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No man is an island, entire of itself, not even Brian Urlacher.

Over the past two NFL seasons, the Bears have demonstrated the precarious nature of success and the narrow margin between winning and losing in the age of parity. Urlacher, the Bears' best player, has been at the center of it all, as befits the middle linebacker on a team that has traditionally prided itself on defense. Urlacher went from promising rookie to all-world talent a year ago, but it wasn't just his personal development that made the Bears winners. The addition of behemoth defensive linemen Ted Washington and Keith Traylor clogged up the opposing running game and kept the offensive line occupied while Urlacher and his linebacking mates Warrick Holdman and Rosevelt Colvin roamed from sideline to sideline with impunity. Urlacher had a monster game the second week of this season, harassing the Atlanta Falcons' dangerous quarterback Michael Vick throughout the afternoon and--with the help of a missed Atlanta field goal in the final moments--earning the Bears a 14-13 win and a 2-0 start. But the injuries that sidelined Washington and then Holdman and hobbled cornerback R.W. McQuarters altered the Bears' entire defense. Teams that normally wouldn't have been able to run on the Bears, like the Buffalo Bills in the fourth week and the lowly Detroit Lions on Sunday, found they could push them around. Forced to play the run and fight off blocks he wouldn't have faced with Washington in the game, Urlacher found his freewheeling style of play curtailed and his overall effectiveness greatly diminished. The Bears began to lose the close games they won all last year. Sunday's loss in Detroit, in fact, dropped them into a tie with the Lions at 2-4 and all but ended their season. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

Though they weren't as good going into this season as last year's 13-3 record suggested--their one-and-out playoff appearance showed that--they also weren't as awful as their four straight losses this season now suggest. Only against the Green Bay Packers, unfortunately in a Monday night game broadcast nationally on ABC, did the Bears seem overmatched. That game could have been closer than the 34-21 final if quarterback Jim Miller hadn't thrown a goal-line interception while trying to rally the Bears in the fourth quarter, but while Miller had to squeeze every completion through one or two defenders, the Packers' Brett Favre was throwing to wide-open receivers throughout the first half--indicating that the Pack had the Bears' defense figured out beforehand. The game showed the Packers to be an elite team in this year's NFL, while the Bears would have to compete in the vast and turbulent middle ground where so much swings on so little--the very arena in which they excelled last season.

Two weeks earlier the Saints had dealt the Bears their first loss of the year, in a game in Champaign's Memorial Stadium--site of the Bears' "home" games while Soldier Field is under construction. And then Drew Bledsoe led the Bills to a 33-27 victory over the Bears in Buffalo with a touchdown in overtime, after the Bears had squandered chances both in regulation and by getting the ball first in sudden death. The debacle against the Pack was followed by a week off in which the Bears could try to clear their heads and pull their offensive and defensive schemes back together. Yet even against the Lions, they couldn't show they'd done that.

Sunday's game in Detroit confirmed how low the Bears have fallen and showed why. The loss of Washington explained much on the defensive side. The Lions came in with a rushing attack that was averaging a meager 3.3 yards a pop but it would run roughshod. After a first quarter that looked like a mid-70s matchup between these two franchises--when both were almost completely inept and their games were dreary affairs--the Bears opened a 3-0 lead with a drive just good enough to get Paul Edinger into field-goal range. The defense held on the Lions' next possession, but punter John Jett pinned the Bears inside the five and then Anthony Thomas coughed up the ball. The Lions' James Stewart plowed through the Bears line on the next play to score. After the Lions harried backup quarterback Chris Chandler into an interception, rookie Detroit quarterback Joey Harrington found a man open at the goal line, and it took a great play by Chicago safety Mike Brown to halt him at the one. For three downs the Bears somehow held, but on fourth down Stewart cruised in off left tackle, putting the Bears in a hole at 14-3. In overtime Stewart again would burst through for a couple of big runs, one of them a sweep that carried Detroit from midfield to the Bears' 35 to set up the game-winning field goal. The Bears couldn't stop the run when they needed to, and even when they held the Lions to a field goal after a long drive to preserve their lead at 20-17, it looked like they were playing a ball-control defense, allowing the Lions to run the ball almost at will and hoping to run out the clock.

It wasn't just the defense that was suffering. The offense has also been diminished by losses this season. I'm not referring to quarterback Miller, who was sidelined Sunday with tendinitis in his throwing arm but ably replaced by the veteran Chandler. The troubles began long before that. The offensive line had to be rebuilt following the loss of Blake Brockermeyer, and it usually takes this unit months if not years to master its intricate blocking schemes. The close-to-the-vest style of play favored by coach Dick Jauron requires a solid running game, but it hasn't been there for the Bears this year, and things only got worse when Rex Tucker went down with a gruesome separated ankle against Green Bay. Thomas, who won rookie of the year honors last season when he topped 1,000 yards, couldn't get to the line of scrimmage unhassled in any of the Bears' early games, and he looked tentative hitting the line in Detroit. His blockers--who included Mike Gandy and top draft choice Marc Colombo, both starting their first games on the left side--seemed to be playing in the dark. It was no accident that Thomas twice lost fumbles--and both cost the Bears points. The first, already mentioned, resulted in a quick seven for the Lions. The second came after Chandler had rallied the Bears to score at the end of the first half to keep them in the game at 14-10 and kept the momentum by marching to a go-ahead score in the Bears' first possession of the second half. The Bears tacked on a field goal set up by a Harrington fumble, and after the Lions drove for the field goal that made it 20-17 Bears at the end of three quarters, Detroit committed a dumb penalty on the ensuing kickoff and return man Ahmad Merritt took the pushed-back rekick 63 yards, deep into Detroit territory. Then Thomas fumbled again when a Detroit defensive back got a clear shot at him coming through the line, and the Bears lost their chance at the three likely points that would have kept the Lions from tying the game with a field goal in the final minute.

In addition to all the tangible reasons the Bears have for not performing as well this season as last, they've seen their luck run out. The missed field goal that would have won the second game for Atlanta turned out to be the last drop in the bucket. After that the Bears couldn't buy a break. By the time the Detroit game came along it was scary how consistently each key play and call was going against them. Harrington threw the ball straight to Colvin on Detroit's first play from scrimmage, but Colvin was so stunned it bounced off him. Chandler hit Dez White with a lovely long pass at the Detroit two-yard line on the Bears' opening drive, but it was contested by the Lions and overruled in a replay decision that was dubious at best. A Detroit fumble on a kickoff that would have given the Bears excellent field position was likewise contested and overruled--correctly, as it turned out. At the end of one of Thomas's few decent runs in the first half he bumped into receiver Marty Booker, who accidentally poked the ball from his hands. Thomas recovered, but he wasn't so lucky with his third-quarter fumble, when the ball flittered through Gandy's hands before the Lions recovered. Jett pinned the Bears down a couple of times, one kick bouncing just short of the goal line and backing up like a Tiger Woods wedge shot. By contrast, Edinger got a bad bounce on his kickoff to open the overtime; the ball went out of bounds and Detroit set up at the 40-yard line. Of course, the Bears had lost the coin toss to see who'd get the ball first.

Regardless of the causes--bad breaks or hubris--the Bears' collapse looked to complete a miserable year in Chicago sports. The Bears' loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in last season's NFL playoffs opened the year; then the Blackhawks made the playoffs but lost in the first round while the Bulls barely won even a few games, much less enough to reach the postseason. The Cubs and White Sox proceeded to squander high hopes and lots of talent, and now the Bears are following suit. Unfortunately, there's nothing to expect from them over the next ten weeks but their death rattle. The end of the calendar sports year won't be mourned but celebrated.

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