The team of today are a fun bunch. They’re characters. They’re leaders. Above all? They’re winners. Last season marked the first time the team had posted a winning record in six years. It was the first time they’d won the division in eight. After so much pain over the previous decade, fans could feel good again. The Chicago Bears dark age was finally over.

Most would prefer to forget the bad times. That unforgettable run of misery from 2013 through 2017 where everything seemed to go against them at the worst possible times. It’s hard to blame anybody for feeling that way. Any fan who experienced it first hand is likely still suffering the football version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Yet, as any psychologist will say, it’s important to confront your past in order to embrace your future. So it is time to ask the question. Where did the downfall begin? How did a team that was competing for the Super Bowl suddenly become an NFL laughingstock?

There are traces that come from multiple points going back years before they hit bottom. However, the root of the decay was planted during a single offseason. In order to get there though, we must go back to before it all went down.

Seeds of Chicago Bears dark age were sown as far back as 2009

Going into 2009, the Bears had no reason to panic. They had gone 9-7 the year before and still had a strong veteran core in place. GM Jerry Angelo reached the conclusion that if he could give the roster one more big push, they would be able to get back to the Super Bowl. It started, of course, with the trade for Jay Cutler.

The blockbuster with Denver saw the Bears send two 1st round picks, a 3rd round pick, and quarterback Kyle Orton to the Broncos in exchange for Cutler and a 5th round pick. It was a hefty price to pay, but Angelo was confident the team had made the upgrade they needed. Cutler had been a Pro Bowler the previous year and was entering his prime.

Angelo even continued his success in the draft shortly after, grabbing future Pro Bowlers Henry Melton and Johnny Knox in the 4th and 5th rounds respectively. However, his good fortune soon began to wither away.

Brian Urlacher broke his wrist and was lost for the season on opening night in Green Bay. The defense took a serious step back without him, especially in the pass rush department. Cutler, trying to learn a new offense with limited help around him, threw 26 interceptions.

Chicago went 7-9, but Angelo already had high expectations for 2010. All he had to do was fix a few holes. He tried to get a jump on one of them when he traded his 2nd round pick in the 2010 draft to secure former Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1st rounder, Gaines Adams.

That decision would have severe consequences as Adams died in January of the next year from cardiomyopathy or an enlarged heart.

The 2010 NFL draft

Suddenly Angelo found himself in a tough situation. Not only did he have just five picks going into the 2010 draft, but he’d given away his best one (the 2nd rounder) for a player who appeared in just 10 games for the Bears. If he’d held onto it, he would’ve had a chance to draft the likes of Rob Gronkowski, Zane Beadles, Linval Joseph, Carlos Dunlap, or Golden Tate.

Instead he had to wait and as a result had one of the worst drafts of his tenure as Bears GM.

Wright became a starter for a few years at safety. Wootton was a decent backup defensive end and Webb started some games at tackle. None of them could be considered anywhere close to impact players. A shame too because the Bears ended up making it to the NFC championship that season.

If they’d gotten more out of this draft class, they might’ve gotten past Green Bay that day. It didn’t happen, and suddenly age was starting to become a factor for several of their stars going into 2011. Urlacher was turning 33, Lance Briggs 31, and Charles Tillman 30. Meanwhile, the offense was still a mess and needed some re-configuring. This only put more pressure on Angelo.

A “miscommunication” leads to controversy

It was no secret to anybody where the Bears were likely going to focus with their first 1st round pick since 2008. The offensive line had allowed a staggering 56 sacks the year before. That couldn’t be allowed to continue. Not if they wanted Cutler to live to see his future children. They held the 29th pick and Angelo seemed in good shape.

The 2011 draft was considered one of the most talented to come around in years. There was playmaking potential across the board on both offense and defense. This was the class that produced Cam Newton, Von Miller, A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson, Julio Jones, and J.J. Watt among many others. The odds of Chicago getting a good player were favorable.

Soon it became clear though that Angelo wasn’t in firm control of the situation. As the time for their pick neared, the Bears reportedly wanted to move up to get their guy. The Baltimore Ravens, who sat at the 26th pick, were willing to move down.

The two sides had verbally agreed to a trade. Chicago would send #29 and a 4th round pick to the Ravens for #26. Yet for some reason, it wasn’t phoned in to the league office.

This not only caused Baltimore to slip down the board because time expired on their selection, but they also didn’t get the 4th round pick Angelo had agreed to send in the trade. At that point, the Bears backed off any deal and later explained the snafu came from a miscommunication with his staff.

“We had a disconnect, and there might be something said about it because of not communicating with the league and proper protocol and that was my fault.”

The conspiracy theorists believe Angelo learned right before the trade went through that Kansas City, who sat at #27, would not be taking the player he coveted as the team had feared. So he set up a convenient excuse to get out of making the deal and kept the 4th rounder. A few moments later, the Bears selected Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi.

Gabe Carimi, the Bear Jew

Everything about Carimi said he was born to play for the Bears. He was a giant 6’7, 320 lbs tackle who had become a terror blocking for the Badgers in college. His size, length, and power were made for the NFL and he fit perfectly with the rugged offensive approach Chicago had always preferred.

“Carimi is simply a “bad man” who looks to punish defensive ends on every play. His non-stop motor, coupled with his ideal size, make him a terror in the running game and he has enough athleticism to hold his own in pass protection. Like all tall lineman, Carimi struggles at times with leverage and may have to make the move to right tackle in the NFL. Overall, Carimi is a beast who should be picked in the middle of the first round.”

He seemed to be as safe a pick as a team could hope for. A surefire 10-year starter at a position of need. He even had a catchy nickname, the “Bear Jew.” This was a clever play on one of the famous characters from Quentin Tarantino’s hit Inglorious Basterds movie. Carimi was Jewish and now he was a Bear. It was perfect.

Trading a future Pro Bowler

All things considered, the Bears were already looking better on offense following the draft. They had more help up front. Now they needed to see if they could find Cutler more weaponry to work with. They had a couple of interesting young pieces in speedy receiver Johnny Knox and athletic tight end Greg Olsen. It was felt they needed something more.

What Angelo delivered instead went against all football logic. When free agency began on July 30th, this due to the owners lockout earlier that year, the Bears dropped a bombshell when they traded Olsen to the Carolina Panthers for a 3rd round pick in 2012.

It was a baffling move for many. Olsen was turning 26-years old. He tied for the team lead with five TD catches in 2010 and had one of the best games in Bears playoff history with 113 yards and a touchdown in the win over Seattle. What could he have possibly done to get traded?

The simple answer was scheme fit. Then-offensive coordinator Mike Martz ran a system that focused on the wide receivers and running backs. Tight ends were primarily used as blockers. That wasn’t the strength of Olsen’s game. Rather than ask Martz to make an exception for a talented player, Angelo acquiesced and traded him instead.

Olsen would go on to three Pro Bowls in Carolina including three-straight seasons over 1,000 yards.

Free agent follies

It didn’t stop there though. If Angelo was going to trade Olsen, he would have to make some counter moves in free agency to help the offense. His solutions were, for lack of a better term, underwhelming. His three biggest “scores” were wide receiver Roy Williams, tight end Matt Spaeth, and running back Marion Barber.

All three had something in common. They were cheap.

Williams had been a Pro Bowler in Detroit back in 2006 but fading production the next year eventually led to him being traded in 2008 to Dallas where he floundered as a middle-of-the-road option for Tony Romo. He was finally released in 2011 at age 30 when the Bears grabbed him.

Spaeth was more along the lines of what Martz wanted. He was a big, physical player who did good work as a blocker in Pittsburgh. He could be that extra pass protector needed to give Cutler extra time. This at least he did well, not allowing a sack in 91 pass blocking snaps. As a pass target though? He caught seven total all season.

As for Barber? It was plain as day the former Cowboys running back was washed up. He was a monster in Dallas for several years. A true powerhouse who ran with violence. What the Bears got was the version who had lost a step, and the one who forgot how to play smart football as well.

A blowout and a catastrophic injury

Karma does have a way of catching up to people though. Looking back it feels like Carimi was doomed to fail. For one, Angelo had a horrible reputation for picking offensive linemen in the 1st round. Prior to Carimi he’d selected Marc Columbo and Chris Williams in 2002 and 2008 respectively.

Both immediately became encumbered by injury problems and ended up having forgettable careers in Chicago. Columbo even went with the 29th pick, so that only added to the red flags.

It doesn’t end there though. The Bears also have hard luck picking players from Wisconsin. Dennis Lick, another tackle was taken by them in 1976. His career seemed to be going well for the first few seasons and then it abruptly ended due to a knee injury in 1981. He was 27-years old.

This time would have to be different, right? Things started off fine. Carimi filled his starting spot at right tackle throughout the preseason and opening day against Atlanta. A 30-12 blowout win where Cutler threw for 312 yards and two touchdowns. Everything clicked and excitement was high.

Then a week later it all came crashing down.

Amidst a 30-13 thrashing at the hands of the Saints in the Superdome, Carimi hit the turf writhing in pain. He was taken off by cart and it was later revealed he’d fully dislocated his kneecap. The rookie was done for the year and would require multiple surgeries to repair the extensive damage.

He was never the same after that injury

Late-season collapse becomes the final straw

The Bears didn’t have much time to mourn the loss. The season was only two weeks old. There was lots of work left to do. To their credit, they soldiered on. For a time it looked like they were starting to find their mojo. By the start of November they were 7-3 and humming with five-straight wins.

Then, as had become typical, injury struck again. This time with Cutler breaking the thumb on his throwing hand in a win over the Chargers.

From there, every move Angelo made seemed to blow up in his face. Williams had a number of crucial drops down the stretch. No amount of protection mattered from Spaeth because Caleb Hanie was the quarterback. They needed somebody who could go out and offer a nice, big target down the field. Somebody like that Olsen guy they traded.

Last but not least was Barber, who delivered the knockout blow to their season with the single-biggest sequence of blunders in recent Bears history during a 13-10 collapse in Denver.

At that point, Angelo’s credibility was shot. The failed Adams trade. The fiasco with Baltimore in the draft. Another 1st round offensive tackle who’d become damaged goods. Trading away a weapon who could’ve helped them in Olsen. Signing guys who were five years past being able to move the needle in Williams and Barber.

A man can only survive so many mistakes. George McCaskey and ownership fired the GM on January 3rd, 2012 after 10 years on the job.

The consequences

From there, things moved fast. Phil Emery, a former scout for the team and Director of Scouting in Kansas City, became the new GM in 2012. One of his first actions was to package the pick received in the Olsen trade with another 3rd rounder to acquire wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

A move that paid off on the stat sheet for a few years certainly ( 218 catches, 2803 yards, and 23 TDs in 2012 and 2013) but also ended up poisoning the locker room.

Then came the Shea McClellin draft pick. The first true revelation that Emery might be out of his depth. In a moment where Chandler Jones and Harrison Smith were still on the board, the Bears went with an unheralded kid from Boise State who’d been projected to go at the end of the 1st round and even the 2nd. It didn’t take long for another sign to arrive though.

After the 2012 season ended, one where the Bears finished 10-6 but didn’t make the playoffs, Emery chose to fire head coach Lovie Smith. The man who had engineered the second-most successful Bears run of the Super Bowl era was gone just like that.

Emery’s top choice to replace him? Marc Trestman, a former CFL head coach who hadn’t been in the NFL since 2004. This was the man Emery chose. Over the current Coach of the Year at that time in Bruce Arians, no less.

Two years later, the team was in ruins.

This courtesy of a string of humiliating defeats that included back-to-back games the Bears defense allowed 50 or more points. Then a huge controversy involving then-offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer calling out Cutler secretly to the media. Trestman being criticized for having no control of the locker room.

It was too much. Emery and his coach were fired at the end of the season.

All of those events, many of which Bears fans still see in their nightmares, can be traced back to what happened in that spring and summer of 2011.

The what-ifs

Most people probably wouldn’t change what they have now. The Bears are a good football team again. They went 12-4 in 2018 and won the division. GM Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy have them pointed in the right direction. Still, it’s always fun to wonder how different things could’ve been.

Start with Carimi. By that point, Angelo should’ve known drafting offensive linemen wasn’t his strength. In contrast, he’d been good with defensive linemen consistently throughout his tenure. Muhammad Wilkerson, a future Pro Bowler, went on the very neck pick at #30. He would’ve looked pretty good next to Henry Melton and Julius Peppers.

As for the free agency situation? They could’ve had a young man named Darren Sproles at running back instead of Barber. He and Matt Forte would’ve been a fun combination in the backfield. There was also Willis McGahee, who ran for over 1,000 yards and made the Pro Bowl that year in Denver.

Adding one of them, not trading Olsen and signing Williams actually would’ve given the Bears an offense with serious options together with Knox, Devin Hester, and Earl Bennett. That team would’ve been something to watch, not only in 2011 but perhaps beyond.

Sadly, we’ll never know.