Optimism for Bears a tough sell

Despite Emery, Trestman's upbeat attitudes, rest of season looks bleak with Cutler, Briggs sidelined

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As far as Mondays at Halas Hall go, surely the Bears have experienced ones that sucked the life out of a football city more than the day after their 45-41 loss to the Redskins did.

But none immediately come to mind.

Rare is the occasion when an NFL team simultaneously announces its most valuable offensive and defensive players both will miss at least the next month because of injuries. Yet that was the Bears' grim reality coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery delivered with good humor during a news conference scheduled before Sunday's turn of events. Laughing obviously beat crying for everybody.

Linebacker Lance Briggs suffered a left shoulder injury in the third quarter Sunday that included a small fracture expected to sideline him as many as six weeks. An MRI revealed that Jay Cutler tore a groin muscle on a play that made him the most sacked Bears quarterback ever, and he will miss "at least four weeks.''

How many games Cutler will miss at most represents the Bears' unspoken fear.

"I'm going to tell you it's a minimum of four weeks and from there it will be week to week,'' general manager Phil Emery said ambiguously.

Translated, that sounded a lot like I Don't Know Yet.

By the time both Bears stars play together again on a team that has lost three of its last four — optimists might circle Dec. 9 against the Cowboys — realistically the focus could have shifted from the 2013 NFC playoffs to the 2014 NFL draft.

As solid as backup quarterback Josh McCown looked against the Redskins, the Bears offense will miss Cutler's command and potential for big plays. As for the defense, it already was on a historically bad pace with Briggs, so Chicago should become every quarterback's favorite destination without him.

Not that Trestman or Emery sounded anything but excited about life without the Bears' two most indispensable pieces. You could have sworn Emery's trademark horn-rimmed glasses were rose-colored the way he insisted the Bears remained "in the championship hunt.'' Emery called the challenge created by the Bears' attrition something that "energizes everybody in the building.''

Likewise, a buoyant Trestman sounded more like a life coach than a football coach explaining why the Bears still can contend in the NFC North. But then Trestman did write the book on "Perseverance,'' the title of his 2010 memoir.

"Arguably we're going to have to work very, very hard to recover, but that doesn't say we can't,'' Trestman said. "It's been done before, we've got time to work through it and there's no reason why as a football team that we can't be confident we can rally around that position, find a way to win games."

Looking at how the Bears' second-half schedule toughens, it's not hard to find several reasons.

Despite losing five starters to injuries, Trestman and Emery offered no excuses because they know injury-riddled teams such as the Packers and Patriots win anyway. But they didn't offer compelling evidence to believe the optimism they tried selling about a team likely to start four rookies against the Packers. It was easier to understand their confidence in Cutler and Briggs getting better in December than any belief the defense will. A defense steeped in Cover-2 tradition no longer can live by a bend-don't-break philosophy with so many parts broken.

Forget Emery's startling assessment about Shea McClellin improving, the undersized end needs to start proving he is an every-down player trapped in a specialist's body. Safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright need to justify their starting jobs. Julius Peppers needs to stand out more than just on plays when he isn't blocked. Every defender needs to remember how to finish that fundamental thing they call a tackle.

"Defensively, we have to improve in terms of our assignments, our discipline and our fundamentals,'' Emery said.

In other words, the Bears defense has mastered nothing but how to line up for the national anthem.

Offensively, if McCown continues to function at a high level in Trestman's user-friendly system for quarterbacks, it could raise fascinating questions about Cutler's future. If the star of the Bears offense is the offense — to steal the defense's slogan — would Emery consider a cheaper quarterback more efficient in every way so he could invest more on defense?

It merits discussion. But before the injury, Cutler's arrow was pointing up under Trestman. Even if Cutler doesn't return this season, Emery likely saw enough to apply the franchise tag worth an estimated $15 million or offer security via a smaller contract short of top 5 quarterback territory that reflects Cutler's injury history. Either way, it seems hard to imagine Emery abandoning an enormously talented quarterback who showed improvement.

Yet stranger things have happened at 1920 Football Drive; like Monday when Trestman and Emery acted like two of the few guys in town in a good mood. With no game next Sunday, they gave Bears players the rest of the week off to rest and, presumably, update their health insurance.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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Twitter @DavidHaugh

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