensive end at the time) had a sporting goods store. He got his team the latest, best shoes,” said Connor in the aftermath. “I looked at our shoes, it had No. 3 on it. You know Halas’ frugality. Honest to gosh, it was Bronco Nagurski’s old shoe!”
The notoriously cheap Halas hadn’t replaced pairs of shoes for his players in over 20 years and tried to unceremoniously win a title with them. If it is broke, keep it broken. Two championships lost due to equipment error, and one that should have never happened.
Raiders at Bears (1993): The Butler didn’t do it
1993 was Jim Harbaugh’s last shot at anything resembling success with the Bears as a starter. It would end up being his final season in Chicago. What should’ve been one of the highlights of his last year as a Bear, was a frantic comeback gone wrong against the Raiders at Soldier Field.
After trailing 16-7 with only a few minutes to go, Harbaugh led Chicago down the field and tossed a touchdown to Terry Obee in the waning minutes. But, the Bears still needed the ball back with limited timeouts remaining. They elected to have Chris Gardocki onside kick and miraculously recovered.
Harbaugh then ran a quarterback draw for 25 yards and had an additional 15 tacked on due to an unnecessary roughness penalty. That set the Bears up at the Raiders’ 12-yard line only needing a kick. One problem: they had to make the kick. Los Angeles elected to take a timeout after a Harbaugh spike and attempt to ice Kevin Butler. Butler, the second-highest Bears’ scorer ever, did not deliver.
A Bears’ frantic comeback effort wasted, reminiscent of recent days such as Mitch Trubisky against the Lions in 2017. Chicago would win it’s next four games after this failure, before eventually finishing 7-9 and in last in the NFC Central.
Bears vs. Falcons (2008): The Squib
In a common theme, 2008 was the first year Kyle Orton was the unquestioned man under center for the Bears. The last year before the Jay Cutler era began. The seeds of Chicago’s demise that season were planted in poor game management of an early October game in Atlanta.
An exciting back-and-forth game turned into a Bears’ seemingly insurmountable lead after an Orton dime to Rashied Davis with 17 seconds to go. Trying to establish a firm foothold in the NFC meant taking this game would go a long way towards securing an eventual playoff spot for Chicago. Now all they had to do was kick the ball deep and play a safe containing defense to salt away the victory.
They ... did the opposite.
Inexplicably, head coach Lovie Smith chose to squib kick to the Falcons after Orton’s wizardry. That gave Atlanta the ball at their own 44 only needing one good throw and catch to get into field goal range. Of course, Chicago defenders could’ve kept any Falcons receiver in-bounds and the Bears would’ve won.
They ... did the opposite.
Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan quickly fired the ball off with the clock ticking and hit Michael Jenkins on a 26-yard pass. Instead of keeping him in bounds, Mike Brown levels Jenkins out of the field of play, though he didn’t have much choice. One second on the clock remaining. Perfect execution.
That set up this heartbreak:
After Jason Elam’s game winner sunk in, the Bears played valiantly down the stretch of the season, winning six of their last 10 games to finish at 9-7 and in second place in the NFC North.
They however missed the playoffs and not by coincidence: by one game. They not only lost out to Minnesota in the North by one game, they also lost what would’ve been a tiebreaker to the Falcons who had finished 11-5. If the Bears had perhaps kicked it deep in Atlanta, they would’ve won their division. They potentially never trade for Jay Cutler in the off-season after a 10-win playoff season either. One of the biggest domino effect decisions and games in Bears’ history.
“You have to play a full game,” said Orton. “We didn’t.”
Bears at Broncos (2011): All Barbered Out
Considering that Cutler had broken the thumb in his throwing hand two weeks prior and was highly unlikely to return by the end of the year, what happened to the Bears in Mile High in 2011 proved inconsequential. It was more about a contender falling from grace without it’s quarterback.
The Tim Tebow era had begun a little over a month before in Denver, but it needed one last jumping off point. An elite Bears defense was determined to prevent “Tebow magic” (which never existed) from being inflicted upon them. For the most part, Chicago was successful in that regard as they held the Broncos scoreless through 57 minutes of play. A Demaryius Thomas touchdown right before the two-minute warning put Denver in position for one last gasp while losing 10-7.
Being a supposedly smart football team, the Bears only had to run the clock out, giving the Broncos no chance at tying the game. Any runner, regardless of first downs attained in an ugly game, merely had to stay in bounds.
After the two-minute warning, Barber took a second down carry going left for five yards. Instead of making a concerted effort to stay in bounds and give himself up to keep the clock running (he could’ve done it at any point), Barber ran out of bounds and saved the Broncos two timeouts. If Barber had stayed in-bounds, the Broncos never get the ball back and Chicago keeps a tumultuous season without Cutler afloat.
Instead, the Broncos received the ball with about 1:06 left in the game and wasted no time to tie it up at 10 and send it into overtime. There, the Bears actually won the coin toss and even got into field goal range: before a Barber fumble gave the ball back to Denver. The Broncos would soon after kick the game winner as Barber’s late game failures became a final gut punch to a once promising 2011 Bears season.
Which is funny, considering Barber’s former reputation of being a fourth quarter closer for the Cowboys in Dallas.
“I hate to say it ... we gave this one to them,” Cutler’s replacement Caleb Hanie said.
Bears at Vikings (2013): Trestman’s Fool’s Gould
The Bears’ second meeting against the Vikings in 2013 was notable for being a wacky game. In the midst of a hot streak, Josh McCown threw for 355 yards in relief of Cutler. In his breakout season, Alshon Jeffery had a career-high and Bears’ franchise record 249 receiving yards, as well as two touchdowns. Minnesota had no answer for the young phenom.
This amounted to a shootout that went to overtime. A shootout that went to waste when Trestman decided to have Robbie Gould kick on second down.
You see, the Bears received a blessing when a good Blair Walsh Vikings’ field goal about halfway into the extra frame was nullified by a facemask. Walsh was forced to kick a 57-yarder: an attempt he never had a chance to nail. That miss gave the Bears the ball at their own 47 and full control.
Matt Forte, who had 120 yards rushing and was averaging over five yards a carry, slowly took Chicago into field goal range. Once the Bears arrived at the Minnesota 29-yard line, they curiously took a timeout on second down: they were going to go for the win instead of riding Forte for at least a few more yards on two more plays. A 47-yard field goal stood between the Bears and a 7-5 record.
Gould, one of the most accurate kickers in NFL history and the Bears’ all-time leading scorer, missed. The Vikings, with new life, drove right back down the field and had Walsh kick in the dagger.
Could it be argued that 47 yards is “nothing” for a kicker like Gould? Sure. Plus, he’s paid to make those kicks. It can’t be argued that his coach in Trestman didn’t do everything possible to turn it into the most advantageous attempt. And the thing is: Gould just barely missed. One or two more yards and he bangs the ball through the uprights. Kicking on second down had the worst of consequences.
After the game, Trestman defended his move by saying “the decision is not anything that I would regret” in coach speak. Trestman would regret this immensely as it helped primarily set the stage for our next moment. Without this miss, more painful Bears’ history is never made four weeks later.
Bears vs. Packers (2013) Jumping for (Joy)Boykin
The easy low-hanging fruit to pick out from this infamous Bears’ Week 17 defeat to their arch rival, is the Chris Conte blown coverage that allowed Randall Cobb to score on fourth down. However, without this earlier play that showcased a collective lack of defensive awareness from defensive coordinator Mel Tucker’s unit, Conte never happens. One Bears’ defensive brain freeze to rule them all.
Early on in this Bears-Packers classic for the NFC North marbles, Green Bay was on the verge of taking the lead in the second quarter while sitting in Chicago’s red zone. On a first down pass at the Bears’ 17-yard line, Aaron Rodgers fumbled after a sack by Julius Peppers. Believing that Rodgers’ fumble was actually a forward pass attempt, not one Bear on the field bothered to pick the ball up: a football cardinal sin, as you’ll notice most defenders pick dead balls up after plays just in case.
Unfortunately, Packers receiver Jarrett Boykin did recognize the fumble and took it to the house completely uncontested for a 10-7 Green Bay lead. A completely avoidable score that necessitated the Bears defend as hard as they did in the closing minutes. A score based on effort, playing to the whistle, and nothing else.
For good measure, here’s the Conte blown coverage that ensued later anyway.
Bad luck always happens in threes: Boykin’s fumble return, Cobb’s touchdown, and the Packers snatching away a division title from the Bears at their last opportunity.
Packers at Bears (2017): John Fox tries to outfox Green Bay
You cannot think of a game that has been more stacked in the Bears’ favor over the Packers in recent memory, than last season’s battle at Soldier Field.
Rodgers didn’t play due to a broken collarbone. The Bears had two weeks to prepare coming off the bye week for new starter Brett Hundley: who had struggled mightily against the Lions on Monday Night Football six days prior. That meant that Green Bay would also be on short rest while the Bears were ideally recuperated.
Yet there Chicago was, losing 10-3 in the early portion of the second quarter and coming out flat in the typical Fox manner.
Regardless, the Bears were determined to not go quietly and turned the early second quarter into the Jordan Howard show, taking the ball down to the Packers’ 25-yard line. There, the Bears called a screen on a long third down for Benny Cunningham, who managed to break free and take a dive at the pylon: touchdown.
Or was it? No, short. That’s okay. It was a Bears’ 1st and goal at the Green Bay two-yard line now. Four opportunities to score with Howard in short yardage is good enough. But no, Fox elected to challenge the fact that Cunningham did score, instead of being satisfied that the Bears had a first down and fresh set of plays at the goal line.
What was uncovered in the replay and something that the Packers wouldn’t have seen themselves, was that Cunningham fumbled the ball through the back while reaching for the end zone. The result? A touchback and almost assured Bears’ points off the board in an eventual 23-16 defeat.
If there was ever a game that encapsulated the aberration known as the Bears’ Fox era, it was this one against the Packers with everything stacked on their side, and falling short anyway. If there was a play that captured the essence of Fox’s three seasons in Chicago, it was this one: shooting yourself in the foot for no reason.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.