Reprogrammed Martz has Bears offense in sync

NFL columnist
Yahoo! Sports

CHICAGO – The meeting had to happen. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz just wasn't getting it – wasn't feeling what the Chicago Bears had to be about – and the volume of the voices imploring head coach Lovie Smith were only getting louder. As one team source told Yahoo! Sports of the moment, "It was kind of a 'now or never' thing [with Martz]. We just had to find some common ground between Lovie and Mike. Actually, to be honest, I think we had to find common ground between Mike and the rest of the team."

That moment was all about ideology. By Monday, Oct. 25, the morning after the Bears lost to the Washington Redskins at Soldier Field, critical mass had been reached in Martz's offense. The coaching staff had digested quarterback Jay Cutler's(notes) performance in the loss – including a disastrous five turnovers – and recognized a growing divide. Despite a low-scoring game that Washington never led by more than three points, Chicago's running backs had 13 carries, while Cutler had winged it 40 times. This was a byproduct of ‘Mad Martz’, throwing the football into oblivion, while the physical, defensive-minded core values of the head coach were no longer recognizable.

The following bye week was when Smith met with Martz and delivered a message with crystal clarity: the offense needed to adjust. The running backs were not inanimate objects. There needed to be more dedication to the running game, and more scheme discipline – and it wouldn't be a debate. Now almost three months later, with that bye week in the rear view, Martz has parlayed some of the most balanced play-calling of his career into an NFC championship game appearance, with a 35-24 win over the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Soldier Field.

Martz's ability to adjust his style – to ride the even offensive keel that his critics have long said wasn't possible – has been one of the revelations that have delivered the Bears to next week's conference championship against the Green Bay Packers. We can talk about Devin Hester(notes) once again changing entire games, or the superb level of a defense that has been impeccably coached. We can even talk about how this may not be the most talented roster in these playoffs (just ask general manager Jerry Angelo). But the fact remains, it was balance that brought the Bears this far.

A balance that saw the Bears running backs rush the ball 20 times or more only twice prior to the Week 8 bye, but they reached that number eight of their last 10 times since the break. In the process, they've piled up an impressive stat: 10-0 when the team rushes at least 21 times in a game (not counting runs by Cutler). That number is a succinct digit of geography – Smith and Martz finding that common ground, and setting up shop for the duration.

"They're two guys who you didn't or wouldn't think it would work, but somehow, they've met each other in the middle," said Bears tight end Kellen Davis(notes), whose 39-yard scoring reception put Chicago up 35-10 in the fourth quarter. "Now we have something good going."

And something that Martz and the Bears will have to maintain if they are to beat the Packers next weekend. Because make no mistake, it's unlikely the third tilt of the season will resemble the deflated Week 17 meeting, which Green Bay took 10-3 in unspectacular fashion. Not with the Packers healthy, running the football, and coming together offensively. And certainly not with the Bears finding their own scoring groove.

So the Martz renaissance may have arrived at the perfect time – and maybe even a predictable one, too. For the first time in his career, Martz is surrounded by entities that are keeping him from slipping into ‘Mad Martz’ mode. Three entities that you could argue are actually making him a better coordinator. He has Smith, who plied his will and authority in the bye week. He has the elements – a decline into the cold Chicago months that have necessitated a reliable running game and created more opportunities for tight end wrinkles. And he has Cutler, whose own penchant for using his feet in the second half of the season have helped to create a valuable crease in Martz's game plans.

Asked Sunday how closely Cutler follows Martz's game plans, running back Matt Forte(notes) would only give a coy smile.

"Nobody does exactly what your coach tells you," Forte said. "You'd be a robot."

This is why Martz has been an ideal fit for Cutler, who has had his fair share of Bad Jay moments in his two-year run with the Bears. While both have shown a penchant for going off the steep side of a cliff in a given game, both also have a remarkable ability to be creative inside of a disciplined scheme.

That's how you end up with an offense that scores 35 points against Seattle, by way of five touchdowns that come on catches by tight ends Davis and Greg Olsen(notes) (on designed first reads, no less), and three rushing touchdowns by Cutler (two) and running back Chester Taylor(notes). And yet, in the same game, we still see moments where Cutler throws directly into the hands of Seattle safety Jordan Babineaux(notes) in the red zone, and Martz calls for an ill-advised halfback pass by Forte that ends in an interception.

Undoubtedly, the Packers will tempt Martz and Cutler into insanity. And had it not been for Chicago's dedication to balance down the stretch, it would be fair to assume an epic implosion was unavoidable. But the elements surrounding Martz have him calling some of the best football of his career. Look no further than Sunday's first quarter, when Martz dialed up a package that would create a mismatch with the heavy-footed Seattle safety Lawyer Milloy(notes) picking up Olsen on a seam route: the result was a 58-yard touchdown. And center Olin Kreutz(notes) said Seattle's defense went into vanilla mode after that, cutting down on any exotic blitzes.

"It was kind of obvious who was coming, who wasn't coming," Kreutz said. "They didn't make it very hard after that."

Martz had recognized the potential mismatch during the week – and with a player in Olsen who supposedly wasn't a good fit in his scheme. That's a fact that had Davis, the backup tight end behind Olsen, smiling.

"It was a great call," Davis said. "Whatever you do, he's got something for you. He'll look at Green Bay's film and have something for them, too."

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